Could the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing have been prevented? “The Murders Before the Marathon,” a new three-part docuseries, explores that question by investigating a 2011 triple homicide that journalist and producer Susan Zalkind believes to be the first murders committed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Marathon bombers.
Premiering on Hulu Sept. 5, the series follows Zalkind as she attempts to piece together what happened to 25-year-old Brendan Mess, 31-year-old Erik Weissman, and 37-year-old Raphael Teken on Sept. 11, 2011. The three men were found in a second-floor apartment on Harding Avenue in Waltham, with their throats slashed and about a pound and a half of marijuana dumped on two of the corpses. (The trio regularly sold cannabis.) In addition, $5,000 in cash was left at the scene.
On Sept. 12 of that year, Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone told reporters the crime “does not appear to be a random act,” and police suspected the assailants and the victims knew each other. But investigators seemed largely uninterested in the case, which was widely assumed to be a drug deal gone wrong.
Then, approximately 20 months after the murders, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the co-conspirator in the Boston Marathon bombings and a friend of the Waltham victims, went from being a person of interest in the triple homicide to becoming a suspect after, according to reports, 27-year-old Ibragim Todashev confessed to being with Tsarnaev when he committed the crime. Todashev was shot and killed in Orlando in May 2013 by an FBI agent in a bizarre turn of events. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Tamerlan’s younger brother and bombing co-conspirator, was sentenced to death in 2015. Citing the Waltham murders, Dzhokhar’s lawyers attempted to mitigate his sentence, arguing he played a secondary role in the bombing, influenced by his older brother, “an authority figure” with “violent Islamic extremist beliefs.”
To this day, the triple homicide remains open and unsolved. Zalkind, who was friends with Weissman and raised in Newton, has spent a decade reporting on the case. She has written extensively about it for Boston magazine and talked about it on the radio show “This American Life.” Her book, “The Waltham Murders,” will be published in 2023 by the Amazon imprint Little A.
In her journey investigating the unsolved crime, Zalkind made discoveries of her own. “Key to the FBI’s ability to stay out of the Waltham investigations is the agency’s contention that the murders were not an act of terrorism,” she wrote in a Boston magazine article published earlier this year. But, she continued, “There are many reasons … to think that the Waltham murders were, in fact, a terrorist act.”
Zalkind argued that if investigators were to conclude that Tamerlan, who died on April 19, 2013, during a shootout with the police, was involved in the homicide, “they would have been admitting to having let the Boston Marathon bombers slip through their fingers.”
Although initially hesitant to produce a documentary about the triple murders and participate on camera, Zalkind said she ultimately felt an obligation to get the “truth” out to as many people as possible.
“What happened at Waltham has just been a gaping hole in the story of the Boston Marathon bombing,” Zalkind said in a recent phone interview with the Globe. “My job was to fill that hole. This [series] is not an essay on policing. It’s not my lane to say how law enforcement should be held accountable, though I think there should be some form of accountability here.”
Zalkind said she aimed to “tell the truth as thoroughly, fairly, and as accurately as I’m able to,” working closely with executive producer Matt Cook (who co-wrote the 2016 film “Patriots Day,” starring Mark Wahlberg) and production companies Anonymous Content and Story Syndicate.
“You could say that this is a series about this triple homicide and its connection to the Boston Marathon bombing, and that would be true,” said Jon Bardin, Story Syndicate head of documentary and nonfiction. “But it’s also a series about an incredibly passionate, committed journalist who had something enter into her personal life that crossed over with her journalism and drove her to a whole other level of passion.”
Zalkind worked alongside documentary veteran director Jesse Sweet to condense a decade of journalism into an approximately 2½-hour series. Sweet, a Massachusetts native, said that although he was immediately drawn to the story, the docu’s narrative initially worried him.
“With a lot of true crime stories, it’s fairly linear,” Sweet said. “There’s the crime. There’s the investigation that goes wrong, then it goes right, and then it’s solved. But with this project, that’s not the case. Part of the storytelling that emerged was that the lack of answers became part of the point. All these resources were going into solving the Boston Marathon bombing … but then you have this parallel story where three people are dead, and there is not a robust investigation in pursuit of justice. Why?”
With the series release, Zalkind and Sweet are optimistic that the Waltham case will finally receive the attention it deserves. ”I hope that some answers come out of this and that it puts pressure on law enforcement to take action,” said Sweet. “The families are owed some sort of closure that they haven’t gotten.”
Will the docuseries be the next “Thin Blue Line” or “Paradise Lost” and help lead to justice? Zalkind isn’t sure.
”Errol Morris (who directed “The Thin Blue Line”) is extremely influential to me and helped me in the early stages of this project,” said Zalkind. “But there’s a huge difference between a docuseries that is trying to get somebody off and prove their innocence as opposed to proving somebody’s guilt. So that’s just a situation that you have to be extremely sensitive about.”