A federal grand jury indicted Robel Phillipos, a friend of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, on Thursday on charges of lying to investigators in a terrorism investigation, despite attempts by Phillipos’s defense lawyers to dismiss the case.
Prosecutors say the 19-year-old Cambridge man gave wildly conflicting accounts about visiting Tsarnaev’s dorm room at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with two friends, days after the bombings killed three people and injured more than 260 others. Authorities said the friends left with a backpack, fireworks, and other items later discovered in a New Bedford landfill.
Phillipos is the third college friend of Tsarnaev to be indicted in the case in US District Court in Boston. He was noticeably missing from the indictment earlier this month of the two friends, Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev, who face stiffer penalties for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The three men had appeared in court together for the initial charges on May 1.
On Thursday, authorities added Phillipos to the indictment, charging him with two counts of making false statements.
Phillipos’s lawyers had hoped to negotiate a deal in his case, describing him as a civic-minded former honor student with a clean record who was frightened by federal investigators. He is a native US citizen, born in Boston, and the only one of the three men released on bail. He was released on May 6 after posting $100,000.
“In time, it will be clear that this prosecution should not have been brought in the first place,” said Phillipos’s lawyers, Susan Church and Derege Demissie. “It is clear that Phillipos had nothing to do with the removal of the backpack or destruction of potential evidence. He will continue to fight the allegations against him.”
Phillipos graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School with Tsarnaev in 2011. The men then enrolled at UMass Dartmouth, where they met Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev, 19-year-old students from Kazakhstan.
Prosecutors have not charged the friends with the bombings, but they said Phillipos, Kadyrbayev, and Tazhayakov visited Tsarnaev’s room hours after the FBI released grainy photographs of Tsarnaev, 20, and his brother, Tamerlan, 26, and asked the public for help identifying them. Also that night, the brothers allegedly killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier. Tamerlan died hours later in a shootout with police and Dzhokhar was captured and is in custody pending trial.
Thursday’s indictment offers new details of the false accounts authorities say Phillipos provided during four days of interrogations from April 19 to 26, when he admitted he had lied.
On April 20, authorities allege, Phillipos told authorities that he did not remember going to Tsarnaev’s dorm room the night of April 18. Then, he said he had visited the room twice that day, in the afternoon and around 10 p.m., with Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, but left after nobody answered the door.
Authorities said Phillipos added new details on April 25, saying he went into Tsarnaev’s dorm room that afternoon in question and spoke with him for about 10 minutes — a claim authorities say is false. Phillipos allegedly also told them he had never seen the backpack or fireworks and was not aware that anyone had removed any items from the room.
According to court records, the three men went to the dorm room the night of April 18 after Tsarnaev allegedly texted Kadyrbayev that he could take what he wanted from his dorm room.
Around 10 p.m., the three friends went to the dorm room, took the backpack and other items, and returned to the Kazakh men’s off-campus apartment, authorities have said. When the news reported that Tsarnaev was a suspect, authorities said, Kadyrbayev panicked and asked Phillipos what he should do with the items.
Phillipos allegedly responded, “Do what you have to do,” and then took a nap. Authorities said Phillipos told them said the backpack was gone when he woke up.
According to the authorities, Kadyrbayev, with Tazhayakov’s consent, tossed the backpack, fireworks, and other items in the trash, then both watched the next day as a garbage truck took them.
Phillipos’s lawyers have said that on April 18 Phillipos was on leave from the university and was on campus that day to attend a seminar.
A court date for Phillipos’s arraignment had not been set Thursday. If convicted, he faces up to eight years in federal prison on each of the two counts.
Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison for obstruction of justice and five years for the conspiracy charge. They are in federal custody pending trial.
All face up to three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine for each charge. Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov also face deportation to Kazakhstan once the criminal case is completed.