A former student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth recounted to the FBI last year several instances when his college friend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev showed violent tendencies, although he also said that he never imagined that Tsarnaev would ignite powerful bombs to kill and maim, according to testimony Thursday in the student’s trial on obstruction-of-justice charges.
Azamat Tazhayakov, 20, allegedly told federal agents that Tsarnaev spoke last year of knowing how to make homemade bombs, owning BB guns, and visiting a shooting range with his brother, Tamerlan.
But Tazhayakov, a 20-year-old from Kazakhstan, said in a text message April 19, 2013, that he was stunned to see the FBI link his friend to that week’s deadly Boston Marathon explosions, which killed three and injured more than 260. Tazhayakov believed that his friend had to be under the spell of Tamerlan, who had become immersed in a radical form of Islam and once gave Tazhayakov a book on the religion.
“I think that it’s all his brother’s fault. . . . He brainwashed him,” Tazhayakov wrote in another text that same day.
The evidence is part of conflicting portraits of the young foreign student presented to jurors as his trial nears the end of its first full week. Prosecutors depicted Tazhayakov as willfully blind to Tsarnaev’s violent tendencies, saying he and his off-campus roommate decided to take incriminating evidence from Tsarnaev’s dorm room when they realized he was a fugitive.
Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, both natives of Kazakhstan who shared an apartment in New Bedford, are charged with obstructing justice by taking Tsarnaev’s backpack, containing manipulated fireworks, and a laptop from his dorm room on the night of April 18, hours after the FBI released photos of the Marathon bombing suspects. Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev face a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.
A third college friend of Tsarnaev’s, Robel Phillipos, is also charged in the case. While he was present in Tsarnaev’s dorm room the night the items were allegedly taken, he faces the less serious charge of lying to investigators about his whereabouts that night. He faces up to eight years in prison.
Each defendant is being tried separately, with Tazhayakov’s trial starting first.
Responding to questions from Assistant US Attorney John Capin, FBI agent Farbod Azad testified that Tazhayakov admitted to investigators that he played a role in removing the items, even as he denies that now. While the defense has argued that Kadyrbayev alone removed the items, Azad said Tazhayakov used words like we when referring to the removal of the backpack and laptop in interrogations shortly after Tsarnaev was arrested.
Prosecutors also showed jurors extensive records of Tazhayakov’s Internet searches on April 18 and 19, 2013, to suggest that he was consumed by news of the bombing and looking up articles about Tsarnaev. They suggested that the Internet searches showed Tazhayakov’s mind-set when he allegedly agreed with a plan to throw the backpack into a dumpster behind the New Bedford apartment.
But Tazhayakov’s defense attorneys insist their client is innocent, saying he was unaware of Kadyrbayev’s actions that night. They have also criticized the FBI agents who investigated the case for not videotaping their interviews with Tazhayakov, relying instead on memory or incomplete written notes to recall what he allegedly said when interrogated.
Tazhayakov’s lawyers have emphasized that their client sometimes had to consult a Russian-English dictionary on his phone to grasp for words when he was being interrogated, and that language misunderstandings probably happened. They have also argued that Tazhayakov’s Internet searches are not a sign of guilt, as millions of people across the country were also immersed in the minute-to-minute unfolding of the investigation. And while he was searching the Internet for news of the bombings, they said, he also called up a campus website for a homework assignment.
Still, prosecutors say, the text messages and Web searches reveal what Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev knew on April 18 and 19, 2013, when they allegedly acted to protect Tsarnaev, who was later captured in a boat parked in the driveway of a Watertown home. Tsarnaev, whose trial is scheduled for November, faces a possible death penalty if convicted.
Tazhayakov’s digital trail perhaps reveals one new concern that was on his mind by April 20, 2013, as he was on the verge of being arrested on a visa violation, a prelude to the more serious charges he now faces.
According to government exhibits, Tazhayakov searched at least two websites around noon that day, the search term being: Miranda warning.