A cab driver from Quincy who was close to the two suspected Boston Marathon bombers was arrested Friday on charges of lying to investigators and destroying evidence, allegedly obstructing the ongoing investigation of the 2013 attack that shocked the city and the nation.
Khairullozhon Matanov, a 23-year-old Kyrgyzstan national, allegedly contacted Tamerlan Tsarnaev 42 minutes after the April 15, 2013, bombings, and he bought him and his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, dinner at a restaurant that night. Matanov visited Tamerlan, whom he knew from playing soccer and from places of worship, at the suspected bomber’s Cambridge home two days later.
Over several days after the bombings, he also called the brothers repeatedly.
Authorities alleged in a sweeping indictment unsealed Friday that Matanov realized the FBI would want to interview him about his relationship with the suspected bombers, but that he deleted files from his computer and tried to get rid of his cellphones. They also allege that he lied to investigators about his encounters with the brothers in the days after the bombings.
He is not, however, accused of playing any role in the bombing itself.
“Matanov understood that federal investigators were investigating the Tsarnaevs as the suspected Boston Marathon bombers,” prosecutors said. “. . . Matanov then tried to discourage and impede that investigation.”
Matanov was charged with obstruction of justice by destruction, alteration, and falsification of records or documents in a federal investigation, which carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison. He was also charged with three counts of making false statements to agents in a terrorism investigation, each of which carries a punishment of up to eight years in prison.
Matanov made a brief appearance in US District Court in Boston Friday. The native of Kyrgyzstan said he understood the charges and asked that a lawyer be appointed on his behalf.
Prosecutors asked that he be detained pending trial, and a hearing was scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday. Matanov was ordered held until then by the US Marshals Service.
Outside the courthouse, his lawyer, Edward Hayden, said Matanov understood the seriousness of the charges and was “very frightened.”
Hayden argued that none of his allegedly false statements made to federal agents were material to the investigation.
“There’s a lot of unsubstantiated allegations, many [that] are not material,” Hayden said. “He had no intent to mislead the FBI, and, from what I can see, whatever he did didn’t impede the investigation.”
Prosecutors would not say why Matanov was arrested Friday, as the allegedly false statements were made a year ago. Hayden called it the “million-dollar question.”
A federal grand jury continues to meet in secret to investigate the bombings, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation, who would not rule out the possibility of more arrests. The official requested anonymity because of not being authorized to speak publicly about the secret grand jury process.
The arrest early Friday by a SWAT team and a host of FBI agents startled the Quincy neighborhood where Matanov lives, a place where he often stood out as an outsider.
A neighbor, Leslie Aiello, 49, said she awoke around 5:30 a.m. to find Matanov’s brick apartment building on Common Street surrounded by agents. About 30 minutes later, Matanov was led out the front door in handcuffs. He was not struggling, she said.
People who knew Matanov described him as a hardworking immigrant cab driver who loved to play soccer and was a devoted Muslim. Ahmed Goutay, who organized a soccer team that included Matanov, said he was a reliable presence at Friday services at the Islamic Center of New England’s Quincy mosque and would trek with other worshipers to soccer games played afterward in Cohasset.
Goutay said he had been questioned by FBI agents about Matanov. He told Matanov about the interview, but “he said he had nothing to do with” the bombings, Goutay said.
Matanov arrived in the United States around May 2010 on a student visa. He attended computer technology at Quincy College for several months but ran into financial troubles, his lawyer said.
Hayden said Matanov then sought and was granted political asylum from the unrest in Kyrgyzstan. His mother and father, both severely ill, still live there, Hayden said. Matanov has two brothers there and two brothers in Russia.
Hayden said Matanov was born in Kyrgyzstan and worked in Russia for a year before returning to his homeland and then came to the United States. He has not traveled abroad since arriving here.
Court records related to Matanov’s arrest provided an eerie window into the lives of the Tsarnaev brothers in the days after the bombings. Tamerlan told Matanov at dinner on the night of the bombings that he did not believe Al Qaeda was involved because it would typically accept responsibility within hours of an attack.
Three people were killed in the attack at the Marathon finish line and more than 260 were injured. The two brothers also allegedly shot MIT police Officer Sean Collier three days after the bombings, following release of their photos.
Tamerlan, 26, was killed during a violent confrontation with police in Watertown, when he tried to flee the area. Dzhokhar, now 20, was arrested after a manhunt. He faces multiple charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty and is slated to go to trial in November. He is being held without bail.
Authorities allege the brothers carried out the bombings as jihad, or holy war, against the United States.
Three of Dzhokhar’s friends from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth were arrested not long after the attack on accusations of lying to investigators.
Larry Marchese, a spokesman for the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old Dorchester boy who was killed in the blasts, welcomed the news of the latest arrest.
“While so many worked so hard to move forward from the painful events of that day, it is comforting to know the investigation continues and that the investigators won’t rest until they get to the bottom of what happened and how it came about,” Marchese said.
Authorities said that before the attack, Matanov participated in a variety of activities with Tamerlan, “including discussing religious topics and hiking up a New Hampshire mountain in order to train like, and praise, the mujahideen,” or Muslim religion fighters, according to the indictment.
After the bombings, Matanov told an unidentified witness, who Hayden said was his roommate, that the bombings would have been justified if they were in the name of Islam.
According to the indictment, he later said the bombings might have been wrong, and expressed sympathy for the victims’ families.
On April 18, 2013, after the FBI released photos of the suspected bombers, Matanov accessed them on the FBI’s and CNN’s websites several times, and he called Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s cellphone, but did not connect with him, according to court records. He told a friend the next day that Tamerlan had been killed.
Throughout that Friday, April 19, 2013, while authorities searched for Dzhokhar, Matanov told witnesses about his relationship with the brothers, but he falsely said he had not seen them recently, according to the court records. He then allegedly tried to give cellphones to unidentified witnesses, saying they were illegal and the FBI could find them if agents searched his apartment because of his relationship to the brothers. The witnesses would not take the phones.
Matanov ultimately contacted Braintree police to say he knew the Tsarnaev brothers, but he denied seeing their photos. Then, he allegedly deleted 902 of 903 folders from his “videos” folder on his computer, and 377 of 402 documents from his documents folder, after police told him he should talk with the FBI.
Some of the videos contained violent content or calls to violence, authorities said, adding that the deletions of the files “obstructed the FBI’s investigation of the bombings and the suspected bombers and have caused the FBI to expend considerable additional resources during its investigation of the bombings and the suspected bombers.”