Transcript

519:

Dead Men Tell No Tales
Transcript

Originally aired 03.07.2014

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/519

Prologue.

Ira Glass

In May of last year, about a month after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, there was this weird news story-- maybe you saw this-- about a guy in Florida who was shot by an FBI agent.

Charlie Rose

We're getting word this morning about a shooting in Orlando, Florida. It involves the FBI and a man who may have had ties to the Boston bombing suspects. Our senior correspondent--

Ira Glass

The shooting victim was a Chechen guy named Ibragim Todashev, and he'd known one of the guys accused in the Boston bombing.

Man

Ibragim Todashev was a friend of the older brother in that case, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He was in contact with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He had been to Boston to visit him, and he was planning a trip--

Ira Glass

Remember that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the older brother in the Boston Marathon case. He's the one killed in a shootout in Watertown after that crazy car chase. He's usually portrayed as the more radical brother in news reports.

That's who the Florida guy was buddies with. And the Florida guy was shot in his own apartment by the FBI seven times during an interview they were doing with him. The FBI said almost nothing about this. But of course, there were leaks.

Man

And officials tell us that the man attacked the FBI agent, who then shot and killed him.

Ira Glass

Some reports said that he came at the agent with a knife. Others said it was a pole. Others said a broomstick, maybe a sword.

And the story was leaked to the press by law enforcement was that before the FBI shot this guy, Ibrahim Todashev, he confessed to something. He implicated himself and the alleged Boston bomber in a crime, a gruesome crime, a triple murder of three drug dealers who were killed gangland style in a Boston suburb two years earlier, long before the marathon bombings. According to the leaks, this guy in Florida was just about to write out a confession when he freaked out, attacked a federal agent, and they had to shoot him to death.

Weird, right? The FBI kills somebody in his own home and then says, sure, we killed him. But, you know, he was a murderer. He confessed to it. OK, well, we don't have a recording or a signed confession, but believe us, he really did it.

As one editorial put it in a suburban Massachusetts paper, quote, "When a key witness to a serious crime is killed during questioning, people deserve to know why." When prosecutors say he revealed a critical fact before he was killed, people expect proof. The father of Ibragim Todashev-- the guy the FBI killed in Florida-- held a press conference calling for answers, and he pointed out it was hard to understand why federal agents would need to actually kill his son. He spoke in Russian.

Translator

Even if he lost his temper and became violent, they could have restrained him or wounded him, shoot him in the leg or the arm or the shoulder. But what happened was murder. Maybe my son knew something the police didn't want to come out, and they killed him to keep him silent.

Ira Glass

Theories sprang up. On the more conspiracy-ish side of things, there had already been persistent rumors that the alleged Boston bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had been an FBI informant. Maybe this guy in Florida knew something about that and they wanted to shut him up. These theories were especially rife in Boston, where the FBI has colluded with its criminal informants in the past.

At the very least, people wondered if the FBI was being so silent about the incident because it didn't want to admit its own blunders during the interrogation, blunders that led them to shoot a man seven times. The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and dozens of other newspapers have called for an explanation of how and why this happened. The Washington Post declared, "The last thing the US government needs is to fuel wild conspiracy theories. The Obama administration must move heaven and earth to get to the bottom of what happened and make it public, quickly."

And the FBI promised to clear the air. They promised an investigation into the shooting. That was last May. Since then, officials keep saying, essentially, it's coming, it's coming. Now it has been nine months, and still, nothing. Nine months.

At this point, the mother of one of the men killed in that triple murder now agrees with the dad you heard-- the dad whose son supposedly committed the murder, murdered her son-- that things don't seem to add up. This mom, Bellie Hacker, wonders why would the FBI kill the one person who could shed light on who murdered her kid?

Bellie Hacker

I know there's some sort of a cover up somewhere. I don't know what it is, and I don't have any theories about it. But it's too strange.

Bill Keating

A full and swift release of information would clear the air about that.

Ira Glass

Massachusetts congressman Bill Keating sits on the Homeland Security committee, and he says that in general, when it comes to anything related to the Boston bombing, the FBI is peculiarly unforthcoming, much worse than any other law enforcement agencies when giving out information. And he says investigations into police shootings just do not have to take this long. He knows this because he's been involved with them himself back when he was a district attorney.

Bill Keating

I think the longest one we were involved in was maybe two months.

Ira Glass

Versus this case.

Bill Keating

In this instance, there was a crime scene that amounted to a room and just a few individuals, so it's something that should have taken short order. And even though there's an extensive report making vetting that goes on, that delay now continues eight or nine months later. And that is puzzling.

Ira Glass

From the outside, it just makes it look so suspicious. Do you know what I mean?

Bill Keating

Well, that's what happens when, you know, delays occur.

Ira Glass

Today on our program, we dive into this mystery. There's a triple murder in Massachusetts linked to the alleged Boston bomber and this other guy in Florida. Both of those men are dead-- the one in Florida in circumstances that are still very unclear. And as you'll hear, the deeper that we dug into these questions, the weirder the story got.

The police and FBI were doing all kinds of things that just did not seem to make much sense. We're going to bring you the facts that we've been able to find. We're going to tell you the ones that we could not find, and then at the end of the hour, our best guess as to what we think might have happened. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One.

Ira Glass

Well, Susan Zalkind is a reporter who lives in Boston, and she has spent the last six months looking into all this for Boston magazine and for us, and also for herself. She has a personal connection to what happened, this triple murder, the one that the guy in Florida supposedly is connected to.

Her connection is that she was friends with one of the victims in that original crime-- one of the three drug dealers who was killed, Eric Weissman. So here's Susan.

Susan Zalkind

I met Eric five years before he was killed. It was the summer after my freshman year in college. I was 19 and he was 26, and we hung out a few times that summer, usually driving around aimlessly in his car, listening to music, talking, and smoking pot. He had wire-rimmed nerd glasses and a Jewfro, and honestly, he was just really sweet. He sold high-end weed, flew to Amsterdam regularly for special seeds, and talked about selling pot as if it were a community service.

Over time, I stopped smoking weed. We grew apart. The last time I spoke to him was eight months before he was killed.

My dad's a criminal defense attorney, and Eric wanted his number to hire him. Police had raided his apartment. A few years earlier, he told me he only sold pot, but police also seized coke and OxyContin. He sounded scared. I told him it would be OK.

Gary Leone

Approximately 2:30 PM today, the Waltham police responded to this scene, a-- sorry-- very graphic crime scene. There are three dead bodies in the apartment. This is a fluid, ongoing investigation.

Susan Zalkind

The day Eric's body was discovered, Middlesex County District Attorney Gerry Leone faced a scrum of reporters outside the crime scene in Waltham, a suburb of Boston. Leone said he couldn't release many details, not before they got in touch with the victims' families. He wouldn't even confirm the victims' genders or their approximate ages. There wasn't a lot of information, except for this, which seemed very specific.

Gary Leone

It does look like the assailants and the decedents did know each other. We have no evidence of a break in the apartment, and we have other indicia that the decedents and the assailants were known to each other.

Reporter

You're saying assailants, plural. You mean you're thinking that more than one person is responsible?

Gary Leone

We're not sure at this time. We know there were at least two people who are not in that apartment now who were there earlier.

Susan Zalkind

It was later revealed that the killers slit their throats. The three bodies lay face down, heads turned to the side, each in a neat pool of blood. Two of the bodies had about a pound and a half of marijuana dumped on them. The scene didn't scan like a robbery.

There were eight and a half pounds of pot left in bags and glass jars and $5,000 lying next to the bodies. They were killed sometime after 7:30 on the night of September 11, 2011.

Weeks passed, and months. My friends and I would convene nightly meetings huddled in our apartments and run through all the possibilities of who could have killed our friend. But there didn't seem to be any leads, and certainly no arrests. I didn't hear much more about the case, really, until a year and a half later, after the Boston Marathon bombings, when news reports said police and FBI were beginning to look into the connection between the alleged bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and the Waltham murders.

Tamerlan had been close friends with one of the three murder victims, a guy named Brendan Mess. But after the murders, Tamerlan had acted suspiciously, Didn't go to Brendan's funeral.

I talked to one guy who said he went up to Tamerlan to offer his condolences about Brendan, and Tamerlan literally laughed it off. People actually told investigators to look into Tamerlan Tsarnaev back in 2011, right after the murders, but police never followed up. After the marathon bombings, there were rumblings of a scandal about all this. If police had questioned Tamerlan back in 2011, is it possible he'd be in prison instead of placing two homemade bombs at the finish line?

But then pretty quickly came the same news reports you heard at the beginning of the show, that some guy in Florida named Ibragim Todashev supposedly admitted that he'd been involved in the Waltham murders, and that Tamerlan had been with him. There was no written confession. There was no reporting. And then Todashev was shot by an FBI agent.

I had no idea what to make of it. A year and a half had gone by with no news at all, and now, suddenly, they had found the killers, and both of them are dead? Should I really believe that these two guys murdered my friend?

So I start to look into everything I could learn about the guy in Florida, Ibragim Todashev. I talked to anyone I could reach who knew him-- friends, family, former coworkers-- and asked them all what kind of guy Ibragim Todashev was. But it seemed like he was a hard person to get a read on.

Man

Well, OK, the one thing I noticed about him, he never smiled in his pictures or anything like that.

Man

I used to see him at the mosque. He was a good guy, nice guy. Like, you know, doing his prayers, and all that.

Man

Ibragim-- I never liked that dude. I'm gonna be honest. He was, like, a douchebag.

Man

To be honest, this guy seems like he had a temper.

Woman

He was-- I can't speak how he was with somebody else, but with me, he was grateful, thoughtful husband.

Man

He was actually, if you get to know him, he was a pretty good guy.

Susan Zalkind

I learned Ibragim was religious and prayed regularly, but he also went to clubs and hit on women. He liked to hang out with a close-knit group of Chechen friends, and he was a fighter. He trained seriously in mixed martial arts, a sport where boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and jujitsu are all mixed together. He wanted to go pro.

He'd emigrated from Chechnya to Boston in 2008, lived there for a few years, worked a few odd jobs, got married, got separated, spent some time in Atlanta, and by the end of 2011, a few months after the murders in Waltham, he had moved to Florida. But one detail caught my attention. At the time of his death, Ibragim had been living with a woman named Tatiana Gruzdeva.

The Boston Globe wrote that Tatiana had been detained for having an expired visa, and was on her way to being deported to Moscow. But later, they reported that Tatiana had been mysteriously released, and was still living in Florida. I found her the way anyone finds anybody, on Facebook.

A slight 19-year-old with bleach blond hair and huge green eyes, she posted a lot of selfies. Impulsively, I sent her a friend request. It didn't surprise me that she didn't respond.

Months went by. Then, one night in September, while I was working on my computer in my living room, a little alert appeared on my screen. Tatiana accepted my Facebook request.

We started messaging. Soon we switched to the phone. The first time I talked to Tatiana, I didn't know it was going to be doing a radio story. I don't have an audio recording, but I took notes, and I tried to get down as much of her rapid fire, Russian accented voice as possible. She told me she'd only known Ibragim for six months.

They began as roommates. First it was just friends, she told me, and after, "we started having relationship, and we were sleeping together like boyfriend and girlfriend."

Tatiana told me the night Ibragim was shot was not the first time he talked to the FBI. I think most people had the impression that the FBI showed up, started asking Ibragim about a murder, he freaked out, and they shot him. In fact, though, both Tatiana and Ibragim had been cooperating with them for more than a month.

The relationship with the FBI had become almost cordial, businesslike. Agents contacted the couple regularly on the phone, visited their home, and called them into the FBI offices for more questioning. I wanted to know what they were asking about. Did it seem like the FBI had connected Ibragim to the Waltham murders? Were they asking about them?

Tatiana said no. Waltham didn't come up, as far as she knew. She said their questions for Ibragim were mostly about terrorism, the Boston bombing, and his relationship with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Ibragim admitted he was friends with Tamerlan back when he lived in Boston. She said the agents asked about a phone call Tamerlan made to Ibragim about a month before the marathon bombing.

Ibragim told them the call was nothing important, that Tamerlan was just checking up on Ibragim after he had surgery on his knee. But later, Ibragim deleted the call from his phone history. When agents asked him why, Ibragim told them he was scared.

Then, three weeks into the interviews, Tatiana was in the lobby of the FBI office, waiting for Ibragim to be done with another round of questioning, and an agent asked her to come with him. It's fine, she says they told her. Ibragim knows about it.

She went to a room with them. They asked her a bunch of familiar questions about the marathon bombing. And then they brought up something new.

We think he did something else before, in Boston, 2011, with a knife, Tatiana says they told her. It was the first time Tatiana had ever heard about the Waltham triple murder. She told the agents she didn't believe that Ibragim had anything to do with it. She said the agents then asked her if she'd be willing to let them know if Ibragim started doing anything suspicious, basically to inform on him.

She says she said no, because he wasn't doing anything, and she didn't know anything. So the agents called immigration, and they locked her up. She was in the States on an expired student visa.

Tatiana was held in an immigration detention facility for a week. The day after Ibragim was shot, she was transferred to the Glades County Detention Center and placed in a medical unit. She asked officers why she was being moved, and they told her they'd tell her in the morning.

The next day, she learned the truth. Her boyfriend was dead. She didn't return home for another 11 weeks, to the apartment she'd once shared with Ibragim.

Susan Zalkind

I'm just gonna leave the recorder running.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

All right.

Susan Zalkind

Three days after I talked to Tatiana on the phone, I flew down to Orlando to meet with her in person. And this time, I brought a tape recorder. But sitting in the tiny living room of her apartment, the room where Ibragim had been killed, she was much more reluctant to talk about Ibragim or the FBI or, really, much of anything.

Susan Zalkind

What first made you fall in love with Ibragim?

Tatiana Gruzdeva

I really don't want to do this.

Susan Zalkind

One reason Tatiana was scared, why she responded to my Facebook request at all weeks after I sent it, was because earlier that same day, she and her friend had been driving when they got pulled over by six or seven unmarked police cars and her friend was taken away. She didn't know who had taken him or why, but she was afraid she might be next.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

I know, but I'm really scared, you know, about just--

Susan Zalkind

I understand that you're just scared, like, in general.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

Because after this jail, and right after, I'm really scared.

Susan Zalkind

It was also weird being in that apartment with a 19-year-old girl whose bed was covered with stuffed animals. She showed me a video she'd taken with her phone of her and Ibragim in a Hallmark type store on Valentine's Day. She's giggling and trying to get him to put on a silly hat. She seemed to be like any other teenage girl with a standoffish boyfriend.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]

Susan Zalkind

She knew about my connection to the Waltham murders. She knew that her boyfriend is thought to be the person who killed my friend. But she didn't think it was even slightly possible he did it.

I tried not to push her on that point, but it was practically all I could think about. Did her dead boyfriend slit my friend's throat? Instead, I told her I thought it was wrong of the FBI to kill Ibragim, even if he was a murderer. After a few hours of talking, I decided to leave Tatiana alone.

Susan Zalkind

Well, keep in touch with me. If something happens, you know, and you-- keep in touch with me. Let me know what's going on.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

All right. I hope nothing.

Susan Zalkind

Hopefully nothing, but-- nothing bad's going to ever happen to you, but--

Tatiana Gruzdeva

I hope. I hope not, because it's already a lot.

Susan Zalkind

Uh-huh.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

[INAUDIBLE].

Susan Zalkind

OK, OK, Tatiana, who-- who-- who is the immigration officer who told you that you're here because of an interview you gave to me?

Tatiana Gruzdeva

[INAUDIBLE].

Susan Zalkind

Give me the--

A week after I left Orlando, Tatiana called me from an immigration detention facility. She told me because she did that interview with me, and I wrote a story about it for Boston magazine's website, she was now being deported.

Susan Zalkind

I can't believe that that's happened, though. And if that's the only reason, it's really concerning.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

Right? It's stupid, right? It's crazy! I can't believe it's true, but-- because of this interview.

Susan Zalkind

After Tatiana had been released from detention the first time, she was given a special permission to stay in the US-- something called deferred action. Now she was telling me that permission had been revoked.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

Because now they're still overstating that.

Susan Zalkind

Have you been speaking to the FBI since you've been detained?

Tatiana Gruzdeva

No, no. Oh my god. Thank god, no. I don't want to talk to them. Maybe I will have more problems now.

Susan Zalkind

Uh-huh.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

I wanted to [INAUDIBLE].

Susan Zalkind

OK.

Tatiana Gruzdeva

I want to be-- I just want to be deported. I just want to see my mom, my family. I just want to go to Russia. But I want to be safe in Russia. I don't want to stay here anymore in the jail.

Susan Zalkind

I frantically called immigration officers to find out what was going on. They wouldn't tell me anything. Later, when I asked again, they referred me to the FBI. But the FBI wouldn't talk about it.

After spending 10 days in jail, two immigration agents accompanied Tatiana on her flight back to Moscow. Even when she got home to her mom's house in Moldova, she told me she was too scared to do another interview.

I called around to a few immigration lawyers, because I wanted to know if it's even legal to deport someone for speaking to the press. It turns out, because of Tatiana's status, it was. Under her deferred action, Tatiana was legally allowed to stay in the US for another year. Now that she'd talked to me, her stay was mysteriously cut 10 months short.

But why? What didn't the FBI want her to say to me? Or maybe they were trying to send a message to other people who might talk. I did notice the FBI seemed to be paying a lot of attention to anyone who was close to Ibragim.

Man

In these recent weeks, how much contact have you had with the FBI?

Khusen Taramov

Me?

Susan Zalkind

This is Ibragim's best friend in Florida, Khusen Taramov. The morning after Ibragim died, he talked to TV reporters with another friend of Ibragim's who didn't want to be identified.

Khusen Taramov

They've been following us. They're watching us. Every time we go somewhere, there's two, three cops undercover. We see them.

You know what I mean? Like, they still watch us all the time. They know everything about us-- where we from, what are we doing.

Man

They know everything.

Khusen Taramov

Everything. Everything. Everything. So--

Susan Zalkind

Khusen had actually been with Ibragim the night he was killed. He went with Ibragim to the final interview at his apartment, but agents told them to wait outside. They wanted to question Ibragim alone.

Khusen waited outside for four hours before being told to leave. About an hour later, Ibragim was shot. I wanted to talk to Khusen about this, but when I reached out to him, I learned something strange. Khusen had gone to Russia on July 4th to see his family, and when he tried to come back to the US afterwards, authorities wouldn't let Khusen or his two brothers on the plane, with no explanation.

Khusen has a green card. He went to high school in the States. But for some reason, he's not being let back into the country now. When I finally did get a hold of Khusen, he said he didn't want to do an interview. He just wanted to put everything behind him.

Here's one more thing. The FBI stopped the medical examiner from releasing Ibragim's autopsy report. The only reason we know how many times he was shot was because pictures were taken of Ibragim's embalmed body. Khusen is the one who took those pictures.

So here's what I was working with. The FBI killed Ibragim. They released no official information about exactly what happened and wouldn't say when they would release that information. And then these people close to Ibragim were whisked away. His girlfriend, his best friend-- both of them were kept out of the country. I didn't know if it was a cover up, but it just didn't look right.

Ira Glass

Susan Zalkind. Coming up, a third person close to Ibragim is politely ushered out of the country by federal authorities. And at the end of the hour, our theory about the truth behind all this. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. All this hour, we're hearing Susan Zalkind's investigation into a few deaths-- a triple murder in Waltham, Massachusetts in 2011, where a friend of hers was one of the victims, and a killing last May where the FBI shot a man, Ibragim Todashev, in his own apartment in Florida seven times while questioning him about the triple murder.

So far, as you have heard, Susan has found that two of the people closest to Todashev, his girlfriend and his best friend, have both been more or less booted out of the United States. And there's a third person who was close to Ibragim whose story is even stranger, Ashur Miraliev. That's where we'll pick up. Here's Susan.

Susan Zalkind

It took five months to convince Ashur to talk to me. When I first heard about him, he was in a maximum security prison in Florida. Nine weeks later, he was deported to Tajikistan. During all this time, I reached out again and again, and he just kept turning me down. His lawyer said he didn't want to talk because he'd been traumatized, having his friend killed by the FBI and then being arrested himself. But finally, a month ago--

Susan Zalkind

Are you there?

Ashur Miraliev

Can you hear me?

Susan Zalkind

Yeah. Can you hear me?

Ashur Miraliev

Yes.

Susan Zalkind

We talked over an internet phone line. Ashur moved to Florida in 2011 on a student visa. He started hanging out with a crew of Russian speakers, and that's how he met Ibragim. Ashur is only 20 years old, so he was nearly eight years younger than Ibragim.

He said they had a good friendship, but because of the age difference, it wasn't super close. Ibragim didn't confide in him. He said Ibragim was more like a brother than a friend.

Ashur was questioned once by the FBI about Ibragim two days before Ibragim died. But after an FBI agent shot Ibragim during an interview, Ashur and his friends decided they didn't want to sit down for any more interviews themselves. They stopped cooperating.

Four months passed. It seemed like the FBI had moved on, until a Wednesday afternoon in September when Ashur was driving near Universal Studios and an undercover car pulled him over.

Ashur Miraliev

And then there was a bunch of cars, like five, six cars were right after them.

Susan Zalkind

Why did they say they were pulling you over?

Ashur Miraliev

Because my driver's license was expired.

Susan Zalkind

That's the only reason they told you you were being pulled over by seven undercover--

Ashur Miraliev

Yes.

Susan Zalkind

--cops? They said your driver's license was expired?

Ashur Miraliev

Yes.

Susan Zalkind

Ashur says people who identified themselves as FBI agents asked him to come to their office.

Ashur Miraliev

They told me that, like, let's go to the office, you know, there's air conditioning, blah, blah, blah. We can chill and talk, you know?

Susan Zalkind

Did they tell you what they wanted to talk about? So you have an expired license. Did they say they wanted to talk about that?

Ashur Miraliev

Yeah. I told them, what do you want to talk about? Like, what do you want? And they just kept saying, let's go to the office, you know? We're gonna talk over there. You can stop the conversation anytime you want, you know? You can come back at any time you want, blah, blah, blah, you know?

I was so shocked. I was so shocked, and I was so interested. From one side, I wanted to go with them, because I was so interested. I wanted to know what they want for me, like, you know? So I decided to go with them, because I was so scared. I was so shocked. And it was so interesting, you know?

Susan Zalkind

Ashur was driven to a police station where they entered this in their system as merely a traffic stop, no other information. But according to documents from the County Sheriff's department, Ashur was soon headed over to the FBI, where he says agents aggressively questioned him about his relationship with Ibragim. They were convinced that he'd been one of Ibragim's closest friends, that he had to know something.

Susan Zalkind

What kind of information about Ibragim were they interested in?

Ashur Miraliev

Like, what kind of relationship he had with Tsarnaevs, when he was in the Boston. Do you know his Boston friends? Do you know who was with him at the time of triple murder, you know?

What do I know about triple murder? What did Ibragim told me about triple murder, you know? Like, these kids of questions.

Susan Zalkind

It surprised me that they were asking Ashur about the Waltham murders four months after Ibragim had been killed, four months after Ibragim had supposedly confessed. Ashur told me he knew nothing about the triple murder. He'd never met the Tsarnaevs. He's never even been to Boston.

Susan Zalkind

Did they imply that you had anything to do with this triple murder in Waltham?

Ashur Miraliev

Me?

Susan Zalkind

Yeah. Was that what the--

Ashur Miraliev

No, no.

Susan Zalkind

Was the FBI asking you about that?

Ashur Miraliev

No. But they were pointing at Ibragim, like, for sure, you know?

Susan Zalkind

Like for sure he did it?

Ashur Miraliev

Yeah, exactly. They wasn't interested about me. They-- can you hear me?

Susan Zalkind

Yeah, I hear you.

Ashur Miraliev

They knew that I didn't do nothing. They wasn't interested about me. They just wanted to get some information from me, you know?

Susan Zalkind

I couldn't figure out if the FBI thought Ashur actually knew something or if they were just fishing. It made me think that even if Ibragim confessed, they didn't have much evidence besides it. They needed anything they could find to close the case.

Susan Zalkind

How long did this interview go for, this first interview?

Ashur Miraliev

Um, it was like a few hours. A few hours, yeah. And when I told them I wanted to stop the conversation, they told me you're gonna go to the jail, you know? That's the first time they told me about the jail. I really thought they were kidding, you know? Because I knew that I wouldn't go to the jail for my driver's license, because it was only nine days expired.

I could get only a ticket, you know? I thought they were kidding, but they weren't. They just put handcuffs on me. They took me to the jail. I went to the jail, you know?

Susan Zalkind

Ashur had no idea what he was being arrested for, and when they told him, he couldn't believe it. He thought there was some mistake. I just want to stop here to take a detour in Ashur's story in order to explain his arrest charge. It sheds light on how the FBI was operating down in Florida in this case, and the lengths they were willing to go to get to Ashur.

Ashur was arrested for threatening the victim of a crime. The formal charge was tampering with a victim by threat, and the story behind it starts here, at the Ali Baba Hookah Lounge just outside Orlando. Ali Baba sits in the front of a small shopping plaza on Polynesian Isle Boulevard. Disney World is down the road, but the plaza is like this international oasis in the middle of American tourist country. There's a small grocery store owned by Egyptians, a hair salon owned by an Iraqi Turkish guy, and the hookah bar, which is owned by a Moroccan.

The incident that put Ashur in jail happened here, and the person who pressed charges against Ashur was the manager of the hookah bar, this guy.

Youness Eit Dammou

My name is Youness eit Dammou. I used to work at the Ali Baba Hookah Bar.

Susan Zalkind

Youness actually works at a different hookah bar now, across the street. When my producer, Brian Reed, and I found Youness, it was midnight. He graciously sat down and told us the story of how he came to press charges against Ashur. It actually begins with Ibragim. One day, Youness says, Ibragim was at the hookah bar, and he was hitting on a woman who worked there, making her feel uncomfortable, so Youness went over to intervene.

Youness Eit Dammou

Ibragim, he got a little bit frustrated and, you know, he thinks he can manage the place. I told him, honestly, I'm the manager over here. You're welcome. You can have a good time, you know, enjoy yourself. But if you want to rule this place as you want, you're welcome to leave. So obviously he didn't like what I said.

Susan Zalkind

After this, Youness says he walked over to the grocery store in the plaza. Ibragim followed him, telling Youness he wanted to go out back with him behind the plaza. Youness turned away, and then, all of a sudden--

Youness Eit Dammou

Boom! I lost consciousness.

Susan Zalkind

Ibragim knocked Youness on the side of the head with his fist. A few seconds later, when Youness came to--

Youness Eit Dammou

He grabbed me from my legs, like this.

Susan Zalkind

Youness says Ibragim lifted him high off the ground until Youness's knees were level with Ibragim's chest. Then Ibragim slammed him onto the sidewalk, like in a wrestling move. Remember, he was training to be a professional fighter. Ibragim climbed on top of him. At this point, a crowd had gathered, and Youness yelled for someone to call 911.

Youness Eit Dammou

He heard me say, call 911. He ran to his car and ran.

Susan Zalkind

When police came, Youness told him everything he knew about Ibragim, which wasn't much. He didn't even remember his last name. After police left, Youness was trying to get more information about the guy who beat him up, so he went to a pizza shop next door where he'd seen Ibragim hanging out a lot.

That's when he ran into Ashur. Ashur was a delivery guy there, and Youness says Ashur didn't like the fact that he was asking about Ibragim.

Youness Eit Dammou

When I asked, Ashur got pissed, and he told me, you're not a man. Why you call the cops? Why you didn't fight him like a man? He starts cursing, and he was coming toward me.

Susan Zalkind

Did he threaten you?

Youness Eit Dammou

Yeah.

Susan Zalkind

What did he say?

Youness Eit Dammou

I don't remember exactly, but it's like he wanted to provoke me to get into a fight.

Brian Reed

And did you consider calling the police?

Youness Eit Dammou

No, I didn't, because I'd just called him like an hour and a half ago, something like that. There is better things for the police to do than a fight between me and someone, you know what I mean?

Susan Zalkind

This incident, this little shouting match, this is what Ashur ended up being arrested for. Because Ashur yelled at Youness for calling the police on Ibragim. This is the tampering with a victim charge.

What makes this especially strange is that Ashur wasn't arrested until more than a year later, even though he worked right next door to Youness. That's because in all that time, Youness never thought this was a big enough deal to even call the police about. Youness's only beef was with Ibragim for beating him up.

He did want to press charges against him, but 10 months went by, and there was never an arrest. Then the Boston Marathon is bombed, and Youness says one day, out of the blue, an FBI agent met with him, along with a detective from Osceola County, who asked if he still wanted to press charges against Ibragim.

Susan Zalkind

Did they mention the Boston Marathon bombing?

Youness Eit Dammou

No. No. We didn't discuss that. The things that we discussed is the fights, and they want me to press charges. And I press charges.

Susan Zalkind

Now, if this were a normal case, police would take those charges and go arrest Ibragim. But for some reason, he wasn't arrested. Just four days later, Ibragim was dead.

Three months went by, and Youness got another visit, again from the Osceola County detective. This time, he asked if Youness wanted to press charges against Ashur. And Youness said OK.

About three weeks later, Ashur was pulled over by the undercover cars and taken for the FBI interview. Which brings us back to the moment FBI agents told him he was under arrest.

Ashur Miraliev

I asked them, why am I here? Why am I in a jail? What are the charges, you know?

Susan Zalkind

Again, Ashur Miraliev.

Ashur Miraliev

And they said, do you remember the incident with Youness over there in a hookah bar? I said, yes, so what? They said, that's why you're here.

Susan Zalkind

Ashur thought there must be some mistake, so much so that as soon as he got booked into jail, he said he wanted to talk to the FBI again.

Ashur Miraliev

He drove me back to the agents. I told them, hey, guys, it's impossible, you know? Are you guys kidding or something? I just couldn't believe. They told me that they have nothing to do with that.

It's the state. State has some charges on me, you know? That's all what they told me, that they don't know nothing about my charges. They don't know nothing.

Susan Zalkind

It's not true that the FBI knew nothing about this charge. A spokeswoman from the Osceola County Sheriff's Office confirmed that an FBI agent named Sykes was there for some of Youness's questioning. And Ashur's arrest affidavit said Agent Sykes is the one who gave them Ashur's name.

That wasn't all, though. On his booking papers, along with the tampering with a victim charge, Ashur was given this designation with no explanation-- "on terrorist watch list," "police protective custody," and "high risk, house alone."

I should maybe be explicit here. Never once was it alleged, either in a formal charge or even in informal leaks, that Ashur had anything to do with the Boston bombings. The most you can say is how Ashur himself puts it. He knew a guy who knew a guy who supposedly committed the marathon bombings.

For the crime of yelling at Youness, Ashur spent 33 days in a maximum security cell-- an 8' by 10' room where he spent all day alone. There were no windows. Just a slit in the door looking out to the lobby. The lights were always on, and he was always cold.

I talked to his attorney, a woman named Thania Diaz Clevenger, who, after trying for several days, and experiencing what she said was the most trouble she's ever had trying to locate a client, was finally able to meet with Ashur. This is how she described him in jail.

Thania Diaz Clevenger

He was broken. He was petrified and broken and crying. And they chained him, arms, legs. He had the belly chain. Two guards walked with us down the hall to another room where they chained him to the ground, and he begged me not to go.

Susan Zalkind

The charge that got Ashur thrown in prison, tampering with the victim of a crime, was dropped after a month. The state attorney's office wrote, quote, "This case is not suitable for prosecution." But for Ashur, it was too late.

When he was arrested, his visa had already expired. He was in the process of applying for asylum, but he missed a court date while he was in jail. So when he was moved out of maximum security, they transferred him to an immigration jail. Nine weeks after the Orlando PD pulled him over for the traffic stop, he was deported back to Tajikistan, leaving behind his apartment, all of his belongings, his clothes, his money, and his car.

Ashur's story seems so extreme. For a guy who just knew a guy who knew a guy, the government took pretty drastic measures against him. And when you add what they did to Ashur to the fact that Tatiana and Khusen are also being kept out of the country, it's hard not to ask, why is the FBI doing this? Are they cleaning up their mess? Trying to hide something? I asked a former FBI agent named Don Borelli what he thought.

Don Borelli

If you think that this is some conspiracy to get these people out of the limelight where you're basically trying to suppress a story or a cover up or anything, I don't believe that that's the case at all.

Susan Zalkind

What happened to Ashur, Tatiana, and Khusen doesn't make a lot of sense for a murder case, but it does for a terrorism case, which, of course, this was. Don worked at the FBI for 25 years and did a lot of terrorism cases. He doesn't have inside knowledge of the investigation into Ibragim, but I told him about the tactics used against Ibragim's friends-- deportations, no fly lists, arresting someone on local charges. He says these are all standard in a terrorism investigation for anyone who has any connections to the case.

Don Borelli

It may be third or four persons removed, but that's the nature of a terrorism investigation. You cast a very wide net. So yeah, if you can keep people out of the country that you think could potentially do harm or aid others in doing harm or whatever, you know, even provide financing, for example, then you are obligated to do that. That's your job to do that.

Susan Zalkind

Don says that even if it doesn't seem like you're going to do any harm, if you can be deported, standard procedure in terrorism cases is to deport you unless you can offer something to federal agents that makes it worth it to keep you around. In other words, there could be a logical explanation for keeping Ashur, Tatiana, and Khusen out of the country that doesn't involve a cover up.

But that still doesn't explain the many weird things going on in this case. It doesn't explain why the FBI has taken so long-- nearly 10 months-- to release the report on Ibragim's shooting. It doesn't tell us what to make of Ibragim's supposed confession or what brought agents to his living room in the first place, whether they have any solid proof at all linking Ibragim or Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the murders.

Act Three.

Susan Zalkind

In the course of reporting this story, I've reached out to the Waltham Police Department, the Middlesex District Attorney's Office, the Massachusetts State Police, the Massachusetts Attorney General, the State Attorney for Osceola and Orange Counties, the Orlando Police Department, the Department of Justice, and of course, the FBI, and none of them will comment. But I've also talked to dozens of people connected to the murders and connected to Ibragim and the Tsarnaevs, as well as to attorneys in law enforcement. And I do have a theory about what happened in Ibragim's apartment and in the months before and after. It's just a theory, but here goes.

As best as I can tell, the FBI showed up at Ibragim's door looking for a terrorist. He'd spoken on the phone with Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the month before the bombing, and I know a guy named John Allan who tipped off investigators. John's the owner of a mixed martial arts gym in Boston where both Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Ibragim trained. He says he was on a trip in Thailand when the bombings happened.

John Allan

Before I even got back, you know, I had a Facebook message. One of my cop students-- one of my students that's a policeman-- that has Ibragim's information. Give it to him. You should probably check this guy out.

Susan Zalkind

John says that several times, he saw Tamerlan and Ibragim praying at the gym, which he thought was odd. Plus, he says, Ibragim just seemed kind of crazy.

John Allan

I mean, he was definitely out there. He was definitely very Muslim. And if you were to ask me at the time if someone was capable of doing that, I would have said Ibragim not Tamerlan, you know? And I'm talking about the bombing.

Susan Zalkind

Within a few days of this tip, FBI agents were at Ibragim's apartment. John says it never occurred to him that Ibragim could have been involved in the Waltham triple murders. He didn't mention anything like that to the police or FBI.

But by the time they locked up Tatiana, about two and a half weeks later, they'd made the connection. Where that suspicion came from exactly, that Ibragim was involved in the Waltham murders, I just don't know. I ran down every path I could think of to try to find something linking Ibragim to the killings.

I looked into some established crime rings in Waltham, but couldn't connect them to Ibragim. I tried finding evidence that he was even in the Boston area in September of 2011 when the murders happened. I pulled his driving records, talked to landlords, employers, roommates. I can place him in Boston a month before the murders and a few months after, but not in September. His wife claims he was in Atlanta with her at the time, but she has no proof.

Not long after Ibragim was killed, law enforcement sources told The New York Times that they put together, quote, "a lot of circumstantial pieces" that they then used to pressure Ibragim into implicating himself and Tamerlan in the Waltham murders. It's possible that that's all they had, circumstantial pieces, which wouldn't go very far at trial.

So again, this is my theory. But because their evidence was thin, I think law enforcement and prosecutors needed a confession. They needed to put pressure on Ibragim to get him to crack. And in fact, a law enforcement official told The New York Times that to get Ibragim to talk about the triple murders, investigators, quote, "made him believe he's done, and the only way he could help himself is confess and lay out the details of what had happened."

But then the officials said that Ibragim flipped out. Which brings up the question, was the FBI shooting of Ibragim justified?

John Allan

If Ibragim became irate and aggressive and attacked the guy, I can understand why he unloaded his weapon. Ibragim wasn't going to stop.

Susan Zalkind

This is John Allan again, the owner of the MMA gym Ibragim and Tamerlan went to. John trained Ibragim for his professional fights.

John Allan

I mean, unless there was a mortal wound that ended his life right there, trust me, I mean, he would break every bone in his body to headbutt somebody.

Susan Zalkind

John Allan, of course, wasn't in the room when Ibragim was shot. But he says Ibragim was a very good fighter and had a short fuse, and there were other times Ibragim snapped and got violent. There was the incident at the hookah bar where he beat up Youness, of course. But Ibragim also got arrested for beating a guy unconscious over a parking space at a mall in Florida, and for a road rage incident in Boston.

Certain stuff just set him off. John Allan remembers he had a weird thing about one particular swear word.

John Allan

You know, if somebody were to say mother expletive to him, he would lose it. I mean, he would lose it. He'd be ready to fight 17 people and not care if he would win or lose, or he would just lose it. Sometimes it wouldn't even be directed at him.

I tried to explain to him, like, listen, it's not a literal term in America. It's just a slang saying. It doesn't mean literally, you know? But there was definitely something going on with him and anger issues.

Susan Zalkind

According to the police report for Ibragim's road rage arrest, Ibragim was heard yelling at another driver, quote, "you say something about my mother, I will kill you."

Since the FBI report hasn't come out explaining what happened that night in Ibragim's apartment, I turn to David Boeri. He's a crime and courts reporter for Boston Public Radio Station WBUR. He's covered the FBI for 30 years and has reported on the night Ibragim Todashev was shot. I wanted to know what his law enforcement sources told him about that night. David says he talked to several law enforcement sources who heard or read accounts from the people in the room.

David Boeri

Inside his apartment-- it's a very small apartment. You've been there. You saw how small it was. There are three people from Boston.

Susan Zalkind

The three people were an FBI agent who'd come down from Boston and two Massachusetts state troopers. I have been in that apartment when I visited Tatiana. It's one square room with wall to wall carpeting and a lofted bed. It sits by the side of a swamp. The entire back side of the house is made of shuttered glass windows. There's air conditioning, but in the muggy Orlando weather, it's not enough.

David Boeri

Well, we also know from one of the people in that room, according to accounts of what he said, it was hot. It was very hot. He was sweating that night.

Susan Zalkind

David says they began questioning Ibragim about the Waltham murders. The interview started at 7:30.

David Boeri

In those rooms, if you've ever seen tapes of interrogations taking place-- and I have-- they are fraught with tension, accusation. They're pushing him. That's what interrogators do.

Push him. No, I don't believe that. No, I don't believe that. You're telling me this, that, whatever. It's churning up conflict and stress. And they are trained to deal in stress when they're doing interrogations to break down their suspect.

At some point close to midnight, according to the accounts of one of the people in that room, Todashev said, look, I was there, but I didn't do the murders.

Susan Zalkind

This, according to David's sources, was Ibragim's confession. If it's true, that means Ibragim was, at the very least, an accessory to murder. David says one of the state troopers went out of the room to make a phone call back to Massachusetts. The other two interviewers were left in the room with Ibragim as he was about to write down his confession. According to David's sources, the trooper in the room sent a text message to the FBI agent right next to him that Ibragim looked like he was going to go off.

David Boeri

And it is at that point that Todashev is said to have flipped the table and gone after the FBI agent. The trooper says he never saw a human move as fast as Todashev did. The trooper also says that Todashev picked up a pipe, that he came at the trooper, and that he would have smashed his skull with the pipe if the FBI agent hadn't shot him.

Todashev comes over the table. The FBI agent, recovering, fires three shots. Todashev went down to his knee and then got up. And then the second round of four bullets was fired by the FBI agent, and he went down and stayed down.

Susan Zalkind

From all the stories I've heard about Ibragim's temper, it seems very possible that he could have lunged or lashed out in a frustrating situation, and that an agent could have felt threatened by it. But I also want to point out that, from my reporting, it's perfectly possible Ibragim could have blown up at an agent in that situation even if he was completely innocent of the murders. His friend Khusen told TV reporters that the day of that final interview, Ibragim told him he was afraid agents were going to frame him for something.

Khusen Taramov

He felt. He had a bad feeling, because he felt like there was going to be setup. He felt like there was going to be setup, bad setup against him, you know what I mean?

Because he felt-- he told me, like, they're making up such a crazy stuff. I don't know why they're doing it. Why are they doing it? OK, I'm answering the questions, but they're still making up some connection, some crazy stuff. I don't know why they're doing it.

Susan Zalkind

Five hours of intense accusations for a murder he knew he didn't commit? That could make Ibragim explode too.

Ibrahim's wife told me that FBI agents told her that they had DNA evidence against Ibragim. But if that was the case, why didn't they arrest him? Did they not have enough evidence for an indictment?

I believe that the night of that final interview, any evidence they had against Ibragim was thin. I believe that because they didn't arrest him, and because many people told me that the FBI kept investigating Ibragim after he was dead. And yes, the FBI might have kept interviewing people even if they had tons of evidence already, but it almost seems like they were starting an investigation into Ibragim from scratch.

Employees at MMA gyms, Ibragim's former roommate, people who worked in the hookah bar plaza, people far from the murder, they all told me the FBI came around asking very basic questions about Ibragim after his death. Lawyers at CARE, the Council on American Islamic Relations, told me in the weeks after Ibragim was killed they were getting frantic calls from Ibragim's acquaintances around the country saying the FBI was trying to talk to them.

When the FBI did manage to get Ashur into an interview room four months later, this guy who'd never been to Boston, who'd only known him Ibragim for a year, they grilled him for hours about Ibragim and the Waltham murders, murders that, allegedly, Ibragim had already confessed to being involved in.

One reasonable explanation for all these interviews, and for the FBI and Massachusetts investigators to keep the murder case open, is that they think maybe there are other accomplices out there. But I believe there's still a lot about this case they don't know. We may never find out who killed those three men, or why they were killed. If Ibragim were still alive, we may have had a better chance to get to the bottom of this. But instead, the FBI and the Massachusetts State Police decided to interrogate a trained fighter with a hair trigger temper in his own overheated apartment for five hours.

Ira Glass

Susan Zalkind. She reported a version of this story for Boston magazine this month. A link to that story, which has some interesting details and people that we could not fit into an hour long program, is at our website, thisamericanlife.org, or just Google your way to Boston magazine's website.

[MUSIC - MICHAEL BRETT, "I'M TAKING ALL MY SECRETS TO THE GRAVE"]

Well, our program was produced today by Brian Reed and our senior producer, Julie Snyder, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Sarah Koenig, [INAUDIBLE], Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager.

Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Allison Davis. Research help today from Michelle Harris. Music help from Damien Grey, from Rob Gettis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder Torey Malatia. You know, I learned this really weird thing about his mother. Oh, wait, what? What's that, Torey?

Susan Zalkind

You say something about my mother, I will kill you.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - MICHAEL BRETT, "I'M TAKING ALL MY SECRETS TO THE GRAVE"]

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.