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Suspect made no secret of Tsarnaev friendship, boss says

QUINCY — Khairullozhon Matanov was described today by people who knew him as a hard-working immigrant cabdriver who loved to play soccer and was a devoted Muslim.

Matanov, 23, of Quincy, was a reliable presence at Friday services at the Islamic Center of New England’s Quincy mosque, and would trek with other worshippers to soccer games played afterward in Cohasset, said Ahmed Goutay.

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Goutay, who organized the team, said he did not know Matanov beyond the soccer field, but that he seemed like a good-natured young man.

Goutay said FBI agents had questioned him about Matanov. And when he told Matanov that he he had been interviewed, Matanov told him that he was not involved in the Boston Marathon bombings, Goutay said.

“He said he had nothing to do with it,’’ Goutay said.

Matanov, a friend of the late Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was arrested today on federal charges that he obstructed the investigation of the April 15, 2013, bombing at the Marathon finish line, which killed three people and injured more than 260 others. Tamerlan allegedly conspired in the bombing with his brother, Dzhokhar, whom Matanov also knew.

Khairullozhon Matanov has worked for at least the past two years for Braintree Checker Cab.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Khairullozhon Matanov has worked for at least the past two years for Braintree Checker Cab.

Tamerlan was killed in a showdown with police several days after the bombing; Dzhokhar was captured and is awaiting trial on charges that could bring him the death penalty.

Goutay said he was surprised by the Matanov’s arrest and by the close ties he allegedly had to the Tsarnaevs.

But Matanov’s boss at Braintree Checker Cab, for whom Matanov has worked as a driver for the past two years, said Matanov acknowledged publicly at one point that he knew the Tsarnaev brothers.

The company owner, who asked that only his first name, Nour, be used, said that after the Tsarnaevs had been identified as the bombing suspects, Matanov talked to colleagues about them.

“He said, ‘I know those guys,’ and he was adamant that they didn’t do it,’’ Nour said in a telephone interview today. “ ‘Not those guys. They [law enforcement] got it wrong or they are being framed.’ ’’ Nour recalled Matanov saying. “ ‘They would never have done that.’ ”

He added, “He [Matanov] was not hiding that fact.’’

Nour said people who heard Matanov talk about the Tsarnaevs did not press him on the matter.

“When it just happened, nobody wanted to talk about it. It was cut short. And nobody probed any further. So he didn’t say anything else,’’ Nour said.

Matanov talked about having met the Tsarnaevs while playing soccer in Wellesley or some area near that western suburb, Nour said.

He said he never questioned Matanov further about his friendship with the Tsarnaevs or about their alleged involvement in the bombings.

At the cab stand in this South Shore town today, fellow Braintree Checker Cab driver Jerome Shea said that he had learned a while ago from his boss that Matanov was under investigation. Shea said he assumed Matanov had been cleared because he had not been arrested.

He described Matanov as a “real nice guy.”

“He’s always been pleasant to me” he said, expressing surprise at the allegations in a federal indictment that Matanov, after the attacks, had told a witness the bombings might have had a just reason, such as being in the name of Islam.

The cab company’s owner, Nour, said he learned of Matanov’s arrest today from reporters. He said that if Matanov is being charged with trying to distance himself from the Tsarnaevs after the bombing, he is not surprised that he did so.

Matanov, as a young man in his 20s, may have wanted to distance himself “from this element that is bad,” he said.

Nour said he was keeping an open mind about Matanov.

“He is innocent until found guilty,” Nour said. “The FBI, the CIA, the KGB — they are run by human beings and human beings are prone to mistakes. There might be a mistake for the situation he is now.’’

Nour, a Muslim himself, said Matanov was observant of his faith, would pray as required, attending mosque on Fridays. Nour said he believed Matanov normally attended a mosque in Quincy, but would also attend services in Cambridge and Sharon, if his job as a cabdriver landed him in those communities at the time of services.

He said that when Matanov began working for him about two years ago, the young man would avoid looking at attractive women as they walked by, but that more recently he started loosening up, and would gawk as other young men might.

“He was a little bit more observant at the beginning. He would not look at a girl ... walking by,’’ Nour recalled. “But lately, he’s a little bit more open to the average 23-year-old’s behavior.’’

Nour said he never observed Matanov listening to recorded sermons from imams, but instead he listened to standard radio stations, especially while working as a cab driver.

Nour said Matanov, who prosecutors say is a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, did not have any close relatives living in the United States.

Nour said Matanov dressed like any other person in their 20s and would usually wear jeans, sneakers, and a shirt. “He wasn’t dressed in, like, a radical way, or in any odd way,’’ Nour said. “He was dressed the same way that the majority of people would dress.’’

He said Matanov was the kind of person a father wants to see their son to grow into. He was respectful to people, he worked and attended college at the same time, and he was reliable.

“I never seen him drink or play the lottery,’’ Nour said.

Nour said that if Matanov is found innocent of the charges he now faces, he would readily hire him back.

“If the law proves he didn’t do it, then, yeah, I would definitely offer him a job,’’ Nour said. “It has nothing to do with liking him. He’s a competent worker. The kind of people that cabdriving attracts – most of them are lazy. He didn’t have that flaw. He’s a go-getter. He would go and get it done.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete. John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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