Potential witness must be jailed until leaving US
Civil rights group wants to speak with her about FBI shooting inquiry
An immigration judge has ordered a potential witness in the investigation into the fatal shooting of a Chechen man by an FBI agent last month to leave the United States no later than July 1, and to remain in jail until she departs, raising an outcry from a civil rights group seeking a full accounting of the man’s death.
Federal immigration officials arrested Tatiana Igorevna Gruzdeva, a 19-year-old aspiring foreign language teacher from Russia, on May 16 for overstaying her visa. They discovered the violation when the FBI and other law enforcement officials began investigating Ibragim Todashev, her roommate in Orlando, about his ties to the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.
Six days later, a Boston FBI agent shot and killed 27-year-old Todashev in their apartment.
Officials with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, which is conducting its own review of the shooting, said they wanted to talk to Gruzdeva about the FBI’s actions in the days and weeks leading to Todashev’s death. Council leaders are concerned that federal officials are sweeping her out of the country before she could provide information to them and law enforcement officials.
“We’re extremely interested in speaking to her and seeing what she has to say,” said Hassan Shibly, executive director of the council in Florida. “We’re very curious as to why the government’s put so many impediments, in trying to get her out of the country as soon as possible. There’s a very good likelihood that she has important information.”
The FBI has refused to release details of the May 22 shooting of Todashev and media reports have provided conflicting accounts. Some said he attacked the agent with a blade during an interrogation, while others reported that he was unarmed or that he had lunged at the agent with a metal pole or a broomstick. Todashev, according to the media reports, was about to sign a confession implicating himself and his friend, suspected Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who is now dead, in the 2011 slayings of three men in Waltham.
According to family and friends, Todashev was a mixed-martial arts fighter who came to America in 2008 from Russia to study English. He lived in Allston and Cambridge before moving south.
Federal officials have also remained tight-lipped about Gruzdeva, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, according to federal records and social media sites that link her to Todashev. She is a citizen of Russia, according to federal officials.
Immigration court officials under the Department of Justice, the same agency that oversees the FBI, refused to disclose details about her case, citing their controversial privacy rules.
After the Globe learned this month that a hearing was held on May 30 before a Miami immigration judge, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that she would be jailed until she departs.
“Tatiana Gruzdeva was granted voluntary departure under safeguards by an immigration judge,” said Carissa Cutrell, spokeswoman for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency that had arrested Gruzdeva. “As a result of that order, she will remain in ICE custody until her departure from the United States no later than July 1.”
Voluntary departure is a legal term that allows her to leave on her own, as opposed to being forcibly deported, but Gruzdeva must pay for her plane ticket home.
As of Friday, she was being held in the Broward Transitional Center, a privately run jail in Pompano Beach with capacity for up to 700 people, and will probably be escorted to the airport by authorities. Jailing detainees costs more than $100 per person a day, according to the US government.
Officials said Gruzdeva came to the United States last year on a J-1 exchange visa and stayed longer than she was permitted. On Facebook she described herself as an art school graduate who was studying languages, including Hebrew, German, and English. She said she also worked as a model, and posted pictures of herself in a wedding dress.
Initial reports from law enforcement officials said that Gruzdeva was from Moldova, but federal records show that is only her birthplace. Officials also said she was Todashev’s girlfriend, but his estranged wife said they were just friends.
Gruzdeva’s lawyer in Orlando, Maria Davydova, did not respond to requests for comment.
Jeffrey Rubin, a Boston immigration lawyer who is not involved in the case, said it is not unusual for immigration judges to order someone to remain in jail to ensure that they are deported.
“It actually happens very frequently,” he said.
The FBI declined to comment for this article and reaffirmed that FBI and Justice Department officials are investigating the shooting.
But the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, Todashev’s family, and the ACLU have called for an independent investigation into his death.
In a letter to the Justice Department’s civil rights division on June 1, urging them to investigate as well, the council said Todashev had cooperated with the FBI, even postponing a trip home to Chechnya, a semiautonomous region in Russia, to meet with them.
The council said the FBI had interrogated Todashev at least three times at their offices in the five weeks after the Marathon bombings.
In one encounter, the letter said, six law enforcement agents approached Todashev with guns drawn and pushed him to the ground. “In addition to the stream of interrogations, law enforcement agents also followed Mr. Todashev, and questioned his family and friends regarding his association with the suspects” in the bombing, according to the letter written by Thania Diaz Clevenger, the council’s civil rights director in Tampa.
The fourth and final interrogation started around 7:30 p.m. in his apartment on May 21 and stretched more than five hours into the next day, she said.
“Based on several of the reports, it seems unlikely that the agents were justified in using deadly force against a single unarmed suspect,” Clevenger wrote. “The circumstances surrounding the shooting are at the very least alarming.”
At the FBI’s request, the medical examiner’s office in Florida has not released details of the autopsy report pending the investigation. But the council said in its letter that it appeared Todashev had been shot at least seven times, including once in the head.