WALTHAM — Investigators quickly realized that the three men must have known whoever slit their throats in the early evening hours of Sept. 11, 2011. They also concluded that the grisly scene inside the Harding Avenue apartment — each victim laid out in a separate room, the bodies partially covered with marijuana — had to be the work of multiple killers.
“We know there were at least two people who are not in that apartment now who were there earlier,” Gerard T. Leone Jr., then Middlesex district attorney, said on the following afternoon, explaining that there were no signs of forced entry at the apartment. “We should have other developments that we can reveal either late tonight or tomorrow early morning.”
But there were no further developments. Investigators immediately compiled a list of individuals known to the three victims, including deceased Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but never released additional information about the slayings.
And for the next 18 months the investigation seemed to go nowhere, the killings written off by many as a cautionary tale of three low-level drug dealers who must have gotten in over their heads.
Now, in the days since an FBI agent fatally shot a Florida man just as he was allegedly confessing to the killings and implicating Tsarnaev, the case is suddenly part of the Marathon bombing investigation. The renewed interest has given hope to the families of the Waltham victims, but it also has raised a troubling question: If local investigators had solved the triple slaying, could they have arrested Tsarnaev and prevented four deaths and more than 260 injuries at this year’s Marathon?
A definitive answer to the question remains elusive because law enforcement officials have refused to discuss details of the case, and because friends and relatives of the victims are reluctant to publicly criticize police or draw the attention of a killer if one is still at large.
Nevertheless, it is clear that investigators looking into the Waltham homicides, the worst crime in the city in more than a decade, initally had reason for optimism. Friends and relatives of the victims interviewed by the Globe said they readily provided police with the names of individuals who may have been familiar faces at the Waltham apartment, including Tsarnaev’s.
They also underscored the date of the slayings and its significance to jihadists, the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, although they did not realize at the time that Tsarnaev was adopting increasingly radical Islamic beliefs.
Some friends and relatives also were able to estimate the time of the crime, shortly after 8 p.m. on Sept. 11, because their text messages and e-mails were not returned after that, a fact that might have allowed investigators to significantly narrow the pool of potential suspects.
Moreover, on the day the bodies were discovered by the girlfriend of one of the victims, the manager at Gerry’s Italian Kitchen, a Watertown takeout restaurant, told investigators that someone at the Waltham apartment had ordered food in the early evening of Sept. 11, and that no one answered when a delivery woman arrived at the door.
“It was around 8:30 or 9 o’clock, something like that,” restaurant manager Mina Askander said in a Globe interview.
But without an eyewitness or definitive forensic evidence, such as a telltale DNA sample, investigators were never able to identify a probable suspect in the killings of the three men: Brendan H. Mess, 25; Erik H. Weissman, 31; and Raphael M. Teken, 37.
“It was not because of a lack of effort; it was a lack of evidence,” said Gary J. Marchese, a Waltham city councilor who represents the ward where the killings occurred and who spoke with investigators. “There were no eyewitnesses and it was a very difficult murder scene.”
Still, some friends and relatives of the victims say that State Police, who were leading the investigation, and Waltham police had enough information to focus on Tsarnaev because of his close friendship with Mess and the fact that he did not show up for a well-attended memorial service for him at Ryle’s Jazz Club in Cambridge.
“Pretty much every single one of us gave them Tam’s name, especially after he didn’t show up for the funeral,” said a close friend of one of the victims.
But others said that although they gave investigators Tsarnaev’s name, they never suspected him of killing the three men, especially his workout partner, Mess, until much later, when investigators named him as a prime suspect in the Marathon bombing.
“It does surprise me. It does shock me,” said a friend of one of the victims when asked if Tsarnaev could have killed Mess. “But it does make sense if he was the Marathon bomber.”
A law enforcement source with knowledge of the Waltham investigation said for the first time in a Globe interview that friends and relatives of the victims never encouraged police to take an especially hard look at Tsarnaev.
“Tamerlan’s name came up in a very wide net during the course of the investigation,” the source said. “But there was never any evidence or anything offered to investigators that led to his being considered anything other than one of a group of friends.”
Tsarnaev was killed during a shootout with police three days after the Marathon bombing. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, the second Marathon bombing suspect, was captured the next morning and faces a possible death penalty. He is being held and treated for injuries at the Federal Medical Center Devens.
By the time of the Waltham homicides, Tamerlan Tsarnaev had already been investigated by the FBI for possible ties to terrorists in Russia. Although the FBI concluded that there was no basis for the alert from authorities in Russia, Tsarnaev’s name was reportedly added to a terrorist watch list accessible to State Police working on the Waltham case through the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, an FBI unit in Boston.
However, an FBI spokesman said he could not disclose whether Tsarnaev’s name was on the list at the time of the Waltham investigation because the names on the list are confidential.
Some friends of victims who spoke to police said investigators never appeared to be especially impressed by the fact that the killings took place on a date of great significance to Jihadists, or by the ritualistic nature of the slayings. According to one friend with knowledge of the crime scene, the victims were laid out in separate rooms, face down, their torsos covered with marijuana and their throats slashed.
“The feeling was, ‘Holy [expetive] , this is 9/11. There’s no way this is a drug deal gone bad,’ ” said one of the friends who spoke with the Globe. “Why are they trying to hush that away?”
In hindsight, friends and relatives of the victims have said they believe Tsarnaev and Todashev — an accomplished amateur boxer and mixed marial arts fighter, respectively — could be responsible for the Waltham homicides in part because only persons with significant physical strength could have overpowered the three victims without a shot being fired.
Both Mess and Teken were known for their accomplishments in the martial arts, while Tamerlan was a champion amateur heavyweight boxer and Todashev was an amateur mixed martial arts fighter.
But even now, questions remain about whether Tsarnaev and Todashev should be considered prime suspects.
Not one of the victims’ friends and relatives interviewed by the Globe had even heard of Todashev before he was fatally shot by an FBI agent on May 21, during an interview at his Orlando apartment.
And while Tsarnaev’s violent streak now seems clear, several friends were at a loss to explain why he would kill a group of men that included Mess, a former neighbor he had once called his best friend. Even an Islamic-inspired protest against marijuana seems unlikely, since the Globe could find no evidence that Tsarnaev stopped smoking it himself.
And while some friends and relatives of the victims discount the possibility that the killings were committed by rival drug dealers, others say it’s possible that the three victims were attempting to make bigger drug transactions and could have offended other dealers.
In fact, in January 2011, eight months before the triple homicide, Boston police searched a Roslindale apartment where Weissman was living and seized more than $21,000 in cash, along with a drug ledger, a currency counter, digital scales, and a wide assortment of drugs, including marijuana, hashish, cocaine, and Oxycontin.
Weissman also was a partner in a small business called Hitman Glass, which manufactured and sold glass bongs used to smoke marijuana, according to a Facebook remembrance page, interviews, and public records. The bongs are available at local stores where pipes used to smoke marijuana are sold. In addition, one friend of the victims said that Mess was considering investing in an illegal marijuana-growing business.
Nevertheless, several friends of the victims noted that each of them had been selling drugs for years and could only recall one episode of violence: Mess was once severely beaten after coming up short in a payment to a drug supplier.
“They had all been [selling drugs] peacefully for a long time without a problem,” one friend said.
But what stands out for friends of the victims struggling to make sense of the possibility that Tsarnaev and Todashev were the killers is the friendship shared by Mess and Tsarnaev. The two young men grew up in the same Cambridge neighborhood, attended the same high school, and often worked out together.
“They loved each other,” one friend said. “It just doesn’t add up.”