The 19-year-old man accused of lying to federal investigators probing the role of his college friend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombing was released on bail into the custody of his mother.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler in Boston yesterday allowed Robel Phillipos to be released under “strict house arrest.” His mother, Genet Bekele, who moved to the U.S. after fleeing a famine in her native Ethiopia in 1982, agreed to act as her son’s third-party custodian. A $100,000 bond will be secured by a home put up by two supporters.
“The government stands by its allegations and can prove the allegations in the complaint,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin told Bowler, addressing court filings by some of backers of Phillipos who questioned the strength of the case.
About 20 people who came to support Phillipos in the courtroom surrounded the teenager and a decoy as they left the building using different exits. Several people, including Phillipos’s former middle school principal, Timothy Groves, used their hands to block journalists’ cameras. Phillipos jumped into the back of a red car, which sped away.
“At no time did Robel have any prior knowledge of this marathon bombing nor did he participate in any of the planning done by the defendant in this case,” Susan Church, one of his lawyers, said after the hearing.
Phillipos, who attended the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with 19-year-old Tsarnaev, was also ordered to take a drug test before he was let out and be subject to later random testing, Bowler said. Phillipos, shackled and dressed in an orange prisoner’s jumpsuit, told the judge he understood the terms of his bail, which also includes electronic monitoring.
Bowler scheduled a hearing for May 17 to determine whether the government had probable cause to arrest Phillipos and to proceed with its case.
Phillipos and two other students, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, were arrested May 1, about two weeks after the bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 260. The other two, both from Kazakhstan, are accused of disposing of a backpack containing firework wrappers they found in Tsarnaev’s dorm room on April 18 after the FBI released pictures of Dzhokhar and his brother, Tamerlan, 26, identifying them as suspects.
Phillipos, who faces as long as eight years in prison if convicted, argued in court papers that he should be released on bail because he isn’t a flight risk and hasn’t been accused of disposing of evidence or aiding in the attack. His bail deal was reached with U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston, who revealed the details in an e-mailed statement before the hearing.
Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev, who face five-year terms if convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice, weren’t in court yesterday. A preliminary hearing for the men, both 19 years old, is scheduled for May 14. Tsarnaev is due in court on May 30.
Arkady Bukh, Tazhayakov’s new attorney, said it’s unlikely his client will be released on bail because he’s in the country on a student visa and has no family in the U.S. Suspects with no local ties are often viewed as flight risks when seeking bail.
“We do anticipate quite a difficult bail situation,” Bukh, of Brooklyn, New York, said in a phone interview yesterday. Tazhayakov “was cooperating before the arrest and after the arrest, and is still willing and able to work further with the government. I don’t think we have much disputes on the facts.”
Bukh said he was hired because Tazhayakov’s father, who traveled to the U.S., wanted his son to have a Russian-speaking lawyer. He also said the main elements of next week’s hearing may be delayed. Bukh replaced Harlan Protass, who declined to comment on the change in legal representation.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov were arrested on April 20 on immigration violations, five days after the attack, the U.S. said. They are being held at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Middleton, Massachusetts.
Kadyrbayev’s lawyer, Robert Stahl, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on next week’s scheduled hearing.
In a May 4 court filing, Phillipos’s attorney, Derege Demissie, sought to distance his client from the allegations against his friends.
“Phillipos is not charged with having any knowledge whatsoever of the Boston Marathon bombings of April 15, 2013, or with helping the surviving suspect after the incident,” Demissie said in the filing. “Nor is there any allegation that Mr. Phillipos removed, tampered with, or destroyed any potential evidence after the bombing.”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested after a four-day manhunt in which his brother was killed, and faces two capital counts of using a weapon of mass destruction. He’s being held without bail at a federal prison medical facility in Devens, Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.
Prosecutors said Phillipos, a U.S. citizen, lied in three interviews on April 19, 20 and 25. He first claimed to have been napping and watching television when the dorm-room visit took place, prosecutors said. He later said that he, Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov had visited the dorm and left without entering the room because no one was there, according to the U.S.
In a fourth interview, on April 26, Phillipos confessed to the false statements and agreed to sign a statement about what actually happened, the government said. Details from his statement appear in the criminal complaint alongside slightly different versions of events supplied by Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov.
Prosecutors said Phillipos was the first of the three to recognize Tsarnaev in images of the bombing suspects after they were made public by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on April 18 at around 5 p.m.
Phillipos took a leave of absence for a semester and didn’t attend school in the spring, his lawyer said in last week’s filing.
“It was a coincidence that he was on campus to attend a seminar on April 18,” the lawyer said. “He hadn’t had contact with Tsarnaev or the other the two friends accused of obstruction in more than two months.”
Among more than a dozen affidavits filed with the bail request was one from Phillipos’s mother, who appeared in court yesterday. In the filing, she said her son is a hard-working and caring person with a diverse group of friends. Their family regularly attended the Boston Marathon and cheered for the Ethiopian runners, she said in the filing.
“We mourned for those who lost their lives and prayed for the injured,” Bekele said in the filing. “My son wants nothing more than the opportunity to clear his name.”
About 30 of Phillipos’s supporters appeared in court yesterday and talked with Demissie, his lawyer, after the hearing. Bowler said many of the supporters knew his mother and didn’t appear to know him as an adult, based on their court-filed affidavits.
“I noted many of the affidavits did not have much knowledge of the defendant himself,” Bowler said.
Groves, Phillipos’s former middle school principal, said in an interview after the hearing that the teenager is “a person of good character.”
“I’m confident as we hear the details emerge of the whole story, the person I know will be there,” Groves said.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; Janelle Lawrence in Boston federal court at email@example.com