WATERTOWN — When Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed after a fiery shoot-out with police, the Boston Marathon bombing suspect and his younger brother were making their last stand in a neighborhood Tamerlan knew well.
On at least a dozen occasions, Tamerlan had visited a two-family home on Boylston Street, just a few short blocks from the scene of his violent death, to meet with friends who knew him as a freewheeling Muslim who danced to hip-hop music, smoked marijuana, and always kept a prayer rug in the trunk of his car.
“He’d wash his hands and lay it out in the backyard and pray for 20 minutes or a half-hour a handful of times a day,” said Sebastian A. Freddura, a hip-hop performer and onetime Cambridge neighbor who was one of Tamerlan’s oldest friends in America. “We’d smoke a jay and he’d come out and pray.”
In an interview with the Globe, Freddura provided new information that may help explain the final, bizarre two hours of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s life as he and his brother, Dzhokhar, fled in a carjacked vehicle on the night of April 18 and drove to this quiet, secluded neighborhood.
Freddura said that on the night of the frenzied firefight between the Tsarnaev brothers and police, the brothers may have been heading to his place. In fact, during the predawn hours on Friday, as law enforcement officials searched Watertown for Dzhokhar, Freddura said he at one point instinctively picked up a hammer to protect himself in case Dzhokhar came to the door.
But even if the brothers were not going to Freddura’s, Tamerlan, at least, knew the neighborhood well because of him, and the brothers’ 90-minute drive before the fateful shoot-out was basically a tour of places intimately familiar to Tamerlan, including his old gym in Allston and the home of a murdered friend in Waltham.
As an unprecedented manhunt closed in on the Tsarnaevs, they never traveled more than 8 miles from their home on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, and Tamerlan died 1,000 feet from his old friend’s home.
Freddura, known by the stage name SebNyce, or Mr. Nyce, described Tamerlan as a boisterous member of a large circle of male friends who knew Tamerlan as “Tim” and often gathered to play stick hockey, visit downtown nightclubs, or watch Freddura record hip-hop tunes, initially in the basement of his mother’s Cambridge home and later at a Lynn sound studio.
The friendship was so close, Freddura said, that he would see Tamerlan almost daily, a pattern that waned only after Tamerlan met Katherine O. Russell, the Suffolk University student from Rhode Island who would become his wife in 2010.
Freddura said the friendship began seven or eight years ago during a basketball game at Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school when Freddura got into a scuffle with another player and found Tamerlan by his side.
“He was kind of catching my back,” Freddura said. “There was definitely a strong connection with that one altercation.”
As Freddura got to know Tamerlan, he became familiar with his friend’s accomplishments as an amateur boxer but said he never saw him become violent and is unable to reconcile his memories with the man who allegedly plotted to set off two bombs near the Boston Marathon finish line, killing three spectators and leaving more than 260 injured.
“It’s really overwhelming,” he said.
Police released images of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, who is recovering from wounds at a prison hospital at Federal Medical Center Devens, late on the afternoon of April 18.
But it was not until early the next morning, after Freddura had returned home from working the late shift at a restaurant and the Tsarnaev brothers’ shoot-out with police had turned his neighborhood into a virtual war zone, that he saw the images on television and recognized his old friend.
“Arrow in the heart,” he said, describing the moment when he saw the surveillance images of Tamerlan wearing dark glasses, a dark jacket, and a cap at the Marathon. “There wasn’t really a doubt in my mind in terms of recognizing him.”
But Freddura’s surprise and disappointment turned to concern after Tamerlan was killed and police were searching for Dzhokhar. At that point, Freddura and a group of friends with him began to worry that the Tsarnaev brothers had been on their way to the house, and that Dzhokhar might appear at their door or try to hide on the property.
“It was a real big concern and a worry,” Freddura said. The alleged bombers could have been looking for “refuge, hostage, or anything. Just anything is running through our heads. It’s overwhelming.”
Freddura did not know Dzhokhar nearly as well as he knew Tamerlan. But his concern also stemmed from the fact that, gradually, he and Tamerlan had grown apart.
Although Freddura had bumped into Tamerlan at the nearby Arsenal Mall the month before the bombings, exchanging hugs and pleasantries, the two young men were no longer hanging out or meeting up with friends at Freddura’s apartment.
“It was, ‘What’s up, brother? How you been? Let’s catch up,’ ” Freddura said, recalling the chance encounter. “It was not like, ‘What are you doing? Let’s hang out.’ I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months . . . hadn’t been in contact with him.”
Freddura said he began losing regular contact with Tamerlan in 2010 after Tamerlan met Russell, a Rhode Island doctor’s daughter who was unlikely to fit in with Tamerlan’s rollicking crowd from the working-class Cambridge neighborhood where he lived.
“She had a couple of friends. They were kind of weird,” Freddura said, describing them as “preppy.” And Tamerlan began spending weeks at a time out of town, presumably, Freddura said, at Russell’s family home.
By the time Russell converted to Islam and the couple had a daughter, who is now a toddler, Tamerlan and Freddura were no longer in regular touch, to the point where Freddura would never see Russell again. “I never saw her after all that happened,” Freddura said. “I never met the baby.”
Now, as investigators try to determine whether Tamerlan received training in terrorism during a six-month trip to Russia last year, it is clear that Tamerlan hewed to familiar turf while he and his younger brother were on the run.
After allegedly murdering an MIT police officer, Sean Collier, during an apparently botched attempt to steal his firearm on April 18, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar embarked on a circuitous journey that initially appeared to defy logic. But their route seems to have been something of a trip down memory lane, at least for Tamerlan.
When the brothers carjacked a Mercedes-Benz SUV, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were less than a half-mile from the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts gym, in Allston, where Tamerlan had often worked out.
Over the next 90 minutes, the Tsarnaevs and their victim would drive into Freddura’s neighborhood three times. They also drove through parts of Brighton, where Tamerlan once held a job delivering pizzas, Freddura said.
Later, with Tamerlan at the wheel, the SUV passed within a stone’s throw of an apartment on Harding Avenue in Waltham where Tamerlan’s self-described best friend had lived until his 2011 murder.
Brendan Mess, another hip-hop fan who grew up in Cambridge with Tamerlan, was a martial arts instructor who had worked out with Tamerlan at the Wai Kru gym. He was slashed to death along with two other young men on the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, their throats slit and their bodies sprinkled with marijuana.
Law enforcement officials are looking into the possibility that Tamerlan played a role in the slayings.
For Freddura, the bombing of the Marathon and Tamerlan’s death have permanently altered his memories of his years growing up as a carefree high school student with a large circle of friends that included Tamerlan, the unforgettable “oddball Russian” who always seemed to have his back.
Even while Freddura was enrolled at Salem State College, from 2008 to 2010, and was renting an apartment in Salem, Tamerlan and Freddura’s other friends would often head north for a weekend of partying.
“They’d all hop in Tim’s car and shoot on up Route 1A. Come to Mr. Nyce’s house. It was a good time,” Freddura recalled.
During the interview, Freddura at times described his years growing up with Tamerlan and his other friends in the mixed neighborhood east of Harvard Square and north of Massachusetts Avenue in idyllic terms, marveling at all the families that seemed to have three or four brothers, all about the same age.
But now, Freddura said, he is struggling to come to grips with Tamerlan’s alleged role in the bombings, the tragic toll of death and injuries — and the loss of a close friend who apparently changed, mysteriously and radically.
“He believed in me,” Freddura said, recalling the occasions when Tamerlan would accompany him to a Lynn sound studio to watch him record. “I was waiting for that big day to hire him as my bodyguard. That’s not going to happen.”
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