New Details in the FBI Shooting Death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev Associate

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Ibragim Todashev and Tatiana Gruzdeva

Ibragim Todashev and Tatiana Gruzdeva

On Wednesday night, hours after the arrest, I spoke with Gruzdeva on the phone. She described to me the events of the days leading up to Todashev’s killing, which she said she learned of while being held in solitary confinement. “There is a lot of pain in my heart,” she told me, weeping.

In the moments before Todashev’s death, the FBI claims, he implicated both himself and marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the murder of three young men in Waltham on September 11, 2011. One of those men, Erik Weissman, was my friend. My father Norman Zalkind, a defense lawyer, was representing him for a pending January 2011 drug charge.

The FBI has given conflicting accounts of Todashev’s killing, and institutions including the ACLU and the Boston Globe have called for a fuller investigation of the incident.

A few weeks ago, I sent a Facebook friend request to an account in the name of Todashev’s girlfriend, Tatiana Gruzdeva. Until Wednesday, Gruzdeva had not spoken to the press. Her Facebook profile—which is also linked to her account on the European social network—includes dozens of photos and status updates in both English and Russian, and dates back to at least June, 2012. I knew from news reports that Gruzdeva had been held by immigration during the time Todashev was questioned and killed by the FBI. After Todashev’s death, she had been scheduled for deportation, but in August the Globe reported that she had been “mysteriously released” from custody, and that her expired visa had been extended for a year.

On Wednesday night, at 10:41 p.m., my friend request was accepted. We exchanged several messages on Facebook. Soon I found myself on the phone with a woman who told me she was Gruzdeva. She told me it had been only a few hours since the police had arrested her roommate, Ashurmamad Miraliev, and she was shaken. At the time we spoke, no media outlet had reported on Miraliev’s arrest, and his name had never entered the public discussion of the Todashev case. I later independently confirmed Miraliev’s arrest via law enforcement documents and officials; according to Miraliev’s arrest affidavit, he was living at Todashev’s former address. Calls to the FBI, as well as to Gruzdeva’s lawyer, were not immediately returned.

Gruzdeva sent me two photographs—one showing herself with Todashev, another of Todashev alone—as well as a video (posted below) of Todashev apparently taken with a cell phone, in which a woman can be heard speaking to him in Russian. (She also sent me a photo of their cat.)

I identified myself as a reporter, and we talked for a little over an hour, then texted until 1 a.m. At times, she was emotional. She spoke in imperfect English, with a Slavic accent. She said she’d never talked to a member of the press about this. I do not know why she chose to speak to me.

Here is what she told me.

• • •

Ashurmamad Miraliev

Ashurmamad Miraliev

When Tatiana Gruzdeva first met Ibgrim Todashev through a mutual friend, she was new to Florida, staying with friends, and looking for a more permanent place to live.

Todashev told her he had a big apartment with two floors. He invited her to move in, she said. She took one floor and he took another.

“First it was just friends,” she said, “and after we starting having relationship and we were sleeping together like boyfriend and girlfriend.” She used to cook him meals. Together they adopted a cat, Masia. “It was like a small family, me and him and the cat, he was like a little baby for us.”

She knew Todashev had been married before, to Reni Manukyan, 24, an Armenian-American he had met in Boston. Manukyan has told the Washington Post that she and Todashev were separated. Gruzdeva said she believed they were divorced.

Around the time of the marathon bombing, Gruzdeva recalled, Todashev seemed sad. At first he would not tell her why.

“When the bombings happened, he didn’t tell me it was his friend, he just was so sad. I said, ‘What happen with you?’ He said, ‘Nothing.’ Long time he don’t want to tell me. And after he tell me, “My friend is dead.” He didn’t elaborate, she said. She never knew the name of the friend he was mourning.

One morning in May, as Gruzdeva was washing dishes, Todashev stepped outside. Then, through the window, she heard men shouting: “Move down! Move down!” She turned off the water and looked out to see her boyfriend on the ground, surrounded by FBI agents. They were wearing plainclothes, she said, so at first she had no idea who the men were. “I was so nervous I panicked,” she said. She shut the door and ran upstairs, where she hid in the second floor bathroom. When she emerged, Todashev was in handcuffs, with six or seven FBI agents around him.

They put a chair in the middle of the room, she said, and made Todashev sit in it.

“Ibragim said, ‘I have a pain in my knee, I just had surgery.’ They said, ‘We don’t care, we just have a couple questions for you. We know you was an ultimate fighter with MMA, so we know you could do something.’ He said, ‘I will not do anything because I’m just off surgery, I’m not stupid.’”

The agents began questioning Todashev about the Boston bombing, she said, asking him what he knew and where he was the day of the attack. Gruzdeva spoke up: “He was with me, he was in the house, we didn’t do anything wrong,” she recalled telling the agents.

“They just kept asking again and again, the same questions,” she said.

They asked Todashev if he knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev, she said. He replied that the two of them had been friends. In Boston they had trained in martial arts together and gone clubbing together before Tsarnaev had become more devout. Gruzdeva told me that this was the first time she had heard her boyfriend talk about Tsarnaev.

Eventually, the agents left with Todashev, confiscating all his phones and all his computers. About six hours later, she said, Todashev came back and reassured her that everything was OK. The next day, she said, agents returned their electronics.

In the days that followed, Gruzdeva said, the FBI contacted the couple regularly on the phone, visited their home, and called them into FBI offices for more questioning.

The agents asked about a call Todashev received from Tsarnaev after Todashev’s surgery. Todashev told the FBI that the two men had simply made small talk. They pressed him, asking why he had deleted the call from his phone’s memory. “I was scared,” Gruzdeva remembered him answering.

When Gruzdeva met with FBI agents, she said, they at first continued to ask her about the marathon bombing. Then they brought up a new topic: a triple murder.

“They said, ‘We think he did something else, before.’ They said he killed three people in Boston 2011 with a knife. I said, ‘It’ s not true! I can’t believe it.’ You know, I was living with him seven months, and we have a cat.”

Gruzdeva told me that she and Todashev believed they were being followed by the FBI on their way to work or to visit friends. Todashev would point out cars that he believed were driven by FBI agents, she said.

One day, the FBI called Todashev back to their office again. Gruzdeva went with him and waited in the lobby, she said. That’s when an agent she recognized approached her and asked to talk.

“And I already saw him a couple times so it was normal, so I told him, ‘I’m waiting for Ibragim,’” she told me. “And he said, ‘So what? It’s just going to be a couple minutes. He knows about it.’” So she went with him to an office. Another agent joined them, she said. Then, she says, they questioned her for three hours.

“They asked me again and again about Ibragim and all this stuff. They asked me, ‘Can you tell us when he will do something?’ I said, ‘No! I can’t!’ Because he wasn’t doing anything, and I didn’t know anything. And they said, ‘Oh, really? So why don’t we call immigration.’”

Gruzdev told me that she is from Tiraspol, a town in the former Soviet country of Moldova. She had come to America in 2012 on a student work visa, which had since expired. “I said, ‘Come on guys, you cannot do this! You know my visa was expired and you didn’t do anything. And now because you need me and I say I don’t want to help you, you just call to immigration?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ And they called immigration and immigration came and they put me in the jail.”

A spokeswoman for Immigration and Citizenship Services said that ICE cannot release or confirm any details of an individual detention without a written waiver. Gruzdeva had signed such a waiver, the spokeswoman said, but it had since expired.

For the first week, Gruzdeva told me, she was kept in an immigration detention facility. She was allowed to talk to Todashev every day on the phone. She said he told her that when he had come to find her in the lobby the day she was detained, FBI agents mocked him, saying “Where’s your girlfriend?”

She said the mocking infuriated Todashev. “He said, ‘I want to hit them because I was so mad, why they lie to me? They stole you.’”

Later that week, the facility had a visiting day, she said. Todashev came to see her.

“He kissed me, he hugged me like never, it was so sweet, like always. And he tell me, ‘I will marry you when you get out of here, or in the jail, whatever. If we can marry in the jail, we will marry in the jail.’”

On May 22, Gruzdeva said, she was transferred from immigration jail to a cell in Glades County Jail in Moore Haven, Florida. There, she said, she was placed in solitary confinement.

“I thought I would be released, because I don’t have any crime, I don’t have any charges, I was clear,” she said. She asked why she had been moved. “And they just said, “Oh we cannot tell you, we’ll tell you tomorrow in the morning.”

She did not know it yet, but that was the day Todashev had been fatally shot by the FBI.

The next morning, she said, immigration officers and “other officers” came to her cell.

“They said, ‘He’s dead.’

“I said, ‘That’s not true. I just saw him a couple days ago and I talked with him yesterday. He cannot be dead.’

“They said, ‘He died yesterday.’

“I said, ‘No! I just talked with him.’

“They said, ‘We have a paper, and it says that he’s dead, and you can make a phone call.’”

She called her friend Husain, the one who had introduced them. He told her it was true: Todashev was dead.

“And I’m screaming. I have panic attack. I realize, I realize, he is really dead.” As she told me the story on the phone, she began to weep.

“And everything is flush in my heart, my heart was broken, because me and Ibragim we had a plan, we had a plan to be together, we had a plan to have a family. Yes we were different, we had a different culture, different religion, but it was ok, he tell me, everything will be ok, we’ll all figure it out. But he want to be with me and I want to be with him, we had a plan to have children and everything. And now, he’s not here and we’re not going to be together anymore.”

She said she was so distraught that she was given a sedative.

Gruzdeva was kept in solitary confinement for four more days, she said, before being placed in a women’s dormitory at the same prison.

Finally, on August 8, she was released from custody. She said Ashurmamad Miraliev, a friend of Todashev—the same man arrested on Wednesday—came to pick her up, along with Todashev’s father, Abdulbaki, who had flown to Florida from Chechnya to meet with prosecutors. They drove her back to the house she had shared with Todashev, where he had been killed. “They said, ‘Don’t worry the house is clean and we cleaned everything.’”

Miraliev became Gruzdeva’s roommate, she said, helping her to pay the rent. On Wednesday, the two of them were on their way to visit her immigration officer when they were stopped by the police. “It was police cars, police cars, police cars. Undercover people they just stop us with five police cars.” They arrested Miraliev. “They told me he was in Orange County jail,” she said. “I don’t know why they took him.”

Gruzdeva told me she is waiting for immigration to process a work authorization form she has applied for. “After I have my work authorization and social security I will move to a different state,” she said. “Or maybe different city. Because I cannot be here anymore. It’s too much for me .… It’s really painful every day to wake up now in this house.”

• • •

Below: Video provided by Tatiana Gruzdeva, translated by Asya Calixto

F: Come on
[indiscernible, giggling]
F: Come on, please, put it on 
[he declines]
F: No 
[he declines]
F: But please, why?
F: Do you love me?
M: What does that have to do with it? [he looks at his hands]
F: Please, for me
F: Why are you being difficult?
M: I won’t put it on, I told you [indiscernible] I’m not being difficult
[She giggles]
[He speaks, indiscernible]
F: For me
M: For posterity’s sake?
F: Yes
[He speaks, indiscernible]
F: Yes
F: I’ll turn it off
[He speaks, indiscernible]
F: Come on, just for me, put it on and that’s it [zooms out]
F: Just for a second
F: Do it for me, as a gift
M: That’s no gift, let’s go
F: No, do it for me as a gift, please
F: But honey, come here
F: How about at least this one [shows party hat]
F: Just for a second
F: At least just put it up to your head, I want to see [he puts it on]
F: And now go, ‘lalala’

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