The Murders Before the Marathon
A collaboration with This American Life, airing Fri., March 7
It’s nearly midnight in a nondescript condo complex a few blocks from Universal Studios in Orlando, and Tatiana Gruzdeva has been crying all day. Though neither of us knows it yet, as she sits on the corner of her bed and sobs in tiny convulsions, the fact that she’s talking to me will lead to her being arrested by federal agents, placed in solitary confinement, and deported back to Russia.
Next to us on the bed are nine teddy bears. Eight of them came with her from Tiraspol, Moldova. The ninth was a gift from her boyfriend, Ibragim Todashev. Today would have been Ibragim’s 28th birthday, but he is not here to see it, because in the early hours of May 22, 2013, a Boston FBI agent shot and killed him in this very apartment, under circumstances so strange that a Florida state prosecutor has opened an independent investigation. According to the FBI, just before Ibragim was shot—seven times, in two bursts, including once in the top of the head—he was about to write a confession implicating himself and alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a brutal triple homicide that took place in Waltham, Massachusetts, in September 2011.
I’m sitting awkwardly at one end of the twin bed. She’s crying quietly, cross-legged at the other end, wearing shorts and a white shirt with sequins. Most of her outfits have sequins or rhinestones. She’s 19. I’m 26. We both have long blond hair. We’ve both been close to men who were in trouble with the law, and lost them violently. We’ve been talking for about an hour, mostly about men, and parties, and moving forward after a tragedy. Ibragim was a good man, she says. He could never have committed a murder.
“I’m here alone,” she cries. “I hope it never can be worse than this.”
I try to comfort her, but it’s complicated. We both want to know why Ibragim Todashev was killed. She wants to clear his name. For me, and for the families of the Waltham murder victims, Ibragim’s shooting may have snuffed out the last chance at finding out what really happened that night. In the back of my mind is this question: Did her dead boyfriend kill my friend Erik?
September 11, 2011 was a Sunday, and at twilight Erik Weissman was looking for somewhere to spend the night. That afternoon he’d visited his younger sister Aria at a diner down the street from their parents’ home, but he didn’t have a place of his own—he’d been couch-surfing since the cops busted him on drug charges back in January. He kept his belongings at his friend Brendan Mess’s apartment on a dead-end street in Waltham, and that’s where he usually stayed. Erik and Brendan were established pot dealers who occasionally worked together and shared an interest in sports, personal fitness, and designer weed. But Erik had cleared out of the apartment while Brendan was going through a dramatic breakup with his live-in girlfriend, Hiba Eltilib. He had recently been staying with a friend in Newton. “That chick is crazy,” Erik had repeatedly told the friend.
That night his friend in Newton was busy, so around 7:30 p.m. Erik drove his Mercedes SUV back to Brendan’s place in Waltham. It was a warm night, cloudless. Brendan and Hiba had finally broken up, and Hiba had split for Florida, so the coast was clear. Brendan had invited another friend, Rafi Teken, to come over, too. Like Erik, Rafi had been avoiding Brendan’s place while Hiba was there. Rafi and Hiba were known to get into arguments of their own.
At 7:30, Erik sent a text to his friend in Newton. Shortly thereafter, all three men stopped answering their phones.
The bodies were found the next day. Erik was 31. Brendan was 25. Rafi was 37.
It was Hiba who found them, of all people. On September 12, she returned unexpectedly from Florida—most of Brendan’s friends were under the impression that she wasn’t coming back—and after she couldn’t reach Brendan on her cell phone, she showed up at the apartment and asked the landlord to open the door. The bodies were inside. One news report says that Hiba left the house and screamed, “They’re all dead!” Another says she went outside, crying, with blood on her feet, and calmly asked for a cigarette.
Their throats had been slashed with such force that their heads were nearly decapitated. A veteran Waltham investigator called it “the worst bloodbath I have ever seen,” and compared the victims’ wounds to “an Al-Qaeda training video.” About a pound and a half of high-grade marijuana covered two of the corpses. Rafi Teken’s face was left untouched. Erik Weissman had a bloody lip. But Brendan Mess, an experienced mixed martial artist who trained in jujitsu, had real fighting wounds. His arms were covered in scratch marks. He had puncture marks on his temple and the top of his head, another mark by his ear, and he was bruised around the lips. It didn’t scan like a robbery: There were eight and a half pounds of pot left in bags and glass jars, and $5,000 dollars left on the bodies—enough for a cheap funeral, for one of them.
Hours later, Middlesex County District Attorney Gerry Leone stood amid a scrum of reporters on the dead-end street outside Brendan’s home at 12 Harding Avenue. State police had found a “very graphic crime scene” in the second-floor apartment, he said. “It does not appear to be a random act.” He told reporters that there was no evidence of a break-in—that it was likely the assailants and dead men knew one another. Assailants, plural? a reporter asked. Leone replied that there were “at least two people who are not in the apartment now, who were there earlier.”
“This is a fluid, ongoing investigation,” he said. “We will have information as we develop the facts.”
But they didn’t.