Accused Marathon Bomber’s College Friend Seeks Bail
By Erik Larson & Janelle Lawrence - May 6, 2013 12:00 AM ET
A friend of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev argues that he should be released on bail pending his trial on a charge of lying to investigators because he isn’t accused of destroying evidence.
Robel Phillipos of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who attended the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth with Tsarnaev, is scheduled to seek bail at a hearing today in Boston federal court. He and two other students, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, were arrested May 1, about two weeks after the bombing, which killed three people and wounded more than 260.
Derege B. Demissie of Demissie & Church, defending Robel Phillipos, walks out of the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in Boston on May 1, 2013. Photographer: Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Phillipos, 19, is accused of lying about the trio’s April 18 visit to Tsarnaev’s dormitory after the FBI released pictures of Dzhokhar, 19, and his brother, Tamerlan, 26. The other two men are accused of disposing of a backpack containing fireworks that they found in the dorm room.
“Phillipos is not charged with having any knowledge whatsoever of the Boston Marathon bombings of April 15, 2013, or with helping the surviving suspect after the incident,” his attorney, Derege Demissie, said in a May 4 court filing. “Nor is there any allegation that Mr. Phillipos removed, tampered with, or destroyed any potential evidence after the bombing.”
Phillipos, who lives with his mother, faces a maximum sentence of eight years in jail if convicted. Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov, both of Kazakhstan, face five-year terms if convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Both men were arrested on April 20 on immigration violations, the U.S. said. They are being held at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Middleton, Massachusetts.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested April 19 after a four-day manhunt in which his brother was killed and faces two capital counts of using a weapon of mass destruction. He’s being held without bail at a federal prison medical facility in Devens, Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.
Phillipos, Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov agreed to voluntary detention at their initial court appearance on May 1. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Siegmann said at that hearing that the government opposed bail for Phillipos because he’s a flight risk.
Prosecutors said Phillipos lied in three interviews with investigators on April 19, 20 and 25. He first claimed to have been napping and watching television when the dorm-room visit took place. He later said that he, Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov had visited the dorm and left without entering the room because no one was there, according to the U.S.
In a fourth interview, on April 26, Phillipos confessed to the false statements and agreed to sign a statement about what actually happened, the U.S. said. Details from his statement appear in the criminal complaint alongside slightly different versions of events supplied by Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov.
Prosecutors said Phillipos was the first of the three to recognize Tsarnaev in images of the bombing suspects after they were made public by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on April 18 at around 5 p.m. Phillipos called Kadyrbayev and told him to “put the news on when he got home” because one of the suspects “looked familiar,” the U.S. said.
Phillipos told investigators he got a text message from Kadyrbayev around 9 p.m. telling him to “go to Jahar’s room,” using a variant spelling of Tsarnaev’s first name. In the room, they saw a “dark backpack” containing empty fireworks tubes. Phillipos said there were “approximately seven red tubular fireworks, approximately six to eight inches in length,” according to the complaint.
The three men took the backpack and a laptop belonging to Tsarnaev out of the dorm room and returned to an off-campus apartment shared by the two Kazakhs, the U.S. said. Once there, Phillipos said the three “started to freak out” when it became clear from news reports “that Jahar was one of the Boston Marathon bombers,” according to the criminal complaint.
Phillipos said the group discussed what to do with the backpack and fireworks and Kadyrbayev asked “if he should get rid of the stuff,” according to the complaint. Phillipos said Tazhayakov told Kadyrbayev to “do what you have to do.”
Phillipos said he didn’t understand much of what the other two were saying because they were speaking in Russian, according to the complaint. After the discussion, he said, he took a two- hour nap and when he woke up, the backpack was gone, according to the U.S.
While all three men told investigators they agreed to remove the backpack from Tsarnaev’s dorm, only Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov said they agreed to throw it out after Tsarnaev’s involvement in the bombing was confirmed.
At about 10 o’clock that night, Kadyrbayev put the backpack in a black plastic bag and dropped it in a trash bin, according to the complaint. Early the next morning, the three saw news reports identifying Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother as the bombers and announcing that Tamerlan had died after a shootout with police.
Investigators recovered Tsarnaev’s backpack from a New Bedford, Massachusetts, landfill on April 26, according to a court filing. The backpack contained Vaseline, fireworks and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s homework assignment sheets from school.
Robert Stahl, a lawyer for Kadyrbayev, and Tazhayakov’s attorney, Harlan Protass, have said their clients will plead not guilty.
In the bail request for Phillipos, Demissie offered to accede to GPS monitoring of him, house arrest and a third-party monitor in addition to any standard bail restrictions.
Christina Sterling, a spokeswoman for Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, declined to comment on the filing, saying the government would respond at today’s court hearing.
Phillipos took a leave of absence for a semester and didn’t attend school in the spring, Demissie said in the filing.
“It was a coincidence that he was on campus to attend a seminar on April 18,” the lawyer said. “He hadn’t had contact with Tsarnaev or the other the two friends accused of obstruction in more than two months.”
Demissie said the case is about a “frightened and confused 19-year-old who was subjected to intense questioning and interrogation, without the benefit of counsel, and in the context of one of the worst attacks against the nation. The weight of the federal government under such circumstances can have a devastatingly crushing effect on the ability of an adolescent to withstand the enormous pressure and respond rationally.”
Among the eight affidavits filed with the bail request was one from Phillipos’s mother, Genet Bekele. She said her son is a hard-working and caring person with a diverse group of friends. Their family regularly attended the Boston Marathon and cheered for the Ethiopian runners, she said in the filing.
“We mourned for those who lost their lives and prayed for the injured,” Bekele said in the filing. “My son wants nothing more than the opportunity to clear his name.”
At the May 1 court appearance, Phillipos was scolded by U.S. Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler, who told him to “pay attention instead of looking down.”
Two women who wouldn’t give their names attended the hearing to support Phillipos and left the courtroom with Demissie.
Phillipos is a 2011 graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a prestigious public high school, according to the city school system’s superintendent’s office. Tsarnaev also attended the school and received a higher-education scholarship from the city of Cambridge in 2011.
Bekele, who fled Ethiopia during a famine in 1982, raised her U.S.-born son on her own and has worked counseling refugees at the International Institute of New England, according to Binyam Tamene, executive director of the Ethiopian Community Mutual Assistance Association in Cambridge.
Local Ethiopians were “traumatized already” by the marathon attack and are now reeling from the news that Phillipos was a friend of the surviving bombing suspect, Tamene said.
The Boston Marathon is special to the city’s Ethiopians because of the number of elite runners from the country who compete each year, Tamene said. Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia won the men’s division this year.
Phillipos is Bekele’s only son, and “it’s upsetting for her and to the community, it’s a shock,” Tamene said. “He’s a very well-behaved, good student.”
The case is U.S. v. Phillipos, 13-02162, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).
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