More than two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, authorities charged two Kazakh nationals and a Cambridge man with trying to destroy or cover up evidence linking their college friend to the deadly explosions.
Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, 19-year-olds who have been jailed since April 20 on immigration charges, were accused in US District Court Wednesday with obstructing justice by dumping into the garbage a laptop computer and a backpack belonging to bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who attended the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with them.
Robel Phillipos, 19, of Cambridge was charged with making false statements to law enforcement officials in a terrorism investigation after he gave varying accounts of what happened, federal investigators said.
The arrests represented the latest dramatic twist in the case, one that introduces to the saga three teenagers, text messages, and Tsarnaev’s alleged light-hearted reference to the bombings. Arrest documents revealed that Tsarnaev had told his friends a month before the Marathon that he knew how to make a bomb.
The charges do not link the suspects with the bombings, but the teenagers do stand accused of hatching a plan, or lying about it, to help Tsarnaev after the April 15 explosions that killed three people and wounded 264.
Their actions came shortly before Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, engaged in a chaotic shoot-out with police early on the morning of April 19 that left Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar on the run. He was captured the next evening.
It was a spur-of-the-moment plan they developed, investigators said, after spotting their college friend in videos released by the FBI during a desperate hunt for the bombers. They decided to remove the backpack from Tsarnaev’s dorm room and toss it in a New Bedford dumpster, which was then emptied into a landfill.
Last Friday, authorities found the backpack inside a black garbage bag at the landfill. The backpack contained fireworks, a UMass Darmouth homework assignment sheet from one of Tsarnaev’s classes, and other items, investigators said. The court documents made no mention of whether investigators found the laptop computer.
Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev face maximum sentences of five years in prison and $250,000 fines. Phillipos faces a maximum sentence of eight years and a $250,000 fine, prosecutors said.
The three suspects and Tsarnaev became friendly at UMass Dartmouth. Phillipos graduated with Tsarnaev from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in 2011, became a close friend, and moved on with him to the university.
Attorneys for the suspects denied their clients had realized that their friend was one of the bombing suspects.
“Dias Kadyrbayev absolutely denies the charges, as we’ve said from the very beginning,” said Robert G. Stahl, his attorney. “He is just as shocked and horrified by the violence in Boston that took place as the rest of the community is.”
Stahl said his client disputes the government’s charge that he recognized his friend in the FBI pictures.
Although Kadyrbayev admitted that he disposed of the backpack, Stahl said, he “did not know that those items were involved in a bombing, or of any interest in a bombing.”
An attorney for Tazhayakov said his client has cooperated fully with authorities and that he looks forward to “the truth coming out.”
“Azamat Tazhayakov feels horrible and was shocked that someone he knew at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth was involved in the Boston Marathon bombing,” said Harlan Protass, the attorney.
Phillipos’s attorney also said his client is innocent.
“My client was not charged with helping the suspect in any way whatsoever before or after and had no knowledge of the incident,” said Derege Demissie, who represents Phillipos. “As to the actual charges . . . I will look forward to litigating that in court.”
In court, Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov appeared in casual clothes before Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler, who scheduled a May 14 preliminary hearing on the charges. The men were ordered held without bail and were taken into custody by the US Marshals Service.
Phillipos was arrested Wednesday afternoon and appeared stunned when he arrived in the courtroom. He was a wearing a blue and white striped T-shirt, jeans, and Nike sneakers.
The complaint contains differing accounts from the suspects about what happened April 18, the night they entered Tsarnaev’s dorm room. It was three days after the two bombs exploded on Boylston Street.
According to Kadrybayev’s account, authorities said, Phillipos called to tell him to watch the news because one of the bombing suspects looked familiar. After viewing the FBI photos, the complaint said, Kadrybayev texted Tsarnaev and told him he looked like one of the suspects.
Tsarnaev replied “lol” — “laughing out loud.”
Shortly afterward, according to the complaint, Kadrybayev said the three suspects entered Tsarnaev’s room and noticed a backpack containing fireworks that had been emptied of powder. Kadrybayev realized at that point, authorities said, that Tsarnaev must have been involved in the bombing.
To help their friend, the complaint said, Kadrybayev and Tazhayakov decided to remove the backpack and bring it to the New Bedford apartment they shared. There, they put the backpack and fireworks in a large black trash bag, which they tossed in a dumpster about 10 p.m., the complaint said.
Tazhayakov gave a slightly different account to authorities. He said he received a text from Kadrybayev that asked, “Have you seen the news?”
They and Phillipos then went to Tsarnaev’s dorm room. Before they entered, according to the account, Kadryabayev shared this text from Tsarnaev: “I’m about to leave. If you need something in my room, take it.”
Once inside, Kadryabayev found the backpack with an emptied cardboard tube that looked like fireworks casing, authorities said. At that point, Tazhayakov said he realized that Tsarnaev must have been involved in the bombing.
Phillipos offered yet a third version of events, in several conflicting interviews, authorities said. Initially, Phillipos denied that he had gone to Tsarnaev’s dorm on the evening of April 18. But during a fourth interview on Friday, authorities said, he confessed that he lied. Phillipos signed a statement acknowleding that the three suspects had entered Tsarnaev’s room and taken the backpack April 18, authorities said.
Once they returned to the New Bedford apartment, according to Phillipos’s account, Kadrybayev and Tazhayakov “started to freak out” because they realized from a CNN report that Tsarnaev was one of the Marathon bombers.
Phillipos said he did not understand most of what his friends were saying because they spoke in Russian. However, when Kadrybrayev asked Phillipos whether he should toss the backpack, investigators said, Phillipos told them to “do what you have to do.”
Phillipos told investigators he took a nap, and that the backpack was gone when he woke up.
The appearance in US District Court for Kadrybayev and Tazhayakov Wednesday was their second legal proceeding of the day. The suspects appeared on videotape, wearing prison scrubs in the South Bay House of Correction in Boston, before a federal immigration judge in the morning on allegations they had violated their student visas.
Tsarnaev had poor grades in each of his four semesters at UMass Dartmouth and owes more than $20,000 in overdue tuition bills, according to people briefed on his record at the school who asked not to be identified. University officials would not confirm or deny the reports of his tuition debts or his grades, citing a federal statute that prohibits release of a student’s education and financial records.
John Hoey, assistant chancellor for public affairs at UMass Dartmouth, said Phillipos and Kadyrbayev left the university after the fall semester. Phillipos withdrew for reasons that were unclear Wednesday, and Kadyrbayev was expelled for poor grades. Tazhayakov was enrolled until this week, but university officials suspended him Wednesday when the criminal charges were filed.