It started out as just some friends hanging out in a college dorm room. Then came the freaking out.
Three days after the Boston Marathon bombing, three pals of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev met at his room at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, drawn there after seeing pictures of one of the suspects that resembled their classmate.
Tsarnaev, who spoke Russian like two of the friends, wasn’t present; his roommate had let them in. While watching a movie there that night, they noticed a backpack that had fireworks emptied of powder, according to a criminal complaint filed yesterday against the three in federal court in Boston.
One of the friends, Dias Kadyrbayev, “knew when he saw the empty fireworks that Tsarnaev was involved in the marathon bombing,” Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Scott Cieplik said in the complaint. Authorities hours earlier had released images of two suspects at the scene of the April 15 double bombing that killed three and wounded more than 260 spectators near the storied race’s crowded finish line.
Another friend, Robel Phillipos, said Kadyrbayev and a third man, Azamat Tazhayakov “started to freak out” when they realized from news reports that Tsarnaev was involved in the bombing, according to the complaint. Phillipos said he didn’t understand much of what the other two, who are from Kazakhstan, were saying because they were speaking in Russian.
Tazhayakov later recalled that a month before the bombing, while he was eating a meal with Tsarnaev and Kadyrbayev, Tsarnaev said he knew how to make a bomb, according to a footnote in the criminal complaint.
Kadyrbayev, facing a decision in the dorm room, removed the backpack “in order to help his friend Tsarnaev avoid trouble,” the U.S. said. He decided to take the laptop as well, “because he did not want Tsarnaev’s roommate to think he was stealing or behaving suspiciously by just taking the backpack,” according to the complaint.
Kadyrbayev, along with Tazhayakov and Phillipos, all 19- years-old, were arrested yesterday and charged with hindering the bombing probe. Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov are accused of obstructing justice by removing or throwing away evidence they found in Tsarnaev’s dorm room, while Phillipos is accused of lying to investigators about how the trio reacted to suspicions about their friend.
About the time they went to the dorm room, Tsarnaev received a text message from Kadyrbayev saying he looked like one of the suspects pictured in the news. Tsarnaev responded, “lol,” the U.S. says.
In the messages, sent about 8:45 p.m. on April 18, Tsarnaev told his friend “you better not text me” and suggested Kadyrbayev “come to my room and take whatever you want,” which the friend said he initially interpreted as a joke, the U.S. said.
With Tsarnaev’s belongings in hand, the three men returned to an apartment near campus shared by Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov and continued to watch news reports about the terrorist attack. They collectively decided to throw the backpack and fireworks in the trash, the U.S. said, citing Kadyrbayev’s version of events.
About 10 p.m. that night, Kadyrbayev placed the backpack in a black plastic bag and put it in a Dumpster near the apartment building, according to the complaint. While the two other men didn’t assist in the disposal, they knew it was happening, the U.S. said.
At 6 a.m. on April 19, the three men saw news reports identifying Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, as the bombers and announcing that the older man was killed during a shootout with police.
That day, investigators interviewed Tazhayakov.
Tazhayakov told investigators he became friends with Tsarnaev in 2011 and that the two became closer the next year when Tsarnaev starting spending more time at their apartment. Tsarnaev had dropped Tazhayakov off at the apartment around 4 p.m. on April 18, after they attended classes together.
The three men charged yesterday all agreed to voluntary detention. If convicted, they face as long as five years in prison for obstruction and eight years for false statements. Tsarnaev faces two capital counts, including using a weapon of mass destruction.
Robert Stahl, a lawyer for Kadyrbayev, and Tazhayakov’s attorney, Harlan Protass, said their clients will plead not guilty.
“As we’ve said from the very beginning, he assisted the FBI in this investigation,” Stahl said of Kadyrbayev outside the courtroom yesterday. “He was just as shocked by the violence in Boston as everyone else. He did not know this individual was involved with the bombing.”
Stahl said the laptop wasn’t discarded. The FBI now has the laptop, he said. The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on whether the laptop was recovered.
Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev, who live in New Bedford, are in the U.S. on student visas. They were arrested on April 20 on immigration violations, according to the complaint. Phillipos is a U.S. citizen who lives in Cambridge.
While Tazhayakov is enrolled at University of Massachusetts, he has been suspended pending resolution of the criminal case, the school said yesterday in a statement. Kadyrbayez and Phillipos aren’t currently enrolled, the school said.
“UMass Dartmouth will continue to fully cooperate with law enforcement authorities investigating the Boston Marathon tragedy,” the school said in the statement.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev met Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov on a smoke break last year on the first day of classes at the university, said Steven Silva, 20, who also met the three men that day and was a roommate of Phillipos. The three hit it off after they realized they all spoke Russian, said Silva, who has since transferred to the university’s Boston branch.
Silva said he was hanging out in the dorms with Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov on April 15, when Kadyrbayev’s girlfriend called with news of the bombing. He described them as “very surprised” when they heard the news.
Silva described Phillipos as a regular kid who didn’t go out or party. The “Terrorista #1” vanity license plates on a BMW automobile driven by Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov was given to them as a joke by two girls at school, Silva said.
Jennifer Rymszewicz, 38, of New Bedford, said she saw one of the two Kazakhs at about 8:30 a.m. on April 18 outside the students’ apartment on Carriage Street in New Bedford talking on a cellphone.
“He was outside. It was really cold, he had no shoes. He was wearing shorts. He was loud,” Rymszewicz said in an interview, adding that she didn’t know whether it was Kadyrbayev or Tazhayakov. “He had his hands waving in the air. He was really loud.”
Two women who wouldn’t give their names attended yesterday’s court appearance to support Phillipos, and left with his attorney, Dereje Demissie, of Cambridge.
In court, Phillipos was scolded by U.S. Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler for being inattentive to the proceedings.
“I suggest you pay attention to me instead of looking down,” she told him.
Raja Nageswaran, 25, a graduate student at UMass Dartmouth, said he knew the two Kazakh students.
“These two had a black BMW,” Nageswaran said yesterday in an interview. “They were noticeable, the way they drove.” Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov would blast music from the car as they drove around, tires screeching, he said.
The three men arrested yesterday are “ancillary” to the investigation, and their cases won’t help get to the “nitty gritty” of how the bombing took place, said criminal defense attorney Richard Herman, who isn’t involved in the case. The men will probably claim in their defense that they weren’t aware of the significance of their actions, he said.
“They’re foreigners in another land and I’m sure they formed a bond,” Herman said in a phone interview. “It probably all happened so quickly that they just acted -- in retrospect, they’ll be kicking themselves for not thinking about it longer.”
Police in New Bedford said April 22 they believe Tsarnaev spent the two nights after the bombing with acquaintances near campus. Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev’s apartment was cordoned off and searched that day.
Kadyrbayev, Tazhayakov and Phillipos began attending the university with Tsarnaev in 2011, according to court papers. Tazhayakov became friends with Tsarnaev in the fall of that year, the U.S. said.
Kadyrbayev also found a jar of Vaseline in the dorm room and told Tazhayakov that he believed Tsarnaev had used the Vaseline to make bombs, according to the filings.
On the night of April 19, Tazhayakov saw a garbage truck arrive at the apartment complex to empty the Dumpster, he said. Investigators recovered Tsarnaev’s backpack from a New Bedford landfill on April 26, according to an agent’s affidavit filed with the court. The backpack held Vaseline, fireworks and his homework assignment sheets from school.
Phillipos was a 2011 graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, according to the city school system’s superintendent’s office. Tsarnaev also attended the prestigious public high school, and received a higher-education scholarship from the City of Cambridge in 2011.
“Phillipos initially said that he did not remember going to Tsarnaev’s dormitory room on the evening of April 18,” investigators said in the complaint. “He then changed his story and said that he did remember going to Tsarnaev’s room with Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov.”
Tsarnaev, who was injured during a four-day manhunt by police, is in a federal prison hospital outside Boston. The FBI has been interviewing people connected to him and his brother, Tamerlan.
The Tsarnaev brothers, ethnic Chechens who came to the U.S. with their parents as refugees from Russia’s Caucasus region, were motivated by radical Islam they learned mostly over the Internet, according to lawmakers briefed by federal law- enforcement officials.
“It looks as though the prosecution has a reasonably straightforward case. The three friends seemed to recognize their friend in the photos and took steps to hide the information from the authorities,” James Cohen, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York who teaches courses on psychology in criminal and civil law, said in a phone interview.
The case is U.S. v. Phillipos, 13-02162, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).
To contact the reporters on this story: Erik Larson in New York at email@example.com; David McLaughlin in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org; Janelle Lawrence in Boston federal court at email@example.com.