The Grisly Murder That Could Save Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Jan 27, 2015 at 7:28 AM ET

People accused of carrying out terrorist attacks don’t usually make it to courtroom. They either die in the aftermath of their attacks or they just plead guilty. Or, if it’s an international case, they’re held in an overseas prison and likely never heard from again.

That’s why when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev goes on trial for bombing the 2013 Boston Marathon, murdering four people and injuring 260 others, a lot of people are going to be paying attention.

The bombing was the worst attack on American soil since 9/11, and the trial is expected to be very emotional. Once the jurors are selected, they will learn more about Tsarnaev’s life leading up to the attack, including his potentially extremist religious beliefs and tumultuous family dynamic. They’re also likely to hear testimonials from bombing victims and see graphic images of dead bodies and severed limbs at the marathon finish line. For better or worse, Bostonians will have to relive the bombing attacks in the courtroom.

But the bombing isn’t the only grisly murder that will get an airing during Tsarnaev’s trial. On the evening of Sept. 11, 2011, on the second-floor apartment of a dead-end street in the Boston suburb of Waltham, three men were nearly beheaded. The triple homicide has cast a shadow over the bombing ever since the Tsarnaev brothers were identified as suspects in 2013 attack—and it may be Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s greatest hope for escaping the death penalty.

If the government has a video of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placing a bomb at the Boston Marathon finish line, as the indictment claims, it probably won’t take a jury long to find him guilty. Barring an astounding turn of events, the real question leading up to this trial is whether the 21-year-old Tsarnaev will be sentenced to death.

To save his life, his lawyers will have to make him somehow seem less culpable. They don’t have much to work with. His most prominent attorney, Judy Clarke, is known for striking pre-trial plea deals, but she hasn’t managed to pull that off this time. Clarke’s other favorite legal tactic—drumming up sympathy for her client’s deep-seated mental issues—isn’t an obvious route for Tsarnaev. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about him is how well-adjusted he once appeared.

Instead, Clarke is building a kind of Svengali defense. Tsarnaev’s alleged co-conspirator is his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a former boxing champion who was vocal about his radical religious beliefs and who collected articles on hypnosis. Tamerlan, who died during a shootout with police four days after the bombing, was seven years older than Dzhokhar, and in many ways acted more like a father than a brother to him. When they were younger, he would make Dzhokhar do pushups, and later he would make him read the Quran and pray. According to court documents, Tsarnaev’s attorneys are preparing to argue that “Dzhokhar experienced his older brother as an all-powerful force who could not be ignored or disobeyed.”

And to make that argument stick, his attorneys are going to want to talk about the Waltham murders.

The triple slaying is as brutal as it is mysterious. Three local marijuana dealers, Erik Weissman, 33, Raphael Teken, 37, and Brendan Mess, 25, were hacked to death in Mess’ apartment. They were found later, lying stomach-down in neat pools of their own blood. After slicing their throats open, the killers turned their heads to one side, and then like some kind of sick joke, dumped a pound and half of hydroponic marijuana on two of the bodies and left $5,000 in cash and 8.5 pounds of marijuana in plastic bags and glass jars at the crime scene.

Weissman’s face was left clean, untouched. Teken had a bloody lip. But Mess, who was trained in jujitsu, had real fighting wounds. There were puncture marks on his temple, the top of his head, and his ear. He was bruised around the lips, and there were scratch marks down his arms.

Before the killers left the apartment, they likely lit incense. The room still reeked of it the following afternoon when Mess’ girlfriend opened the door to horrific scene. Years later, the smell would still make her feel sick.

Investigators in the Waltham murders let the case go cold within a couple of weeks, and it remained unsolved for two years. But about a month after two homemade bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line, the case gained new life: Law enforcement sources leaked the story that Ibragim Todashev, one of Tamerlan’s friends, confessed that he and Tamerlan were the killers in the Waltham murders. Tamerlan was close friends with Mess, and they regularly sparred at the gym.

During a five-hour interview in his Orlando, Florida, apartment, Todashev reportedly told a Boston FBI agent and two Massachusetts state troopers that “he did not know the victims would be killed.” He also reportedly revealed that the motive was to “rob the victims of 40K in drug monies,” an independent investigation by a Florida prosecutor concluded.

According to the officers in the room, Todashev was midway through writing down his confession when he attacked the FBI agent with a coffee table and charged a state trooper with a broomstick. Boston-based FBI agent Aaron McFarlane shot him seven times, in two bursts, including three times in the back and once on top of the head. Both the Department of Justice and the independent Florida investigation ruled that the agent had fired his gun in self-defense.

Dzhokhar’s defense hinges on Tamerlan’s alleged involvement in the Waltham killings. “How Tamerlan induced Todashev to participate in this very serious crime may shed light on the process by which he allegedly drew his younger brother into violence,” the defense wrote in a recent pretrial motion.

Dzhokhar’s defense attorneys aren’t the only ones who want to rehash the Waltham case. Family members of the victims are also desperate for new information. After the bombing, when reports in the media tied Tamerlan to her brother’s case, people congratulated Aria Weissman, Erik Weissman’s younger sister. “Even friends of the family said, ‘Oh, you must be so relieved, now there is closure.’ But really to the families, there is no closure. No one has given us actual real official answers on anything,” says Weissman, a 28-year-old social worker with long black hair and dimples.

The problem for Dzhokhar—and thus for Aria Weissman—is that prosecutors in the Boston Marathon bombing trial don’t want the defense to relive the Waltham murders. Their end goal is a guilty verdict and Dzhokhar’s death, and they won’t aid his defense any more than they have to. So far, prosecutors have successfully blocked the defense from getting access to details of the murder and shooting investigation.

Meanwhile, more than a year after the Department of Justice cleared the FBI agent of any wrongdoing, lawyers assigned to the U.S. Attorney’s office are casting doubt on Todashev’s confession. Other than Todashev’s word, said prosecutor William Weinreb in a pretrial hearing, the government doesn’t have any evidence linking Tamerlan or Todashev to the triple homicide. “We have no idea if Todashev was telling the truth when he said he participated. We have no idea if he was telling the truth when he said Tamerlan participated.”

I’ve been watching the Waltham case closely. Erik Weissman, one of the men killed that evening, was actually a friend of mine. We met when I was a teenager, and we used to drive around sharing music and stories, and getting stoned. When he was arrested for a drug charge a few months before he died, my father, Norman Zalkind, a criminal defense attorney, represented him.

When Weissman was murdered, I was terrified but trusted that police were doing everything they could to solve it. When his homicide was linked to the Boston Marathon bombings, I realized the police had not been aggressively trying to solve the case. I’ve spent close to two years investigating the triple homicide and Todashev’s shooting in Florida. I’ve talked with dozens of people, scoured court documents and traveled to Florida more than once.

Weinreb’s claim that the federal government doesn’t have any other evidence tying Tamerlan or Todashev to the crimes is huge. It’s the first time someone involved with the case has suggested that maybe Tamerlan and Todashev didn’t kill the three men in Waltham after all, and that the real killers may still be out there.

There is no way for law enforcement—on the state or the federal level—to escape the murders and the FBI shooting with their reputations unscathed. If you believe the FBI’s narrative that Tamerlan and Todashev carried out the triple homicide in Waltham, then you also have to believe that had local police solved the murders earlier, the Boston Marathon bombing may never have happened. By the same token, if Todashev wasn’t involved in the Waltham murders, it also doesn’t look very good for law enforcement because they coerced a bogus confession out of him.

Indeed, one significant detail in the confession—the question of whether the victims’ wrists were bound when they were discovered—doesn’t match an eyewitness’ account of the scene of the crime.

Todashev was no angel: He had an insane temper and a criminal record to prove it. But it’s not that far-fetched to think that investigators, eager to close the Waltham case with the new scrutiny on the Boston bombing, might have inadvertently pushed Todashev to the point where he copped to something he didn’t do. They had been questioning him regularly for a month and openly following him around in cars. And up to the point where he confessed—in the fourth hour of a five-hour interrogation—investigators had no additional evidence linking him to the Waltham murders.

According to one study, investigators often induce false confessions by claiming they already have DNA evidence linking the suspect to the crime, even if they don’t. I don’t know if investigators used that tactic during the Todashev interrogation, but I do know that agents said exactly that when they were trying to get more information from his wife, Reni Manukyan, after he had died. After listening to Weinreb, the prosecutor in Dzhokhar’s trial, at his November pretrial hearing, we now know that FBI agents were not telling Todashev’s wife the truth.

The root of the problems with the case may rest with the district attorney’s office and the local police first assigned to it. Even though the killings were the most gruesome crime in Waltham’s remembered history, local police didn’t make the case a priority. Eleven days after the killings, state troopers told Weissman and her mother they were waiting for a lead to shake loose from a plea deal somewhere down the line, essentially letting the case go cold. Police never questioned Tamerlan, even though several people say they gave police his name in a list of Mess’ friends. They never visited the gym where Mess and Tamerlan practiced regularly either. Neither the state police working on the case nor the Waltham police have commented on the investigation.

Weirdly, even if law enforcement did bungle the investigation, that may not even matter to Dzhokhar’s defense: The defense doesn’t have to prove that Tamerlan slit three people’s throats—only that Dzhokhar believed he did.

Needless to say, to Weissman, the facts of the Waltham murder case matter a lot. Sometimes, she says, she thinks she’s alone in that conviction. Last April, Weissman’s victims’ advocate at the DA’s office told her a prosecutor was planning to sit down with the families and provide some answers soon. Ten months later, Weissman is still waiting for that meeting. A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office did not respond to several calls asking for comment.

When I ask Aria what she thinks about her brother’s case being used as legal tool to save Dzhokhar’s life, she tells me she doesn’t believe in the death penalty. “So I’m not against that idea,” she says.

“It just seems a little funny that if Tamerlan took part in killing my brother that Erik might ultimately be the one who saves his brother’s life.”