Reni Manukyan, Wife of Chechen Man Killed in FBI Probe Speaks Out

The wife of a Chechen man killed during an FBI interrogation in Orlando said authorities also questioned her but never asked about a 2011 triple murder that agents now suggest involved her husband and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

By Paul Sonne

Reni Manukyan seen with her husband, Ibragim Todashev, in an undated photo.

Vkontakte/Reni Manukyan

The wife of a Chechen man killed Wednesday during an FBI interrogation in Florida says federal authorities also questioned her at a separate location on the same day but never asked about a 2011 triple murder that U.S. law-enforcement agents now suggest involved her late husband.

Reni Manukyan, a 24-year-old assistant hotel-housekeeping manager who married Ibragim Todashev at a mosque near Boston in July 2010, says agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrived at her house in Atlanta and her mom’s house in Savannah, Ga., on Tuesday night, the same time they started questioning her late husband at his home in Orlando.

Ms. Manukyan says the FBI agents who came to her house asked about alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whom she says her husband met after moving to the Boston area from Russia in 2008.

But she says the agents never asked about a Sept. 11, 2011, murder in Waltham, Mass., in which three victims—25-year-old Brendan Mess, 31-year-old Erik Weissman and 37-year-old Raphael Teken—were found dead with their throats slit and bodies covered in marijuana and cash.

The FBI didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The agency has interviewed dozens of people who knew the suspected bombers.

Two U.S. law-enforcement officials said Wednesday that Mr. Todashev, 27, had made incriminating statements about his and Mr. Tsarnaev’s involvement in that triple murder before Mr. Todashev was shot dead after lunging at an FBI agent with a knife during questioning. Mr. Tsarnaev was killed in an April shootout with authorities in the Boston area.

Ms. Manukyan, an Armenian who converted to Islam before marrying Mr. Todashev, says she met her late husband in 2010 through a mutual friend in Boston. She says she separated from Mr. Todashev last November but was still in regular contact with him and was partly supporting him through their joint bank account. She says she saw him last week when he came to visit her in Atlanta and spoke to him this week.

Mr. Todashev’s death came after roughly a month of heavy interaction with federal law-enforcement officials, contact that Ms. Manukyan says began shortly after Mr. Tsarnaev was identified as the prime suspect—along with younger brother Dzhokhar, who is in federal custody—in an April 15 bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon that left three people dead and more than 200 people wounded.

“They never, ever—in all the interviews that I had and all the interviews that he had—never did they mention anything about a murder,” Ms. Manukyan said in a telephone interview. “Everything was about the bombing and about him knowing Tamerlan. They would show me a picture of Tamerlan or Tamerlan’s wife or some other guys that I haven’t a clue who they are, but nothing about a murder—nothing ever.”

Ms. Manukyan, who says she has been questioned on more than one occasion by federal agents, says she believes her husband was interrogated from mid-evening on Tuesday until the early hours of the morning on Wednesday, when he was killed.

She said her late husband couldn’t have been friends with the three victims because he “doesn’t have any American friends,” associating instead mainly with other immigrants who moved to the U.S. from Russia. She also said that it’s hard to believe that Mr. Todashev would have been involved in anything related to drugs.

“My husband—he does not do drugs, he does not smoke, he doesn’t do anything like that,” Ms. Manukyan said. “He doesn’t even drink alcohol.”

Ms. Manukyan said she doesn’t believe her late husband would have pulled a knife on the law-enforcement agents. She says her husband has no personal pocket knives and that the kitchen—where the knives in his house are located—is far away from the living room, where the agents likely would have conducted their interrogation. She also noted that Mr. Todashev was recovering from a knee surgery and couldn’t walk well.

Mr. Todashev’s father, Abdulbaki Todashev, also said his son was disabled by knee surgery earlier this year and was learning to walk again at about the time of the Boston Marathon bombings. Abdulbaki Todashev spoke in an interview broadcast by Kremlin-funded television from his hometown of Grozny.

Abdulbaki Todashev, said his son was a “very calm” person who would never hurt anyone.

Even if Mr. Todashev did brandish a knife, Ms. Manukyan said the agents should have been trained to take action that wouldn’t have left her late husband dead.

“This is something they should be trained for,” she said. “They should be trained to not use a gun in any way.”

Ms. Manukyan said she is still waiting for the FBI to release her husband’s body. She says the FBI should pay for Mr. Todashev’s body to be transported overseas for a proper burial in his homeland because he died while under interrogation.

Ms. Manukyan says her husband told her the FBI showed up at his house in Florida shortly after the marathon bombings. “He was outside of his house—the place where he was shot last night—in his backyard, talking on the phone with somebody, and out of nowhere they came and put him on the ground and handcuffed him and took him to the FBI office,” she said.

Ms. Manukyan says that kicked off a series of interactions with U.S. authorities that were becoming increasingly frustrating for her husband.

“They let him go but they took his computer and his phone. For the whole day they were holding his phone and the computer,” Ms. Manukyan said of the first day Mr. Todashev was interrogated.

“Then they were just contacting him pretty much every day, and they were following him every single day, everywhere he goes there were a couple cars right behind him on his tail,” she said he had told her. “They were all over what he was doing, pretty much.”

Ms. Manukyan says her late husband wasn’t a close friend of Mr. Tsarnaev’s but knew him because both men were Chechens interested in martial arts living in the Boston area. She says her husband moved to the U.S. in 2008 to practice his English after attending college in Saratov, Russia, and initially settled in the Boston area because he had a friend there.

She says her late husband did speak with Mr. Tsarnaev in recent months because Mr. Todashev had undergone knee surgery.

“He couldn’t walk,” Ms. Manukyan said. “He couldn’t even go get water for himself, because he wasn’t able to walk with his knee. And that’s when he talked to Tamerlan, who talked to him after the surgery, but before that phone call, he hasn’t called him for years.”

According to Ms. Manukyan, Mr. Todashev lived in the Boston area from 2008 to 2010 before moving to the Atlanta area a few months after their marriage in July 2010. She says she and her husband moved to the Orlando area in 2011, in part because he had friends there and it was a better place for the mixed-martial-arts fighting Mr. Todashev practiced.

She said Mr. Todashev spent the summer of 2011 in Boston because of a transportation job he landed there. She says she believes her husband returned to Florida before September 2011—when the triple murder took place—but she’s not sure about the exact dates.

Ms. Manukyan, who moved to the U.S. in 2006, says her late husband was religious and attended services at a mosque most every week, but she said there was “nothing crazy” about his beliefs and no radicalism she detected.

She also said Mr. Todashev had retained a lawyer to deal with an unrelated parking-lot altercation but that he wasn’t using a lawyer in dealing with the FBI.

Meanwhile, Damien Trites, a mixed-martial-arts fighter who trained alongside Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Mr. Todashev, said it was hard to understand how Mr. Todashev could have played a role in the triple murder.

Mr. Trites, 33, was also friends with Mr. Mess, one of the victims from the 2011 killing. All four men worked out at the Wai Kru gym in Boston, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Mr. Mess were good friends.

Despite that bond, Mr. Trites said allegations that Mr. Tsarnaev was responsible for the deadly marathon bombings leads him to believe Tamerlan could have killed before. But Mr. Todashev’s alleged involvement in the murders is more puzzling.

“There’s no doubt about it, he wasn’t normal,” Mr. Trites said of Mr. Todashev. “You don’t go at a police officer with a knife. You’re asking for trouble. I don’t blame them for killing him, but I don’t know, man, something doesn’t add up.”

While Mr. Tsarnaev and Mr. Mess were friends, Mr. Todashev didn’t seem to know Mr. Mess, Mr. Trites said. And he didn’t appear very close to Mr. Tsarnaev, either, according to fighters and acquaintances.

“Honestly, I don’t think that Ibrahim killed them,” Mr. Trites said. “I really don’t. I don’t see what motive he would have.”

Mr. Todashev did share some commonalities with Mr. Tsarnaev, at least on the surface. They were tough men, an MMA fighter and boxer, with Chechen backgrounds who trained at the same gym and at one point lived only blocks away from each other in Cambridge, Mass. They both dressed well, with a flashy, European look. They were also Muslims who prayed before working out, Mr. Trites said.

But they didn’t pray together, or even talk much in the gym, he said, and they had very different personalities. Mr. Tsarnaev was outgoing and jocular, Mr. Todashev serious and reserved, rarely smiling.

“It was hard to get a conversation out of him,” Mr. Trites said. “If I got the kid to smile, I was happy.”

Mr. Todashev also appeared ready for combat outside the MMA arena or within. He didn’t train with a toned-down style like other fighters, and was always fighting at full throttle, his Boston training partner said. He got into two driving-related altercations in Florida and Massachusetts, according to local records. He came into the gym once with a black eye.

“Ibragim used to fight a lot, even outside the gym,” Mr. Trites said. “He used to get into street fights a lot.”

Mr. Trites, 33, now lives in Springfield, Mass. But he was close with Mr. Mess when he worked out at Wai Kru. They bonded over the clothing brand Crooks & Castles, which they both wore. Mr. Mess was skilled in Brazilian jiu-jitsu before he turned his focus to boxing, Mr. Trites said.

Mr. Trites recalled seeing Tamerlan Tsarnaev at the gym about a year ago during a trip to Boston. It was the first time they had seen each other since the triple murder, because Mr. Trites was living in Springfield at the time, and he wanted to express his condolences to Mr. Mess’s friend.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev “was like, ‘yeah it’s crazy, he obviously was involved in something that none of us knew about,’ ” Mr. Trites recalled. Mr. Tsarnaev also described how drugs were found at the scene.

Mr. Trites had more contact with Mr. Todashev because they were both MMA fighters, and Mr. Tsarnaev, “an unbelievable boxer,” didn’t train much with the MMA guys. Like other fighters who squared off with Mr. Todashev, Mr. Trites said he was unorthodox and difficult to train for. He threw a different kind of kick and had an unusual wrestling style.

But they worked closely together. Mr. Todashev helped his partner train to beat another fighter Mr. Todashev had faced, and Mr. Trites worked his partner’s corner for a few fights. Mr. Trites can’t understand what would link Mr. Todashev to the triple murders.

But “he can’t answer any questions. You’re not going to hear his side of the story because he’s dead,” Mr. Trites said.

In a statement Thursday, Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan said “this office and its law enforcement partners have conducted a thorough, far-reaching investigation beginning in 2011 when this horrific crime occurred.” She also said the investigation “has not concluded and is by no means closed.”

–Jon Kamp and Alan Cullison contributed to this article.

Write to Paul Sonne at paul.sonne@wsj.com

WSJ.com link no longer working or available, but the story was mirrored here:  http://stream.marketwatch.com/story/explosions-at-boston-marathon/SS-4-27786/SS-4-30848/

 

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