The Murders Before the Marathon
Waltham, September 11, 2011: Three men, throats slit, cash and drugs left on the bodies. Two years later, two dead suspects: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and a friend who the FBI says was about to confess. One haunting question: Could solving this case have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings?
When FBI agents came to tell Reni Manukyan that her husband was dead, they claimed they had hard evidence of his guilt in the Waltham murders. “We have DNA that proves he was involved in that triple murder,” she remembered them saying. “The only thing I was telling them is, ‘This is not true, this cannot be true.’”
With the exception of Ibragim’s alleged confession, no agency has ever offered an official explanation of how it connected either him or Tamerlan to the Waltham murders. Reni’s account is the only one that even suggests the FBI has physical evidence linking her husband to the crime. Last July, the New York Times quoted an anonymous official suggesting that DNA evidence may have linked Tamerlan to the crime scene. But as for Ibragim, the official said, they made their case based merely on “a lot of circumstantial pieces.”
If, in fact, the FBI had only circumstantial evidence against Ibragim at the time they shot him, it might explain what happened next. Investigators who had previously asked Ibragim’s friends only about the bombings suddenly returned to ask them about the murders. Even though their suspects were both dead, the case remained open. After Ibragim’s death, the FBI continued its take-no-prisoners approach: Several of Ibragim’s friends found themselves detained, interrogated, and ultimately deported.
The first to go was Tatiana. On October 1, after I’d published an account of my interview with her, she called me collect from Glades County Detention Center. She’d been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and placed back in solitary confinement—and, she says, immigration agents told her repeatedly that she was about to be deported for talking to Boston magazine. By October 11, she was on a plane back to Russia. An official from ICE confirmed that Tatiana had been in the country legally on what’s called a “deferred action” extension of her expired visa. The official could not tell me why she had been deported.
Others felt the scrutiny of the FBI as well. Several of Ibragim’s Orlando friends worked in a pizza shop; the owner told me that after the FBI came to question him, he fired them. Reni’s mother, Elena—a noncommissioned officer with the U.S. Army—says she was told that she would be flagged as a security risk, preventing a promotion. Khusen left the United States in mid-June, to attend Ibragim’s funeral in Chechnya, but when he attempted to return to the U.S. in December, according to several sources, he was blocked from boarding a plane, despite having a green card.
In one case, I was able to catch a glimpse of how the agency was maneuvering behind the scenes—and how, after Ibragim’s death, its focus seemed to shift from looking for a terror cell to investigating the Waltham murders. When it came to Ibragim’s friend Ashurmamad Miraliev, the agency worked clandestinely with local, state, and federal agencies to manufacture a charge against him, interrogate him without a lawyer present, and ultimately get him out of the country.
After Ibragim’s death, Ashurmamad had come to live with Tatiana, supporting them both with pizza-delivery work. On September 18, while Ashurmamad was driving Tatiana to an appointment with her immigration officer, he was pulled over on an expired driver’s license. But this was no ordinary traffic stop. Between five and seven unmarked law-enforcement vehicles were present; Ashurmamad says FBI agents and local police took him out of his car and escorted him to the Orlando police headquarters. Tatiana never saw him again.
Contacted later, Orlando Police Sergeant Jim Young looked up the arrest record and said it looked like a routine traffic stop—with no mention of FBI involvement. But Ashurmamad says he was questioned by the FBI for hours—he’s not sure exactly how long—and was denied requests to speak to his attorney. (The FBI has declined to comment on this case, but a Tampa Field Bureau public-affairs official told me it is their policy to question individuals “with their consent, or in the presence of their attorney.”)
Agents had previously interviewed Ashurmamad and two of his roommates two days before Ibragim died. They questioned him about his own religious beliefs, the Boston Marathon bombings, and about Ibragim. Now, four months later, the interrogation was different. This time, agents were mostly interested in Ibragim and his involvement in the triple murder in Waltham. They wanted to know if there was someone else who might have been involved in the killings, and who else might have information.
But after hours of questioning, when Ashurmamad asked to leave, the agents told him he was going to jail—on a state charge they claimed to have nothing to do with. That turned out to be an outstanding warrant for a witness-tampering charge. It was the first Ashurmamad had heard of it—but the next thing he knew, he was behind bars.
The trumped-up charge stemmed from an incident the previous summer, when his friend Ibragim had gotten into a fight at a hookah bar with a manager named Youness Dammou. The next day, Youness walked into the pizza shop next door, where Ashurmamad worked. A screaming match ensued; Ashurmamad was angry that Youness had called police after the fight. At the time, police weren’t able to identify Ibragim as the assailant, and Youness never mentioned his confrontation with Ashurmamad, so the case was closed. Then almost a year later, on May 17—five days before Ibragim was shot—the case was suddenly reopened. I wanted to know why.
I found Youness working in an Orlando strip mall. He told me it hadn’t been his idea to reopen the case. Instead, he had been approached by an FBI agent in May, who took him to meet with an Osceola County Sheriff’s Department detective in an unmarked cruiser in a Burger King parking lot. The agent sat in the front seat, Youness sat in the passenger seat, and the detective sat in the back. They showed him a picture of Ibragim. They told him about another fight Ibragim had been in recently—the incident in which agents apparently watched him beat up a man over a parking space without intervening. When he heard about the other assault, Youness was eager to press charges.
The law-enforcement officers did not mention that Ibragim was involved in a larger investigation. A few days later, however, Youness saw Ibragim’s face on the news and learned his aggressor was a murder suspect—and dead.
That was the last he heard about it until the end of August, when the detective came back with another request: The last time they’d met, Youness had recounted the incident with the man who’d screamed at him in the pizza shop, Ashurmamad Miraliev. (Youness hadn’t actually known the man’s name; in the case file the detective wrote that an “Agent Sykes” provided the identification.) The detective said Ashurmamad could be charged with a crime. Would Youness like to pursue charges against him? At first Youness said he wasn’t so sure, but then he agreed.
So the FBI had been matchmaking: They had helped the sheriff’s department go fishing on a long-closed case to find a victim and a charge with which they could pressure or detain first Ibragim, and later Ashurmamad. The witness-tampering charge the FBI brought against Ashurmamad was so flimsy that it was dropped in just a month.
And yet it didn’t matter. Although he had never been to Boston and never met the Tsarnaevs, Ashurmamad was nonetheless flagged—according to a note on the booking sheet—“ON TERRORIST WATCH LIST/PLACED PROTECTIVE CUSTODY AND HIGH RISK. HOUSE ALONE.” Ashurmamad was taken from the Orlando Police Department to the Osceola County jail, where he was kept alone in an 8-by-10 room. To meet with his lawyers, he had to have his hands and wrists shackled and be chained to the ground. Ashurmamad told me there were no windows, the light was always on, and he was always cold. He was there for a month until the tampering case was dropped. But he wasn’t released. His student visa had expired, and he’d missed a court date while he was in jail. So he was moved directly to an immigration detention facility, and on November 4, he was ordered to be deported back to Tajikistan.