On April 19, 2013, cellphone, Skype, and computer records led federal agents to storm a New Bedford apartment where they believed — erroneously as it turned out — Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might be hiding with two of his close friends, according to an FBI agent Tuesday.
The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth student would turn out to be on the run and ultimately hiding on a boat in Watertown. Yet the testimony from John Walker, part of a pretrial hearing in a federal case against three of Tsarnaev’s friends, highlights the panic and uncertainty that reigned while Tsarnaev was missing.
Walker said he believed when officers first arrived that day that the two friends who rented the apartment, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, could be coconspirators in the bombing who might be planning more violence, as well as “harboring a fugitive.”
He said among the information that drew officers to the address was the fact that Tsarnaev’s name led to an AT&T family cellphone plan that covered his older brother, Tamerlan, as well as Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, two of his University of Massachusetts Dartmouth friends from Kazakhstan.
In the days just after the April 15 bombing, but before the manhunt, Tsarnaev also made several Skype calls using one of the Kazakhstan friend’s accounts.
Kadyrbayev, Tazhayakov, and Robel Phillipos, who knew the younger Tsarnaev at both UMass Dartmouth and in Cambridge, are facing charges that they misled investigators after the Marathon bombings, which killed three and injured more than 260. Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, also allegedly shot and killed MIT police Officer Sean Collier on the night of April 18, triggering a firefight and daylong manhunt in Watertown. Tamerlan was killed during the firefight, while Dzhokhar is now facing the death penalty in the bombings.
Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev have pleaded not guilty to charges that they obstructed justice by allegedly removing a backpack containing fireworks and a laptop from Tsarnaev’s UMass Dartmouth dorm room several days after the attacks. They are being held without bail, and each faces a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.
Phillipos is charged with lying to investigators who questioned him about his whereabouts the night of April 18, when he was with Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev. He has also pleaded not guilty but is free on bail. He faces a maximum of eight years in prison if convicted.
The FBI agent’s testimony comes as part of a weeklong pretrial hearing about whether he and other law enforcement officers coerced or acted illegally in obtaining statements from Tsarnaev’s friends. Prior to the start of the hearing, the judge rejected motions to dismiss the indictment. He also set separate trial dates for each of the three defendants, the first starting at the end of next month.
All three friends have argued in written affidavits that some of their past statements or evidence should be suppressed because of improper actions by law enforcement. However, Phillipos and Tazhayakov would not accept the judge’s demand that they take the stand to back up their written affidavits. The judge set that as a condition for each defendant if he wanted a hearing on whether to suppress evidence prior to trial.
Kadyrbayev is the only one of the three defendants who agreed to testify. While he stands to benefit from having the judge possibly throw out statements or evidence against him, he also risks saying something in court that can be used against him in his trial.
In court papers, Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev, natives of Kazakhstan in the United States on student visas, have contended they were unfamiliar with American law and had weak English skills. Phillipos has said he was incapacitated after smoking marijuana on the night of April 18. Prosecutors allege that the trio knew Tsarnaev was in trouble when his photo was broadcast by the FBI around 5 p.m. on April 18.
In defending his actions during the investigation, Walker, the FBI agent, acknowledged he did not seek a search warrant before entering the New Bedford apartment on April 19, but said there was not enough time given the crisis situation. He testified that he did get written approval from Kadyrbayev for one of the later searches.
He also insisted that he was polite with the two Kazakhstan young men, and never swore at them at any time, saying that swearing “is the mark of an uneducated person.”
He said he was sometimes “stern” and “direct” with them, and at one time urged them to cooperate because “this is the biggest thing to happen in Massachusetts.”
He also suggested to the two men from Kazakhstan that they should not remain loyal to Tsarnaev.
“His life is over. Your life doesn’t have to be over,” he said, recalling his words to them.
The judge also refused to move the trials out of Massachusetts or even out of Boston, telling the defense lawyers he believed the key to a fair trial for the three men is not where the jurors live, but who is finally selected.