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Todashev’s last interview

One year ago yesterday, two Massachusetts state troopers and an FBI agent from the Boston field office traveled to Orlando, Florida to interview a former associate of the recently deceased marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The subject of the interview, a Chechen immigrant and mixed martial arts fighter named Ibragim Todashev, had met with FBI officials in Florida on numerous occasions. He had been tracked by FBI surveillance teams from land and air for weeks. Federal officials had taken his girlfriend into immigration custody and were threatening to deport her. When Orlando FBI officials told him some men from Massachusetts wanted to interview him, and that it would be the last interview, Todashev got nervous, his friends said.

The agents were telling the truth; it was his last interview. At approximately midnight one year ago, FBI agent Aaron McFarlane shot Todashev seven times, including twice in the back. He died from his wounds in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, in a quiet residential neighborhood.

People in the United States and around the world woke up the next morning to shocking news: the FBI had overnight killed a former Tsarnaev associate and a suspect in an unsolved triple murder that took place in Waltham, Massachusetts in 2011. Days after the marathon bombings, the FBI had publicly fingered Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a suspect in that crime. Now the government’s other named suspect was dead—both suspects killed in confrontations with law enforcement officials.

In the days after the Todashev killing, the FBI gave conflicting stories about what happened in the room. He lunged at officers with a knife, they said. Then it was a sword, then a pole, then a broomstick. The public was skeptical. ACLU affiliates in Florida and Massachusetts called for investigations in both states—of the conduct of the officials in Florida, and of the role of the Massachusetts state troopers, respectively. Ultimately, the local state’s attorney in Orlando conducted an investigation and published a long report finding the shooting was appropriate. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division also cleared the FBI shooter. The latter report came as no surprise given that out of 150 recent FBI killings, the DOJ found 150 were justified.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has thus far refused to investigate, claiming that her office doesn’t have the authority to look into the activity of Massachusetts law enforcement officials when they work across state lines. But if the top law enforcement official in Massachusetts doesn’t have the authority to investigate state police officers, who does?

Take action now to urge Coakley to investigate.

In the wake of the Florida report, it’s all the more important that AG Coakley investigate the role of Massachusetts officials in the interrogation and circumstances that ended in Todashev’s death. One year later, the public is left with more questions than answers about what happened that night.

First of all, there were lots of problems with the Florida report. The FBI refused to allow agent Aaron McFarlane to speak with Florida investigators, instead providing a written statement for the record. The testimony McFarlane offered appeared to clash with the recollection of the state trooper who was also in the room at the time of Todashev’s death, a man now identified as Curtis Cinelli. (Both government reports withheld all three law enforcement officers’ names, but they were revealed to the public after a blogger and then the Boston Globe unredacted them from a PDF of the Florida report.) The state’s attorney who wrote the report seems to have cobbled together these different recollections, weaving a narrative that fits somewhere in between what the two men said occurred that night. Making matters worse, Florida investigators didn’t interview Todashev’s neighbors about what they saw and heard the night of his death until months after the incident.

Furthermore, neither the Florida report nor the DOJ inquiry examined the circumstances surrounding how and why the agent and the two troopers ended up in the apartment with Todashev that night, or whether the conditions of the interview satisfied FBI and Massachusetts State Police policy. The troopers knew Todashev to be a dangerous man, physically speaking. As their statements to the Florida investigators reveal, they had viewed YouTube videos of him in MMA fighting matches and knew him to be a physically powerful, skilled fighter.

The decision to interview him in his home, despite the risks, raises disturbing questions. Why was Todashev interviewed in his own apartment, if he was such a grave threat? Who authorized the troopers’ travel to Orlando, and pursuant to what investigation? Who was in charge of the investigation? The Florida report revealed that the troopers video and audio recorded portions of the Todashev interview, but stopped recording just as the deceased was allegedly penning a confession of his involvement in the Waltham murders. What is State Police policy on the recording of interviews and confessions? Why did officials stop recording just as he was allegedly confessing to this crime, and right before he allegedly attacked agent McFarlane with a coffee table?

Finally, what is the role of state and local law enforcement when they work side by side with federal investigators, either on an ad hoc basis or through official channels like the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs)? When Massachusetts officials are paid by local and state taxes, but are deputized as federal agents, the people of Massachusetts have a right to know what’s happening in their names, and with their money. That’s why the ACLU of Massachusetts filed suit against the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office, to learn about how the federal government works with state and local police on terrorism investigations, and to find out more about the circumstances surrounding the Todashev incident.

The shroud of secrecy governing JTTF and FBI operations must be lifted. The Todashev case is a clear example of what can go wrong when lines of authority are not clearly spelled out in investigations and task force operations involving state and federal officials. When someone dies during a task force interrogation, where does the buck stop? If the top law enforcement official in Massachusetts doesn’t have the authority to investigate troopers when they work out of state with the FBI, who has that authority? Who will exercise it?

The day after Todashev’s killing, one of the state troopers texted the other trooper and agent McFarlane: “Well done men we all got through it and are now heading home. Great work”.

The Massachusetts State Police traveled to Florida to interrogate a suspect in a Waltham triple murder. Those murders still haven't been solved. The FBI says that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was involved in the kilings, suggesting that if the murders had been solved back in 2011, the Boston marathon bombings would not have happened. When the Massachusetts troopers left Florida after their interview with Todashev, the sole remaining, named suspect in that crime was dead at the end of a law enforcement weapon.

That’s “great work”?

Join us in calling on Attorney General Martha Coakley to investigate the role of the State Police in the events that transpired a year ago today in Orlando. When Massachusetts officials act on official business, it’s the people of the Commonwealth’s business. The stakes are too high to brush off. The people of Massachusetts deserve transparency.

It's never too late for the truth.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.