Who are the three classmates of the Boston bombing suspect, and what did they do?

May 3, 2013

Tsarnaev poses with Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev in an undated photo taken in New YorkOn Wednesday, three men were charged with obstruction of justice in relation to the federal investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The three men, Azamat Tazhayakov, Dias Kadyrbayev, and Robel Phillipos, are all 19 year old schoolmates of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the attack’s prime suspects (and the only one still alive).

Who are these men and what was their involvement in the entire incident?

Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, both nationals of Kazakhstan, are being charged with conspiring (under 18 U.S.C. § 371) to destroy, conceal, or cover up records in connection with federal investigations under 18 U.S.C. § 1519.

Robel Phillipos, a U.S. Citizen, is being charged with knowingly and willfully making material false statements to federal investigators in a terrorism investigation, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(1).

According to news reports, “the trio moved swiftly to cover up for their friend” after they realized that he was a prime suspect in the bombings.

However, the alleged facts detailed by the affidavit of FBI Special Agent Scott P. Cieplik, which provides the factual bases for the criminal complaints against all three individuals, paints a picture of these individuals as being more conflicted about their actions than news reports would lead one to believe.

First, Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev’s destruction of evidence is based on their allegedly disposing of Tsarnaev’s backpack from his dorm room, which contained fireworks that “had been opened and emptied of powder.”

This occurred on April 18, three days after the bombings and shortly after the FBI released images of the two suspects.

However, immediately after the photos of the suspects were released, Kadyrbayev texted with Tsarnaev “and told him that he looked like the suspect on TV.”  Tsarnaev’s return texts contained “lol” and other things Kadyrbayev “interpreted as jokes.”

The three friends got together later that night and decided that the images of one of the suspects released by the FBI looked just like Tsarnaev.

They went over to Tsarnaev’s dorm room, and his roommate let them in.

Once inside the dormitory room, Kadyrbayev located a backpack that contained an emptied-out cardboard tube that Tazhayakov described as fireworks.  The powder “had been emptied from the tubes.”

This discovery “frightened” Tazhayakov.  Kadyrbayev stated that he “knew when he saw the empty fireworks that Tsarnaev was involved in the Marathon bombing.”

Kadyrbayev also found a jar of Vaseline in the room and told Tazhayakov that he believed Tsarnaev had used the Vaseline “to make bombs” (apparently, about a month earlier, during a meal, Tsarnaev had told the pair that “he knew how to make a bomb”).

At that point, Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev believed that Tsarnaev was involved in planting the bombs at the Boston Marathon. The two removed the backpack and Vaseline from the dormitory room and, together with Phillipos, took those items back to Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev’s apartment.

At their apartment, Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev decided to dispose of the items, and threw them into the trash with the rest of the garbage from their apartment.

These alleged actions, if true, certainly fit the elements of destruction or concealment of evidence under 18 U.S.C. § 1519.  On the other hand, it seems clear that Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev did what they did out of panic and without thinking things through.  They seemed quite taken aback when they discovered that Tsarnaev was a prime suspect in the bombings.

There’s a similar story to Phillipos’ case, who also stated that he was “shocked” when he “saw photographs of Tsarnaev on the news linking him to the Boston Marathon bombing.”

Phillipos was interviewed several times by federal agents.  During the first interview on April 19, he “concealed the fact that he, Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev went to Tsarnaev’s dormitory room on the evening of April 18, 2013.”

During the second interview the next day, Phillipos changed his story several times about whether he remembered going to Tsarnaev’s dorm room and whether he entered the room at all.  Phillipos “essentially repeated these statements” during the third interview on April 25.

During the fourth interview on April 26, “Phillipos eventually confessed that he had lied to the agents during his previous interviews.”  His statements that followed effectively matched up to Tazhayakov’s and Kadyrbayev’s own respective statements.

Again, Phillipos seemed to change his story so much out of panic.  He told federal investigators that the three “started to freak out, because it became clear from a CNN report that [they] were watching that Jahar [Tsarnaev’s nickname] was one of the Boston Marathon bombers.”

It seems that Phillipos didn’t have anything to do with the disposal of the backpack, but that he suspected that Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev were responsible for its disappearance.

While there is no defending their actions, it’s understandable that they did what they did.

They are, after all, 19 year olds who had just found out that one of their closest friends was responsible for a heinous terrorist attack.

Whether this factors into their criminal prosecution remains to be seen, but working against them is the tremendous amount of national attention focused on the cases and the strong national sentiment of condemnation of the Boston attacks.

We can only hope, as always, the justice wins the day.