Part 2 of a WBUR investigation. Read Part 1 here.
BOSTON — While being questioned by a FBI agent and Massachusetts state troopers last May, an associate of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev is said to have implicated Tsarnaev in three gruesome murders committed two years before the bombing.
If the associate, Ibragim Todashev, made those statements, as the government says, and they were true, the previously unsolved murder case was solved. And it would raise questions about what other crimes Tsarnaev might have committed and how he had gone undetected.
But before the interrogation ended, the FBI agent shot Todashev dead in his Orlando, Fla., home. The FBI said its agent acted after Todashev began a “violent confrontation.”
In Part 1, WBUR reported on the run-up to the interrogation, the extraordinary five hours of questioning at Todashev’s home, and then its disastrous ending. In this Part 2, we report on what happened — and what hasn’t happened — after the shooting.
Hassan Shibly, a long-bearded young attorney and imam in a tie, stood outside a small vacant condo unit in Orlando. Palm trees, pines and a pond with a fountain framed the view.
“This is Ibragim Todashev’s home,” he said. “This is really where he was shot and killed.”
Shibly heads the Florida chapter of a civil rights group called the Council on American Islamic Relations, which represents Abdul-Baki Todashev, the father of Ibragim Todashev.
“If you look through this window right here we see the corridor where Ibragim Todashev bled to death,” he said as we squatted down to look through a low window that allows a view.
The Christmas lights were up next door when I visited Todashev’s home in December. Seven months had passed since the shooting and the arrival of the FBI’s Evidence Response Team.
The team came with a warrant to search the dead man’s rented condominium and they later filed a document listing all of the items they had seized during their search. Though the search warrant return, as it’s called, is under seal, sources familiar with it shared the contents with me. It listed seven gun shells, suggesting seven gunshots. Todashev had no gun.
The FBI’s Gun And Todashev’s Wounds
The firepower that hit him was devastating and in all likelihood deafening. Though the FBI won’t discuss the agent’s gun or any details of the shooting, the standard issue weapon for FBI agents is a Glock model 22. It’s a 40-caliber semi-automatic and it comes with standard-issue hollow-point bullets intended to mushroom upon impact and blow a larger hole through the body.
“In all likelihood he’s going to go down on the first shot, yes,” Tom Nolan, a policy expert on the use of force, said about the firepower. He chairs the criminal justice department at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and spent 27 years with the Boston Police Department, leaving with the rank of lieutenant.
I showed Nolan photographs of Todashev’s body taken after the Florida state medical examiner performed an autopsy and released the body to the funeral home and Todashev’s family. (Todashev’s father, who lives in Chechnya, recently sent those photos to President Obama in a letter calling for justice and accusing the FBI of murdering his son to keep him from testifying in court.)
“A center mass hit with a 40-caliber round is likely to be fatal,” Nolan said. “Police officers are trained to aim for center mass and it appears that was successfully accomplished and executed here.”
Shibly showed the photographs to forensic experts last year. He says they determined the following pattern and sequence: “As he’s falling down,” Shibly said, “the bullets are going diagonally up across his body, so first in the gut, then in the chest and heart area, then in the arm, then the final bullet as he’s falling down, in his head, thereby assuring his death.”
Which bullets struck first and where is a matter of conjecture, of course. And whether Todashev was actually shot in the head or the large wound at the top of head is where a bullet exited is presumably established by the autopsy conducted by the Florida state medical examiner. It’s been ready for release since July 8. But the medical examiner’s office says the FBI ordered that the autopsy be sealed.
As for the number of bullets fired — which raised eyebrows among some of the retired police officers with whom I spoke — Nolan said: “Officers are taught and trained to neutralize the threat and oftentimes that’s going to take more than one round being discharged to do so.”
At close range, Todashev may have been hit seven times altogether, creating 11 wounds. He was 5-foot-9 and weighed 153 pounds. It was deadly, overwhelming force. But we still have not been told what put that FBI agent in fear of his life.
Changing Descriptions Of Todashev’s Alleged Weapon
Following the shooting, the FBI said that Todashev initiated a “violent confrontation” and he was shot and killed. Its agent sustained “non-life threatening injuries,” the FBI said, and the matter was under review by an expert team. There would be no further details.
But there were further details, of course, from news various reports.
Citing unnamed law enforcement sources, news organizations including The New York Times provided widely divergent and changing descriptions of Todashev’s alleged weapon. References to a knife soon gave way to references to other culprits. And the weapon morphed into a samurai sword, a ceremonial sword, a pole, a pipe, a broom, a vase, the table Todashev was sitting at, then to Todashev himself — who some news outlets reported was unarmed but by virtue of being a mixed martial arts fighter might be seen as a weapon himself, lunging perhaps, as still another account reported, for the agent’s gun.
Whether the FBI was the source of these leaks or not, the fact there were so many conflicting accounts of the weapon created doubts, questions and accusations that the use of force was unjustified, or what police call “a bad shoot.” But the FBI said nothing on the record.
When a week later Todashev’s father in Moscow called the FBI “bandits” who “must be put on trial,” The New York Times cited “a senior law enforcement official” in a report that Todashev had run at the agent with “a metal pole” before being shot.
“They just murdered an unarmed person and now they’re coming out with lies and excuses,” Todashev’s 24-year-old widow, Reni Manukyan, told me from Volgograd, Russia. She had moved there after bringing Todashev’s body to Grozny, Chechnya, for burial.
In her skepticism, Manukyan was joined by editorialists who wondered how in the world the FBI could go to the home of someone they considered dangerous and not remove a samurai sword if it was in working order. But their ridicule and the family’s accusations have gone publicly unchallenged as the FBI maintains what’s almost eight months of silence.
From his experience as the former district attorney of Norfolk County, Massachusetts U.S. Rep. William Keating says this is what results when law enforcement agencies don’t act quickly to investigate police shootings.
“When the government is involved in the use of lethal force, one of the greatest priorities should be to get that information to the public as soon as possible,” he said.
Keating says the public has a right to know the nature of the confrontation, the weapon, if any, that Todashev used, and whether the shooting appears justifiable, even if it’s preliminary.
“You can certainly release the information surrounding that, I believe, without jeopardizing any ongoing investigation,” he added.
Police experts we consulted say shooting investigations should be completed in 60 to 90 days. In this case, there’s no report after 237 days.
Police expert Nolan said “it might indicate to the skeptical eye, and I’m skeptical here, that there’s something to hide. Because I think if the FBI were more forthcoming with information, that would assure the public that what went on with this individual was completely aboveboard, was warranted and justifiable under the circumstances. I would want to hear that. And we’re not hearing that.”
When asked to explain why the shooting incident review was taking so long, a FBI spokesman said the FBI “cannot comment regarding investigative details.” He said its shooting incident review team meets “approximately” four times a year “to review pending incidents before an official ruling is made.”
Note: From what I have seen and been told by several sources familiar with the search warrant returns, it appears that in the addition to one dated May 22, there was another, dated May 24, which lists that 76 items were taken from Todashev’s condominium by the FBI’s evidence team, including a ceremonial sword, a broomstick, a table, various kitchen knives and $4,000 found in a pocket of Todashev’s clothes.