The Boston FBI agent who fatally shot a Chechen friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Florida last year had a brief and troubled past at the Oakland Police Department in California. In four years, Officer #8313 took the Fifth at a police corruption trial and was the subject of two police brutality lawsuits and four internal affairs investigations. He retired from the department in 2004 at age 31.
Over the past year, FBI and Massachusetts officials have refused to identify the two state troopers and the agent involved in the May 22, 2013, shooting of Ibragim Todashev, 27, in his Orlando apartment, where he agreed to be interviewed. During the session, Todashev, a mixed martial arts fighter with a criminal record, turned violent, flinging a tabletop at the FBI agent and brandishing a metal pole at the trooper, they said. He was stopped by seven bullets from the FBI agent’s gun.
Even Florida, which often identifies such officers, declined to do so in this case, citing concerns for the investigators’ safety.
The Globe obtained their names by removing improperly created redactions from an electronic copy of Florida prosecutor Jeffrey L. Ashton’s report — which in March found the shooting of Todashev justified — and then verifying their identities through interviews and multiple government records. Those records include voting, birth, and pension documents.
That research identifies the FBI agent as Aaron McFarlane, 41.
McFarlane’s full name and birth date on records in Massachusetts and New Hampshire match that of the Oakland police officer who was involved in several controversies during his four years with that police force. He retired with a pension of more than $52,000 annually for the rest of his life.
In California, lawyers who had sued McFarlane in Oakland were stunned that the FBI later hired him.
“I would be shocked to learn that the Aaron McFarlane we sued a decade ago could have gone on to have a career with the FBI,” said Ian Kelley, a San Francisco lawyer who sued McFarlane on behalf of a man, Michael Cole, who accused McFarlane and another officer of beating him.
The events described in that lawsuit, he said, “should have thrown up a red flag.”
Ben Rosenfeld, a civil rights lawyer in San Francisco who represented a plaintiff in a similar case against McFarlane, said the FBI should have been concerned about the allegations against McFarlane.
“There are enough qualified applicants out there and the FBI’s supposed to be the cream of the crop,” he said. “I don’t think they need to reach that low into the barrel.”
But others said McFarlane was a fine officer in a struggling police department in one of the nation’s most dangerous cities. Oakland has one of the highest crime rates in the nation, with more than double the homicides and robberies as Boston, but with fewer than half the police officers, just 650 for the city of 400,000.
“He’s a very good police officer. People understand the environment in Oakland is particularly toxic and very tough,” said Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers’ Association. “A lot of the officers are going elsewhere because the experience they gain here is unmatched.”
Howard Jordan, a former Oakland police chief who said he helped train the young McFarlane, said it was well known in Oakland that McFarlane had gone to the FBI. He described McFarlane as a “solid officer,” smart, quiet, and confident, with many friends in the department.
Todashev’s family and civil liberties groups say the official investigations into the shooting failed to examine the troopers and FBI agent, and their decisions leading up to the shooting. Even if Todashev had attacked, they said, the authorities on the scene could have prevented the death of Todashev, a key figure in the bombings investigation, a witness considered so crucial that the FBI had him under surveillance by land and air.
Ashton, the prosecutor who investigated the shooting, said through a spokesman in March that he declined to interview McFarlane directly because the FBI would not let him record the interview. Instead, the FBI provided Ashton with the agent’s statements.
That, in turn, has fueled critics’ view that the prosecutor’s report is flawed. “A report that doesn’t include that kind of history is not a complete report,” said Hassan Shibly, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, which is conducting its own investigation of the shooting.
Ashton’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The Department of Justice also cleared McFarlane in the shooting in a separate report.
Until now, little has been known about the investigators in the room with Todashev.
The FBI has refused to say whether McFarlane was involved in any past shootings, though the Oakland police said he had not been involved in any shootings there. The Massachusetts State Police said neither trooper had ever been involved in a shooting.
The FBI had found Todashev quickly after the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombings and initially he cooperated, answering questions about accused bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whom he knew during their days together in the Boston area.
Todashev provided fingerprints and a DNA sample, according to FBI records in the Florida prosecutor’s report released in March, and met with investigators three times at law enforcement offices.
Then the FBI heard Todashev had booked a flight to his native Russia. On the night of May 21, 2013, McFarlane and the two state troopers, all law enforcement officials now in their 40s, were rushing to Todashev’s apartment in Orlando, working one of the biggest cases of their lives.
A year later, it is unclear why the FBI sent McFarlane, an agent with about five years on the job. He was with the two state troopers assigned to the case, Curtis Cinelli and Joel Gagne, and a Florida task force officer, who remained outside. Their names were also confirmed by the Globe by unredacting the prosecutor’s report — a process made relatively simple because the blackout technique used to cover the names was faulty and could easily be removed by using common software.
Cinelli is a veteran trooper with several commendations who specializes in hunting fugitives. Gagne is the lead investigator in the 2011 killing of three young men in Waltham, a crime in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a suspect.
The troopers declined to comment through the State Police union’s lawyer, Richard J. Rafferty Jr. McFarlane, the son of a former police officer, became an FBI special agent in Boston in November 2008, according to a federal court affidavit.
McFarlane had worked at the troubled Oakland department from 2000 to 2004, during the biggest police corruption scandal in the city’s history. Oakland fired four police officers who called themselves the “Riders” after prosecutors filed criminal charges against them in 2000 on accusations of beating and kidnapping people, making false arrests, planting evidence, and falsifying police reports. No one was ever convicted, but the city settled a federal lawsuit for $10.9 million and the department remains under court oversight today.
McFarlane testified for the defense in the first Riders criminal trial. In his cross-examination, prosecutor David Hollister suggested that McFarlane had falsified a police report to drum up a reason to arrest a man. According to a court transcript requested by the Globe, Hollister said the report, which was investigated by Oakland’s internal affairs unit, “at first flush certainly appears to be criminal.”
“I think on its face, Officer McFarlane should probably have some concerns about whether or not he violated Section 118.1 of the Penal Code in filing a false police report,” Hollister said.
McFarlane reluctantly pleaded the Fifth to avoid incriminating himself and later testified under immunity, but he told Hollister that he did nothing wrong.
“I write the truth in my reports,” McFarlane said, according to the transcript.
Hollister also questioned McFarlane about another arrest that night: a man who suffered a head injury. A police report said McFarlane had transported him to jail, according to the transcript. McFarlane said he did not know how the man was injured.
Shortly after McFarlane’s testimony, two men filed lawsuits against McFarlane and another officer accusing them of beating them the year before. Michael Cole, a convicted drug dealer, said McFarlane held him down as another officer, Steven Nowak, allegedly stomped on his head, injuring his eye and breaking his nose, allegedly because Cole’s uncle had filed a complaint against Nowak.
McFarlane and Nowak denied the assertions in court records. McFarlane said Cole kicked and hit him during a search of a notorious drug corner and injured himself when he fled in handcuffs and fell. The city settled the suit for $22,500. The city also settled a related lawsuit for $10,000 filed by Cole’s friend Robert Girard, who said McFarlane and Nowak beat him after he photographed Cole’s injuries at the hospital. McFarlane said Girard had barged into an off-limits area and hit McFarlane in the chest.
In the settlements, McFarlane and Nowak did not acknowledge any wrongdoing and Nowak remains in the department. Oakland police would not divulge the outcome of the internal affairs investigations, saying it was confidential. Donelan, the union president, said Oakland police are often targeted by frivolous lawsuits that are settled to avoid the expense of a full-blown trial. “This is litigation central,” he said. “It’s not about the officers. It’s about the environment they’re operating in.”
According to court records, McFarlane had repeatedly injured his leg and broken an ankle while on the force, and retired on medical disability. Amy Morgan, spokeswoman for the state-run retirement system in Sacramento, said only that he is collecting a pension of more than $52,000 a year for life.
It is unclear what McFarlane did next, but federal records show he joined the Boston FBI in 2008 after passing a rigorous background check and graduating from the bureau’s academy at Quantico, Va. At the time of the Marathon bombings, he was investigating bank robberies, working with Boston and other police agencies, and sometimes appearing as a guest speaker at industry conferences.
In Boston, the FBI refused to discuss McFarlane’s work history, saying it could threaten his safety. “Publishing the alleged name of the Agent involved in this shooting incident serves no public interest or service, except to foster continued media scrutiny,” the Boston FBI said in a statement. “The personal safety of the Agent continues to be of concern to the Boston Division, and publishing the Agent’s name potentially places the Agent and his family at risk for reprisal.”
McFarlane has previously been publicly identified in a blog about the Boston Marathon case.
Although the State Police declined to comment on the troopers’ identities, and expressed concern about naming them, Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, said that some states and police departments routinely publish the names of officers involved in shootings so that the public is aware of the facts.
“The public has the right to know if an officer shoots his weapon. They work for us,” said Alpert, who has testified in police-involved shootings in Texas and other states. “Usually when an officer fires his weapon, that’s a pretty serious event and it should be public. . . . The more they try to hide it, the more you wonder why.”
It remains unclear why the agent and troopers did not wait to persuade Todashev to come to a secure office or find a way to detain him the night he was shot.
Upset that the FBI had reported his girlfriend to immigration, Todashev refused to meet the investigators at a secure government office, where he had gone for past interviews. With 30 minutes’ notice, the investigators rushed to Todashev’s dimly lighted apartment, with an AK-47 sticker on the door and a samurai sword on the wall.
Authorities also have not said why the investigators, after more than four hours of questioning, thought it was safe to break their own rules by leaving only two men alone in the room with Todashev.
Just two weeks earlier, Todashev had singlehandedly fought two men in a parking lot as the FBI watched.
In his statement, McFarlane said he felt Todashev was an 8 on scale of 1 to 10 for his propensity for violence.
As the clock neared midnight, it appeared the investigators’ work had paid off.
Todashev had confessed to helping Tsarnaev kill the three men in Waltham. The bodies of Brendan Mess, who was Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s friend, Raphael Teken, and Erik Weissman were found in Waltham in September 2011, their throats slit and their bodies sprinkled with marijuana. Todashev, according to the Florida report, had told investigators that he believed that he and Tsarnaev were going to the Waltham house to steal $40,000, not to kill the men.
The troopers had captured the confession on video and audio, according to the report, and Todashev then sat down to put it in writing. The troopers sent the news to officials in Massachusetts.
“Who’s your daddy?” Cinelli said in one text, according to Ashton’s report.
Though the troopers felt they had probable cause to arrest Todashev, the district attorney’s office told them to wait for a warrant. Around midnight, Gagne stepped outside to call the Middlesex district attorney’s office.
An instant later, the room filled with a loud roar. According to the only witnesses, McFarlane and Cinelli, Todashev flung a table at McFarlane’s head, opening a gash that required nine staples to close. Then, instead of fleeing out the door, Todashev allegedly grabbed a metal broomstick and aimed it at Cinelli.
McFarlane said he staggered to his feet, bleeding, and shouted at Todashev to stop. When Todashev lunged at Cinelli, McFarlane said, he shot him several times. McFarlane said Todashev fell and then got up, prompting McFarlane to shoot him again. Cinelli told officials that he “absolutely” would have done the same thing.
After the shooting, McFarlane told the FBI he did not know that the State Police troopers had been taping Todashev’s confession. He said he often had his back to the troopers as they questioned Todashev.
But once he learned about the recordings, McFarlane suggested to a supervisor that they release the confession to the media. In a statement supplied to the Florida prosecutor, McFarlane said he told a supervisor “it would be nice if we released the video because it would refute many of the press’ allegations.”
The FBI and the State Police did not release the videos.
In March, 10 months after the shooting, the Florida prosecutor and the Department of Justice released hundreds of pages of documents on the shooting at once — and then largely declined to comment.