Ibragim Todashev shared many things with Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tameran Tsarneav: a passion for mixed martial arts, the same gym in Brighton and a common Chechen culture.
And now investigators are trying to determine if they shared a secret: unsolved triple murders in Waltham. When Todashev was killed in Orlando, law enforcement, including two Massachusetts State troopers, were interviewing him in connection with the Boston Marathon investigation. And according to several news outlets, Todashev confessed to playing a role in the Waltham killings.
But Todashev is not the only person of interest being questioned out of state. WGBH News has learned that investigators were in Virginia meeting with Hilba Eltilib, a girlfriend and housemate of Waltham murder victim Brendan Mess. We’ve learned that her name was on the lease of the Waltham apartment where the murders took place. Eltilib discovered the bodies of the men on the morning of September 12, 2011. Mess was also friends with Tamerlan Tsaneav.
This week, Waltham Police Chief, Keith MacPherson confirmed that the Marathon investigation had renewed interest in the triple murder, but wouldn't comment on the progress of the case.
"One of our detectives is working full time in conjunction with officers from the State Police," MacPherson said.
At the time of the murders, investigators said the three victims were covered in marijuana, and $5,000 was left in the open. There was no sign of a break-in. Former Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone suggested at the time that this was not a random homicide.
"It does look like the assailants and the decedents did know each other," Leone said.
Leone described the incident as “drug related.”
Jack Cole, a retired New Jersey State Police officer now living in Malden, didn’t work on this case, but points to his 14 years as an undercover narcotics detective for perspective.
"If it is a drug-related homicide, it’s one of the most unusual ones I’ve ever heard of in my entire life," Cole said. "If what is true about the three victims being found on the floor with marijuana sprinkled all over their bodies and $5,000 in plain view left there, that’s pretty unusual for anybody that’s dealing in drugs to do those sort of things."
But Waltham law enforcement sources tells WGBH News that the Middlesex County D.A.’s office believes it’s possible that a "substantial amount of money" was taken from the house, and that the $5,000 and drugs may have been left behind to "confuse police." That’s one theory, and there are others.
State and federal law enforcement officials have been tight-lipped about this case, but this is what WGBH News has found out over the past four weeks:
- WGBH has learned from law enforcement officials that investigators have examined bits of forensic evidence from the Harding Ave residence and from a Mercedes-Benz that belonged to Brendan Mess that police towed from the area after the murders. That forensic evidence, including DNA, according to our sources, belongs to one or both of the Marathon bombing suspects.
- One of our sources says FBI and the State Police working under the direction of the D.A.’s office have sent DNA samples to Quantico, the FBI’s forensic laboratory in Virginia for examination.
"Certainly the case will turn on forensics, I would imagine," said Gary Marchese, a Waltham City Councilor who represents the neighborhood where the murders took place. Marchese says the Tsarneavs could be an answer to the crime.
"Now that they’ve been connected to the Marathon bombing and possibly to these murders, it’s resurfaced possibly some difficult memories for the neighbors," he said. "The last thing we need is an unsolved crime. I don’t know if you’ve gone to the neighborhood at all and seen where it’s happened. It’s a real bucolic, beautiful tree-lined street. And it will almost never be the same."
And while the friendship between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and victim Brendan Mess has been reported, we’ve learned more about the depth of that friendship.
In May of 2009, Tsarnaev and Mess were introduced by mutual friends from their Cambridge neighborhood. Mess was a talented martial artist. Tsarnaev was a gifted boxer who wanted desperately to learn mixed martial arts. Dan Magnerelli used to spar with Tsarnaev at the Wai Krux Martial Arts Center in Allston.
"He was a cool dude, though," Magnerelli said. "We would do like three minute rounds and then we would each alternate. He was very controlled with the sparring. He wasn’t trying to hurt you. Sparing with your teammates, you’re not trying to kill 'em. So he was very good with stuff like that. He was a nice kid. You would’ve never guessed it."
Tsarnaev was a superb boxer, says Magnerelli.
"When it was boxing, he was good," he said. "I wouldn’t take anything away from him on that."
But mixed martial arts was another thing altogether.
"That’s what I do," Magnerelli said. "It’s like kickboxing. You can use elbows and knees. Yeah, he sucked at that."
And Magnerelli says that’s why Tsarnaev befriended and began working out with Mess, a man with a gift for kicking, punching and landing a roundhouse in the right place.
Tam, as Tsarnaev was called, and Mess not only worked out at the same Brighton gyms, they also sparred in Mess’s backyard in Waltham and at a Vermont Ju Jutsi studio.
Around Easter of 2011, Tsarnaev helped Mess and Mess' girlfriend, Eltilib, move into the house on Harding Ave, carrying boxes and furniture up a flight of stairs.
But their friendship was not without conflict. Tsarnaev was becoming more religious, while Mess relaxed with pot. A relative tells us that the pair had loud arguments over their increasingly divergent lifestyles.
Tsarnaev knew not just one of the Waltham murder victims through martial arts, but another: Rapheal Teken. Waltham City Councilor Marchese knew Raphael as well.
"He was a martial arts expert," Marchese said. "Raphael Teken. When I met him, you could see that he was in shape. Even in the winter, when he had a jacket on, you could see that the young man was muscular. So that says a lot about the murders. Three healthy, strong young men were taken out quietly. It had to have been either several men or assassins."
But after the murder, it didn’t take long for some to suspect Tsarnaev was involved. After Tamerlan failed to attend Mess' memorial service at Ryles Jazz club in Cambridge, a relative tells WGBH News, some family members nudged Waltham Police to take a closer look at Tsarnaev. It’s not clear if that ever happened.
The two friends Brendan Mess and Tamerlan Tsarnaev kept a low profile in this neighborhood. One person familiar with both men described them to WGBH News as "Cambridge guys hiding out in Waltham," a description given extra weight by a neighbor who lives next door to the murder scene.
"There’s just nothing we know," the man said. "Never knew the kid that was murdered and never knew his friends. They were just another set of tenants. They just came and went and so did we. We didn’t pay much attention to them at all."
A lot has changed in this neighborhood.