Privacy SOS

Watertown police chief on the FBI and the Waltham murder investigation that wasn’t

Speaking on local PBS news program Greater Boston, Watertown police chief Ed Deveau said MIT police officer Sean Collier “would still be with us” and the Watertown shootout “never would have happened” had the Boston FBI agents who knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev recognized him in the video surveillance images the FBI eventually released to the public.

Here’s the relevant part of the transcript, with Greater Boston host Jim Braude.

Braude: Is there any part of you that entertains the notion that had law enforcement—particularly on the federal level—done its job better and more relentlessly, that this would not even have happened two years ago?

Deveau: …Well, I think if, once the pictures were put up, maybe some of the federal agents could have, you know, the ones that did the interviewing, could have recognized that a little bit sooner, or immediately, and Sean would still be with us. Watertown never would have happened.

Watertown police chief Deveau’s comments about the FBI’s failure to recognize the Tsarnaev brothers despite having investigated them mark just the second time—as far as I can tell—a local law enforcement official has publicly raised questions about the bureau’s behavior in the week after the bombings. In the April 12, 2015 edition of the Boston Globe, columnist Kevin Cullen quoted an anonymous Boston police department officer saying,

“Who were the FBI agents who interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev after the Russians raised questions about him two years before the bombings, and why didn’t they recognize Tamerlan from the photos the FBI released?”

I’ve been asking this question publicly for nearly two years. We haven’t thus far receieved a satisfactory response to it. And there are other nagging questions, too—one of which Braude posed to Deveau live on set exactly two years after the bombings tore apart Boylston street.

The question pertains to a grisly, 2011 triple murder in Watertown’s neighboring suburb, Waltham, in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s best friend Brendan Mess was killed along with two other men. Those murders were never solved, but after the marathon bombings (18 months after the murders) law enforcement personnel leaked to the press that they suddenly had forensic and cell phone location evidence tying Tamerlan to the crime scene. Soon after that bombshell landed in the local press, two Massachusetts state troopers and a Boston FBI agent traveled down to Florida to interview a Tsarnaev associate. The FBI agent shot Ibragim Todashev dead as he was allegedly confessing to his and Tamerlan’s involvement in the Waltham killings.

Braude: I wanna go back back even further for a second…We’ve discussed this much on this show. Three men were murdered in Waltham 18 months before this marathon bombing. The FBI says that the guy they killed in an apartment in Orlando about a month after the marathon was in league with the older Tsarnaev and they were responsible for the triple murder. If that were true, and had that case been solved, it’s pretty clear to me there would not have been a marathon bombing. Is that not a fair conclusion?

Deveau: I think it’s very fair to say that.

Two years after the marathon bombings, the public still doesn’t have answers to basic questions about local and federal law enforcement’s competence before and after the attack. We don’t know why the FBI agents who interviewed Tamerlan didn’t recognize him, or if they did, why they didn’t act to apprehend him before Sean Collier was killed and Watertown was turned into a war zone. We still don’t know why police never bothered to investigate the gruesome triple murder in Waltham in 2011, or why they never interviewed Tamerlan about those murders. Stranger still, we don’t know who built the bombs that blew up the beloved Boston Marathon, or where they were built.

It took two years for local officials to start asking at least some of these questions publicly. Now we need answers. As the penalty phase of the Tsarnaev trial gears up, it’s possible that we might soon find some.

© 2023 ACLU of Massachusetts.