Episode 26: The Waltham Triple Murders

 

When three men were found with their throats cut in a quiet residence in Massachusetts, police thought they were dealing with a drug deal gone wrong. It was only when tragedy struck at the Boston marathon that they realised they might be dealing with something far more sinister.This is the Case Remains podcast episode 26: The Waltham Triple Murders.

 

Waltham, Massachusetts, was first settled back in the 1630s, and is known by some as the home of the Industrial Revolution. Over the next couple of centuries, manufacturers popped up all over the Waltham, including the Boston Manufacturing Company and the Waltham Watch Company, earning it the nickname, Watch City.  

 

Today, it’s a hub for scientific research and higher education, home to no less than four universities. It has a rich culture, with a long list of museums, historical archives and concert venues, and a number of green spaces where its 60,000 residents enjoy the great outdoors. In 2011, it was also the setting of a gruesome triple murder.

 

The date was September 11th, 2011, a balmy Sunday in Waltham and the anniversary of the terrorist attacks that had shattered New York 10 years before. 25-year old Brendan Mess was at home in his second floor apartment on Harding Avenue, a dead end residential street where most days were markedly uneventful.

 

Brendan was a 2008 graduate of Champlain College, where he earned a degree in professional writing. He was trained in jiu jitsu, and known for his accomplishments in the martial arts. He shared the apartment with his girlfriend, Hiba, and his brother, Dylan, and supported himself by selling marijuana. Neighbours described the roommates as nice and police, while their landlord said they were the best tenants he’d ever had - a welcome change from previous residents who had often held loud parties late into the night. 

 

That weekend, Brendan was reeling from a violent altercation he and Hiba had the week before. After he refused to speak to guests that she had brought to their apartment, Hiba had allegedly thrown beer bottles and knives at him before travelling out of state. At that time, Brendan’s friend Erik Weissman had also been staying at the apartment on Harding Avenue. 31-year-old Erik was a history graduate and avid sports fan who shared Brendan’s enthusiasm for weed.

 

Erik was a partner in Hitman Glass, a business that manufactured bongs, which were sold at local stores. In January of 2011, after his landlord had seen his stash and alerted the authorities, police had raided Erik’s apartment, where they found more than $21,000 dollars in cash, drug paraphernalia, and drugs including marijuana, hash, Oxycontin and cocaine. It wasn’t Erik’s first brush with the law. Prior to that, in 2008, Weissman had been charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Ever since his January arrest, Erik had been couch surfing, storing his belongings at Brendan’s apartment and staying there most nights. That day, he’d gone out for dinner with his younger sister Aria before heading over to Brendan’s. He had been staying elsewhere for a few days so that Brendan and Hiba could sort out their issues, but with Hiba now down in Florida, he decided to return to Brendan’s at around 7:30 pm. 

 

That night, Brendan had invited another friend over - 37-year-old Rafael, or Rafi, Teken. Rafi was the son of an assistant rabbi in Newton, and like Erik, was a devout Jew. He had graduated from a prestigious college back in 1998 and at that time was working as a personal trainer, although neighbours suspected that he may have also been dealing drugs on the side. He rarely left his house, they said, though he had a steady stream of visitors. Nevertheless, he was well-liked, described by friends and family as a good guy who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.

 

Brendan, Erik and Rafi didn’t have any grand plans that night, and the three settled in to watch the Dallas Cowboys take on the New York Jets, order some pizza and smoke some pot.

 

The following day, Hiba returned to Waltham with the hopes of rekindling her and Brendan’s relationship, heading over to the apartment at about 2:30 pm. But when she opened the door, she found a sight that she would never forget. Brendan, Erik and Raphael were laying face down in different rooms of the apartment, heads turned slightly to the right. Their torsos covered in marijuana, and the home soaked with their blood. The three men’s throats had been cut with such force that they had nearly been decapitated.

 

Hiba ran from the apartment, where neighbours heard her desperate wails from outside. Brendan’s landlord Charles Paquette, who also lived in the building, called police who swiftly arrived at the scene. An investigating officer would later call it "the worst bloodbath he have ever seen in a long law enforcement career". As eager journalists and crowds of shaken residents gathered outside the home, the police set to work to try and figure out what had happened.

 

They were able to narrow down the time of the murders from accounts of friends and family, whose texts had gone unanswered shortly after 8 pm. The timing was confirmed by the manager at the nearby Watertown restaurant Gerry’s Italian Kitchen, who said that they had received an order from the address earlier that evening, but when the driver had turned up at around 8:30, no one answered the door. 

 

Next, police had to consider how three fit, active men, one of whom was an expert in martial arts, could have been overpowered in such a devastating way. And it certainly seemed that Brendan had put up a fight. While Rafi suffered no wounds aside from the fatal cut, and Erik had a bloody lip, Brendan was covered in scratch marks and puncture wounds to his arms, face and head. There was no sign of forced entry to the apartment, suggesting that whoever had done this was someone known to Brendan, Erik or Rafi. And police were convinced that it was more than one person. So why would anyone want to kill the men in such a horrifying way?

 

Robbery certainly didn’t seem to be the motive. As well as 8.5 lbs of weed found in the home, $5,000 in cash had been left behind. It started to look like maybe their involvement with drugs had finally caught up with them. Their extra-curricular activities were far from a secret, and according to friends, Erik and Brendan had been selling marijuana for years without incident. They could recall only one occasion where their associates had resorted to violence, dealing Mess a savage beating when he came up short on payment to his supplier. But thanks to the lack of clues and the circumstances surrounding the murder, the authorities came to the conclusion that it might have been a professional job.

 

Only days after the men were killed, police told Erik’s mother Bellie that they weren’t actively pursuing any leads, hoping instead that someone looking for a plea deal might come forward and tell them who was responsible. In the months that followed, the Waltham triple murders slowly vanished from the public eye, the investigation dwindling down to a halt. For many, the killings were dismissed as little more than a cautionary tale of three low-level drug dealers who pissed off the wrong people. It wasn’t until a year and a half later, when two homemade bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, that police finally began to suspect who may have been responsible. 

 

April 15th, 2013, was the date of the race - the third Monday of the month, just like every year. At half past 9 in the morning, the first of its 23,000 participants started running, and over the next few hours they slowly began to cross the finish line. Spirits were high, and the streets were crammed with supporters cheering the racers on. None of them could have ever expected what was about to happen. 

 

At 2:49 pm, the first bomb exploded outside a sports shop near the finish line. Seconds later, less than 200 metres away, a second bomb was detonated. Hundreds of lives forever changed, all in the blink of an eye.

 

Three people were killed in the blasts. Martin Richard, aged 8, had just got some ice cream when he returned to his spot at the sidelines with his parents and two siblings. Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old graduate student, had been watching the marathon with friends. Restaurant manager Krystal Campbell was one month shy of her 30th birthday when she was killed. She attended the marathon every year.

 

In addition to the three fatalities, 264 people were injured in the bombings, including 17 people who underwent amputations as a result of their wounds. As the world mourned for Boston, the hunt for the culprits was well underway.

 

It was just a few days before the FBI released a video of the two men they suspected of being behind the attack. Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the bombings, was able to give a clear description from his hospital bed of a man placing a backpack on the ground minutes before the explosion. Officials were able locate the man in video footage, as well as another who was also seen carrying a backpack. Other footage showed them both walking slowly away while the crowd fled in terror. 

 

A few hours after photos of them were released, Chechen Kyrgyzstani-American brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, went to their family apartment in Cambridge and collected five IEDs, a machete, a semiautomatic handgun and ammunition. 25 minutes later, they had ambushed MIT police officer Sean Collier from behind and shot him six times at close range as he sat in his patrol car. They attempted to take his weapon from him, but were unable to thanks to the holster’s retention system. 

 

Next, the pair travelled to a gas station in the Allston-Brighton neighbourhood of Boston, where they pointed a gun at a man named Dun Meng as he was sat in his Mercedes. Tamerlan asked him if he knew the Boston Marathon explosions. When Dun said yes, he asked if he knew who had done it. Tamerlan said “I did it, and I just killed a policeman in Cambridge”. 

 

Tamerlan  took control of Dun’s car and took him on a 90 minute ride around town, with Dzhokhar following behind and eventually joining them in the car. They forced Dun to withdraw $800 dollars in cash. When they stopped at a gas station, Dun took his chance and ran inside to the cashier asking the clerk to call the police. Critically, Dun had left his mobile phone inside the car, allowing police to determine the location of the vehicle. 

 

The Tsarnaev brothers took off in the Honda that Dzhokar had been following in. But shortly after midnight, they were spotted by police officer Joseph Reynolds. Reynolds followed the car while waiting for backup to arrive when suddenly, the vehicle stopped. 

 

The Tsarnaev’s began to shoot at Officer Reynolds while nearby police officers rushed to the scene. Along with their guns, the brothers also had a pressure cooker bomb just like the ones they had used at the marathon. They threw this, along with five crude grenades at the police, all within a matter of minutes.

 

Tamerlan eventually ran out of ammunition and, seeing their chance, two police officers tackled him to the ground. As they were trying to get Tamerlan in handcuffs, Dzhokhar drove the car towards them. The officers tried in vain to drag Tamerlan out of its path, but there simply wasn’t enough time. He was dragged a short down the street where Dzhokhar ditched the vehicle and fled on foot. Tamerlan was later pronounced dead at a hospital in Boston. During the shootout, hundreds of shots were fired and a number of police officers were injured, including Dennis, D.J. Simmons who was struck by one of the brothers grenades. He suffered a head injury, which eventually led to his death a year later in April of 2014.

 

With Tamerlan now out of the picture, the hunt was on for his younger brother Dzhokhar. Automated calls were issued to residents of Watertown warning them to stay indoors as officers cordoned off 20 blocks of the city. .Public transport was shut down and the nearby airports were placed on high alert, while schools, businesses and universities were closed. Helicopters scoured the area and SWAT teams in armoured vehicles made their way through the area. The search for Dzhokhar was the first major use of the interagency test forces that were put together after 9/11. Involving five different agencies and numerous police departments, there were thousands of heavily armed officers and military personnel combing the streets of Boston. Though in the end, it wasn’t one of them who spotted Dzhokhar, but a 66-year-old resident who just so happened to step out for some fresh air.

 

Watertown resident David Henneberry had gone into his back garden, where his boat was parked, when he noticed that the tarp had come loose. On closer inspection, he realised that there was someone inside, lying in a pool of blood. David alerted the police who surrounded the boat, while a helicopter with a thermal imaging device confirmed that there was someone inside. As the person began to move the tarp, police opened fire. 

 

Believing that Dzhokhar was shooting back at them, police fired a barrage of bullets at the boat over the next 30 minutes. At 8:42 pm on April 19th, Dzhokar was arrested, and the people of Boston celebrated as the terrifying events of the past few days were finally brought to a close. 

 

Dzhokar was taken to hospital to be treated for critical injuries to his head, neck, legs and hand. After he had recovered from a tracheotomy and was able to talk again, he shed some light on the motivation behind his and Tamerlan’s despicable crimes. He said that he and his brother wanted to defend Islam from the US, although they were not connected to any terrorist groups and had taught themselves to make bombs from the internet. It was later revealed that Dzhokhar had left a note in the boat that he had been found in, scrawled on the interior wall of the cabin. Part of the note, which was peppered with bullet holes, read “The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that. As a M (bullet hole) I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all …”. The bombings were retribution for US military action in Afghanistan, the victims, according to him, merely collatoral damage.

 

An investigation into the Tsarnaev brother’s movements prior to the marathon showed that their plan had been in motion for quite some time. 

 

Dzhokhar had downloaded a number of books by al Qaeda propagandists that advocated violence against so-called enemies of Islam. An al Qaeda magazine he downloaded included instructions on how to make bombs out of household items like pipes, pressure cookers and explosive powder from fireworks. 

 

In February of 2013, two months before the marathon, Tamerlan bought two lock and load reloadable mortar kits at a firework shop in Seabrook. The kits contained a total of 48 shells filled with explosive powder. The vice president of the company that owns the shop, William Wiemer, said that the powder wouldn’t have been enough to create the kind of bombs that went off at the marathon. He suspected that the Tsarnaev brothers had experimented with it to see if they could use it.

 

The following month, both brothers visited a gun range in New Hampshire. They spent an hour there, where they rented a Glock 17 and Glock 34 and purchased 4 boxes of 9 mm ammunition.

 

The day before the bombings, on April 14th, Tamerlan received electrial parts that he had ordered online to make the IEDs. Meanwhile, Dzhokhar opened a pre-paid mobile phone account using the name "Jahar Tsarni."

 

While he admitted to his part in the Boston marathon bombings, Dzhokhar painted his brother as the driving force behind their plan. As far as Dzhokhar’s friends were concerned, he didn’t seem like someone who would have masterminded such a violent act of terrorism. Chris Barry, a friend from college, described him as a ‘normal pothead’ who never even brought up his religion. In fact, he said, he seemed like he couldn't care less. 

 

After pleading not guilty to the use of a weapon of mass destruction and murder as well as numerous other charges, Dzhokhar went to trial on March 4th, 2015. In the trial’s opening statements, his defence attorney Judy Clark continued to push the narrative that Dzhokhar was acting under Tamerlan’s influence. He came to his role in the bombings, she said, through ‘a path born of his brother,  created by his brother and paid by his brother. 

 

The trial went on for just over a month, during which time dozens of the bombing survivors gave witness statements Finally, on the 8th of April 2015, Dzhokhar was found guilty on all 30 counts, and one month later he was sentenced to death.

 

You may be wondering what all this has to do with the murders of Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman and Rafel Tekken. But there was one thing tying the murders to the Boston marathon bombings. Or should I say, one person.

 

Friends and family said that during the investigation of the Waltham triple murders, they had willingly given the names of various people who had spent time at Brendan’s apartment. One of those names was Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

 

Tamerlan and Brendan knew each other through the local mixed martial arts gym, Wai Ku, where they often trained together. Tamerlan was a golden-gloves heavyweight boxer and was helping train Brendan in the sport. In return, Brendan taught Tamerlan mixed martial arts. The two men lived just a few blocks away from each other and the police believe that Brendan sometimes crashed at Tamerlan’s apartment.Some reports even called them ‘best friends’. Which is why it was even more suspicious that Tamerlan didn’t turn up at Brendan’s well-attended funeral or memorial service. John Allan, the owner of the gym, also remembered Tamerlan’s strange reaction when he went over to offer his condolences. “As I said something, there was kind of a smile on Tamerlan’s face, and he laughed it off,”, he said.

 

Several friends had already mentioned Tamerlan’s name to the police, and after he was  a no-show at the memorial they did so again. But now, with the media spotlight back on the case, it was revealed that the police had never even questioned him at the time of the triple murders. Nor had they paid a visit to the gym where Tamerlan and Brendan frequented. But if the two men were such good friends, then why would Tamerlan want to kill him?

 

Tamerlan had become increasingly radical in his views over the year or so before the murders, posting radical jihadist YouTube videos and interupting sermons at local mosques.

 

Some suspected that Tamerlan disapproved of Brendan’s lifestyle. Others thought that perhaps Brendan had sold weed to Dzhokhar, and that he was upset at his apparent corruption of his younger brother. Speculation aside, if Tamerlan was involved then no solid motivation has been found.

 

The press discovered the link between Tamerlan and Brendan just a few days after the Boston marathon bombings, and so police began to reassess their investigation of the Waltham triple murder. Naturally, the public began to wonder whether police had dismissed the killings as a drug dispute too soon. And that maybe, had they looked just a little bit harder, Tamerlan Tsarnaev would have been behind bars, the Boston Marathon of 2013 passing without incident. This belief was further fuelled when it was revealed that Tamerlan’s name had been entered into two different United States government watch lists in late 2011 - the same year of the Waltham killings.

 

It was following these revelations about Tamerlan that police began to talk to a man named Ibragim Todashev. Chechnyan-born Ibragim had arrived in Boston in 2008 on a student visa and was granted asylum shortly after. A keen boxer and MMA fighter, he visited the Wai Ku gym, where John Allan introduced him to Tamerlan Tsarnaev. By the time of the Boston marathon bombings, Ibragim had moved to Florida, where he lived with his girlfriend. After the attacks, the FBI had questioned him, asking him where he had been at the time of the bombings and about his relationship with Tamerlan. They left with Ibragim, confiscating his phone and computers, but he returned home later that day. According to his girlfriend, the FBI visited their home and called Ibragim on numerous occasions after that. She and Ibragim also believed that they were being followed. 

 

Ibragim had been hanging out with friends on May 21st of 2013 when he received a call from the FBI saying they wanted to speak to him one last time. He agreed, and headed back to his apartment, where he was met by officials from the Massachusetts State Police and the F.B.I. According to a friend, Khusen Tamarov, Ibragum was suspicious that they were trying to set him up and asked Khusen to come along. He also gave Khusen his family’s phone number back in Chechnya, and told him the location of some money he had in his apartment. One of the officers asked to speak to Khusen outside while the three others went inside with Ibragim.

 

The interrogation that followed lasted more than 5 hours. Khusen waited outside for 4 of them before being asked to leave, told that when they were done, the agents would drop Ibragim off at a spot where the friends used to hang out. But before the evening was through, Ibragim would be dead. And according to the officers present, he was in the middle of penning a written confession to the Waltham triple murders, which he had allegedly carried out with Tamerlan.

 

Reports of the incident vary depending on who is telling it. The official report, however, goes as follows: 

 

As Todashev began to write a statement detailing his role in the murder, he suddenly struck the FBI Agent (Aaron McFarlane) with the coffee table he was writing on and ran to the kitchen area. The Agent, who sustained a serious head wound, drew his handgun. Todashev ignored commands to show his hands, armed himself with an approximately five-foot long, hollow, metal utility pole, and charged back toward the Assisting Trooper and the Agent. Other available evidence is consistent with the eye-witness law enforcement officers’ accounts that, fearing that Todashev intended to seriously injure or kill someone, the Agent fired two volleys, striking Todashev with seven shots causing Todashev’s death.

 

Though this report details a five foot metal pole as Ibragim’s weapon of choice, other reports talked about a length of pipe, broomstick or even a knife, while others say he was unarmed. It’s not clear why several law enforcement officials were unable to subdue Ibragim by any other means. But whatever had happened that evening, Ibragim Todashev was gone, and with him the chance of finding out what really happened on that September evening in Waltham in 2011. 

 

While the officers conflicting reports raised some suspicion, there was evidence that Ibragim was something of a hothead. He had previously been arrested on two separate occasions, once for an altercation following a traffic incident, the second time for hospitalising someone after a fight over a parking space. 

 

But why did he suddenly attack McFarlane as he sat down to write a confession? The report details Ibragim’s increased agitation after he verbally confessed to his part in the killings, which the report states one of the troopers had recorded. One of them even sent a text message to the other officers that read: ““Be on guard. He is in a vulnerable position to do something bad. Be on guard now. I see him looking around.” So if Ibragim had confessed to murder and the officers were worried for their safety, why hadn’t they simply arrested him and placed him in handcuffs? Whatever did happen that night, all we have to go on is their word. Once Ibragim sat down to write his confession, the assisting trooper stopped recording.

 

Nevertheless, investigations by the Department of Justice and a senior Florida prosecutor agreed that McFarlane had acted in self defence when he shot Ibragim 7 times. The investigations, however, made no mention of McFarlane’s controversial past. 

 

Prior to joining the FBI, McFarlane had been with the Oakland police department in California for four years. During that time, he was named with another officer in two lawsuits alleging brutality, faced four internal affairs investigations and was accused of falsifying reports. In 2004, After settling the lawsuits for 32.5 thousand dollars, McFarlane left the department on a pension of over 50 thousand dollars a year. Just 4 years later, he embarked on his new career as an FBI agent. 

 

In 2015, Ibragim’s family filed a 30 million dollar wrongful death suit against the FBI. Ibragim had recently undergone knee surgery at the time of his death, and was barely able to walk, let alone lunge at anyone. 

 

But in September of 2018, federal judge Carlos E. Mendoza dismissed the suit, ruling that McFarlane was lawfully protecting both him and Sgt. Curtis Cinelli when Ibragim charged them. In the report of his decision, Mendoza wrote that McFarlane “was not required to wait and see what Todashev might do next”. He also noted that there was insufficient evidence to support Ibragim’s family’s claims that the officers had subjected him to intimidation and physical threats, or that they had conspired with mcfarlane to cover up his death.  

 

Apart from Ibragim’s supposed confession, there has never been any confirmed evidence to link either him or Tamerlan to the crime. 

 

In 2013, ABC News reported that forensic evidence at the crime scene “provided a match to the two Tsarnaev brothers,” and that  records of cell phones used by the Tsarnaevs on the day of the killings appear “to put them in the area of the murders.” They said that authorities were waiting to complete “more definitive DNA testing,” before considering bringing an indictment against Dzhokhar, though in the 7 years since, no other charges have been brought against him. As for Tamerlan, the following year, an official report even stated ‘The government has no evidence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev participated in the Waltham Case’.

 

In 2014, one of Dzhokhar’s friends offered to testify that he had told him about Tamerlan’s involvement in the triple murder back in autumn of 2012. But there was a catch. The friend in question was facing jailtime for obstructing the investigation into the Boston bombings after removing a backpack, laptop, fireworks from Dzhokhar’s dorm room. He was found guilty and served 6 years in prison.

 

In 2015, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy told a radio host at WGBH that there were more people suspected in the Waltham murders. Who these suspects were or why they were being investigated was never made public and no arrests have ever been made. 

 

As Dzhokhar appeals his death sentence, more details of the Waltham killings may well come to light. In one recently unsealed document, it states that Ibragim confessed that he and Tamerlan had initially planned only to rob the men, with Tamerlan brandishing a gun to make his way inside. Apparently, he made the call that they should get rid of the witnesses, cleaning the crime scene for more than an hour. But, as with most other information in the case, it leaves unanswered questions behind. If Ibragim and Tamerlan had planned to rob the men, then why did they leave $5,000 behind?

 

Though some of the evidence is still under wraps, as it stands, the murders of Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman and Rafi Teken remain unsolved. For those that knew and loved them, it’s been a long road without justice.

 

Thank you for listening to episode 26 of the Case Remains podcast. I’d like to give a special thanks to journalist Susan Zalkind, whose work was instrumental in the making of this episode. I’ve left a link to Susan’s website in the show notes, where you can find links to all her work on the Waltham case and the Boston marathon bombings.

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