One afternoon in October 2009, the FBI descended on a warehouse in Dearborn, Mich., and confronted a Muslim cleric with a criminal record, allegedly unloading televisions he thought had been stolen. Agents said he shot and killed their dog and fired at them. He died in a hail of FBI bullets.
Like the FBI shooting of Ibragim Todashev on May 22 in Orlando, the cleric’s death unleashed a storm of criticism from Muslim groups and the imam’s family and friends.
But one difference is stark: The day of the shooting, the FBI told the public that the man had fired a gun, so they shot him, justifying the use of deadly force. County officials also soon told the public he was shot multiple times.
But in the Todashev case, the FBI has refused to say if he was armed or to describe the violent confrontation they say led a Boston agent to kill him. And the agency has barred the medical examiner’s office from saying how many times he was shot.
“I want to know what their hesitation is,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan. “If he was doing some sort of threatening act, then tell the public what it was. You just can’t shoot citizens or legal residents and say, ‘Oh, we killed him, but we’re not going to tell you why.’ If we accept that as Americans, what makes the FBI any better than the old KGB in Russia or any other totalitarian security force?”
The FBI’s refusal to provide details of the Todashev case contrasts sharply with past shootings involving agents, including one 12 days before in Illinois. Within 24 hours, the FBI issued a press release saying agents shot and killed Tony Starnes, 45, when he allegedly rammed an agent’s vehicle with a stolen Honda Civic.
In May 2010, the FBI quickly reported that an agent shot and killed Ronald J. Bullock, a 61-year-old Army veteran from Hanson, at a military base in Tampa when he allegedly approached the agent with a knife.
Yet more than two weeks after Todashev’s death, the agency has remained unclear about what led to the supposed confrontation and why the agent shot the 27-year-old mixed martial arts competitor with a criminal record, including an arrest last month for a violent assault. Todashev, an ethnic Chechen from Russia who used to live in Boston and Cambridge, was a friend of suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed by police days after the April 15 bombings.
The day of the Todashev shooting, FBI spokesman Greg Comcowich issued a brief press release saying that an agent, Massachusetts State Police, and other law enforcement were interviewing an individual later identified as Todashev in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings. He said that Todashev initiated a “violent confrontation” and was killed.
Details seeped out through anonymous sources, including FBI agents, befuddling the public with sharply differing accounts.
The Globe and others initially reported that Todashev had a knife and that he had been questioned about a 2011 triple slaying in Waltham.
A week later, on May 29, the Washington Post reported that Todashev was unarmed. The FBI issued another press release that day merely identifying Todashev and his address.
The next day, The New York Times reported that Todashev had knocked the FBI agent down with a table and charged him with a metal pole or perhaps a broomstick. The agent shot him several times but Todashev lunged at him again, drawing more fire.
A federal law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the FBI investigation said the Times account of the confrontation is accurate. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case is still under investigation, cautioned that the Todashev case is different from past shootings, partly because there are fewer witnesses, only a State Police investigator and the injured FBI agent who shot Todashev.
Other state and county agencies have shed little light on the matter. Massachusetts State Police, there to investigate the 2011 Waltham killings, would not comment; the Times reported that Todashev was about to sign a confession implicating himself and Tsarnaev in the deaths. The local state prosecutor in Florida is not investigating the Todashev shooting.
The county medical examiner in Florida has refused to divulge the cause of death at the FBI’s request, even though Todashev’s family has released photos of his bullet-riddled body to hold the FBI accountable. The office has confirmed only the manner of death: homicide. Sheri Blanton, the medical examiner’s spokeswoman, said state law bars the agency from releasing information in an active investigation.
“That’s what’s gagging us: We’ve been notified by law enforcement who are investigating this incident that we cannot release anything until they deem it not active any longer,” she said, referring to the FBI. “Our doctor knows exactly what happened, but he’s not able to release it just yet.”
In the absence of information, Todashev’s family, friends and the American Civil Liberties Union have called for an independent investigation.
The FBI’s Shooting Incident Review Group, which includes agents and the Department of Justice, is investigating the shooting and whether the use of deadly force was reasonable, as required. The FBI said the process is “thorough and objective.” As time passes, critics say, the FBI’s refusal to release information raises questions about whether they acted properly.
“You can rest assured that the information is not flattering to the FBI; if it was flattering, they’d either release it or leak it,” said Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer. “A reasonable person can draw inferences from the FBI’s silence that there was something highly irregular about the way this interrogation was done.”
But James T. Thurman, a former FBI investigator and now a professor in Kentucky, said providing too much information can endanger an investigation.
“It is way too soon to judge,” he said of the investigation into the Todashev shooting. “They may not know [what happened] fully at this point.”
Others say the FBI should be more forthcoming.
In the Dearborn case, federal and state investigations exonerated the FBI in the shooting death of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah. But Abdullah’s family said in a federal wrongful death lawsuit in Michigan that they believe that the imam was unarmed and defended himself only with his hands when an FBI dog mauled him.
The Council on American-
Islamic Relations in Michigan has tried unsuccessfully through a lawsuit and formal requests to get investigative documents from the FBI.
Walid, executive director of the council in Michigan, said the Todashev case deserves an independent inquiry, as well.
“There needs to be an independent investigation, and by independent investigation I don’t mean the FBI or the DOJ investigating themselves,” he said. “It gives the appearance to the public that it is not an unbiased investigation.”