Advocates for a 19-year-old Cambridge man charged with lying to federal investigators after the Boston Marathon bombings are calling on a federal judge to release him from jail Monday, saying he had “nothing to do” with the deadly attack.
In court documents filed Saturday, his lawyers and supporters said Robel Phillipos is a conscientious and civic-minded young man and that the authorities’ allegations that he gave conflicting accounts to them is “refutable.” He has a detention hearing Monday in US District Court in Boston.
“This case is about a frightened and confused 19-year-old who was subjected to intense questioning and interrogation, without the benefit of counsel, and in the context of one of the worst attacks against the nation,” lawyers Derege B. Demissie and Susan B. Church of Cambridge said in court documents.
“The weight of the federal government under such circumstances can have a devastatingly crushing effect on the ability of an adolescent to withstand the enormous pressure and respond rationally.”
Federal investigators charged Phillipos on Wednesday in US District Court in Boston, saying he gave conflicting versions of events until he admitted that he and two friends went to the dorm room of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspected bomber, the night of April 18, three days after the Marathon bombings killed three people and injured 264 others.
The two friends, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, 19-year-old students from Kazakhstan, were also charged Wednesday with conspiring to obstruct justice for allegedly taking a backpack, empty fireworks, and other items from Tsarnaev’s dorm room that night. The three friends then returned to the Kazakh men’s off-campus apartment in New Bedford.
According to authorities, Phillipos said the Kazakh men then realized from a CNN report that Tsarnaev was one of the suspected bombers and “started to freak out.” Phillipos, according to court records, told authorities that Kadyrbayev asked if he should throw away the backpack. Authorities said Phillipos said, “Do what you have to do.”
Of the three friends, Phillipos is facing the longest possible incarceration — up to eight years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov are facing up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine; their lawyers have said they had nothing to do with the bombing.
On Saturday, Phillipos’s lawyers said in court records that Phillipos was at UMass Dartmouth — where all four men had studied — only by coincidence on April 18. At that time, the lawyers said, Phillipos had not had contact with Tsarnaev or the other two men for more than two months.
“By sheer coincidence and bad luck, he was invited to attend a seminar on campus on April 18,” the night the three friends allegedly went to Tsarnaev’s dorm room, according to the court records. “As such, he did not have much to offer the authorities regarding the investigation of the suspect.”
Phillipos enrolled at UMass Dartmouth in 2011 with Tsarnaev, majoring in marketing, but took a leave of absence in December. He was seeking an internship at the time of his arrest, according to court records.
To support the request for bail, lawyers filed multiple affidavits from friends and relatives of Phillipos, including a Wellesley College art professor, the owner of a limousine business, and a Harvard Kennedy School program administrator.
In the affidavits, supporters described Phillipos as a considerate, thoughtful and friendly young man, the son of a single mother who immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia.
Phillipos is bilingual in Amharic and English and proud of his Ethiopian heritage, they said, but he was born and raised in Massachusetts and well-integrated into American life. He attended school, played in soccer and basketball leagues, and idolized Lakers star Kobe Bryant. He loves American history and literature.
He is the only son of Genet Bekele, a domestic violence specialist who moved to Massachusetts in 1981 and raised him while working two jobs. She earned three college degrees: an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree in political science from Northeastern University, and a master’s degree in social work from Boston University.
She became a naturalized US citizen in 1996 and has helped many other immigrants and refugees adjust to the United States.
In an affidavit on behalf of her son, Bekele said she was deeply involved in his life despite her work schedule. She said she attended all teacher conferences, chaperoned field trips, and made sure he did his homework every night.
In return, she said, her son helped her. He washed dishes, did the laundry, and went grocery shopping.
“With every opportunity he had, Robel has always tried to make things easier on me,” she said in the affidavit. “He was very cognizant of the hard work that I had to put in being a single parent.”
She said Phillipos was an honor student in his first two years at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, graduating in 2011 with Tsarnaev, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who also grew up in Cambridge.
Phillipos served on the Cambridge Mayor’s Program, tutoring younger students, and on the Cambridge Kids’ Council as recently as 2010. On his resume, he said he lobbied to pass a bill that would lower the voting age to 17 in Massachusetts.
His mother said Phillipos wants nothing more than to clear his name. As US citizens of Ethiopian descent, she said, they look forward to the Marathon every year. The bombings, she said, were “devastating.”
This year’s male winner was Lelisa Desisa, 23, of Ethiopia.