BOSTON – Three 19-year-old friends of one of the alleged Boston bombers were charged Wednesday with trying to cover his tracks by throwing out fireworks and a laptop and then lying to U.S. police.
The three teenagers — two Kazakhs and an American — were fellow students at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s university and appear to have been hastily trying to keep him out of trouble rather than taking part in an organized conspiracy.
According to the formal complaint released by the Justice Department, Dias Kadyrbayev was driving back to his apartment when he got a call from a college buddy. A clearly anxious Robel Phillipos told him authorities had released photos of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers — and one of them looked very familiar. When he got home, Kadrybayev turned on the television to see a shaggy-haired Tsarnaev, his friend, classmate and, by then, one of the most wanted men in the world.
Kadyrbayev first met Tsarnaev in 2011, when they both started at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, south of Boston, near the base of Cape Cod. He told authorities he became “better friends” with the ethnic Chechen last spring, and that he was a frequent visitor to the run-down Tsarnaev home in Cambridge.
Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, a fellow Kazakh, hung out together on and off campus with Tsarnaev.
Kadyrbayev, an engineering major, was headed back to the New Bedford apartment that he and Tazhayakov shared when Phillipos called. It was April 18, three days after the twin bombings that killed three and wounded more than 260 people.
When he saw the images of Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, Kadyrbayev texted his friend and told him that he looked a lot like the guy on the television. According to the FBI affidavit, Tsarnaev replied: “lol.”
Then Tsarnaev’s messages took on a more ominous tone. One read, “you better not text me,” and another, “come to my room and take whatever you want.”
A month earlier, during a meal, Tsarnaev had apparently felt the need to tell his Russian-speaking chums that he had learned how to make a bomb. Even so, Kadyrbayev told authorities he thought his friend’s texts were a joke.
The Kazhaks and Phillipos, who had attended the prestigious Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School with “Jahar,” as Tsarnaev was known, agreed to meet at Pine Dale Hall, their friend’s dorm. Phillipos, 19, the son of a single mother, said he wanted to see for himself whether the TV reports were true.
Tsarnaev’s roommate let them in, saying the had missed him by a couple of hours. According to Kadyrbayev, the trio decided to watch a movie. He didn’t specify which one.
At some point, they noticed a backpack. Inside, they discovered more than half a dozen fireworks, each about 20 cm long, according to the affidavit. The black powder had been scooped out.
Kadyrbayev said he knew instantly his friend was indeed involved in the bombings. But instead of calling authorities, he told investigators he began thinking of ways to get rid of the evidence.
Just in case the roommate thought he was “stealing or behaving suspiciously” by grabbing the backpack alone, Kadyrbayev decided to take Tsarnaev’s laptop as well. The three returned to the Kazhaks’ apartment and watched news reports of the intensifying manhunt. They discussed what to do with Tsarnaev’s things.
As the situation’s gravity began to sink in, Phillipos — whose own text to Tsarnaev went unanswered — said everyone “started to freak out,” according to authorities. The other two men began speaking to each other in Russian.
Around 11 p.m., according to Phillipos, Kadrybayev broached the topic of ditching the stuff. Phillipos says he replied, “Do what you have to do,” then managed to drift off to sleep. When he awoke from his two-hour nap, the backpack and computer were gone.
By then, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dead, cut down in a hail of police gunfire and then run over by his fleeing brother. Later that night, the three friends’ college buddy, bleeding from several gunshot wounds, surrendered from his hiding place under a tarp covering a boat in the backyard of a home in Watertown.
On April 26, authorities found the backpack in a New Bedford landfill. According to the affidavit, it contained the emptied fireworks, a jar of Vaseline and a UMass-Dartmouth homework assignment sheet from a class in which Tsarnaev is currently enrolled.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov are accused of conspiracy to obstruct justice, charges that carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Phillipos, charged with making false statements to federal law enforcement officers, faces up to eight years in prison.
All three men appeared in federal court Wednesday and agreed to voluntary detention. The next hearing is set for May 14. Attorneys for the three suspects said outside the courthouse that their clients had nothing to do with the bombings and had cooperated fully with the investigation. The three were not accused of involvement in the attack, but a footnote in court papers said that about a month before the bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev that he knew how to make a bomb.
The arrests Wednesday were part of an ongoing investigation by Boston law enforcement and the FBI into a network of people suspected of helping the bombers. Federal law enforcement officials have said in recent days that they are focused on several “persons of interest” in the United States and Russia.