It didn’t take law enforcement long to determine the culprits behind the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013: Chechen immigrant brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who subsequently murdered an MIT police officer and engaged in a shootout with authorities that ended with Tamerlan being fatally run over by his brother’s car, and Dzhokhar fleeing into nearby Watertown, where he was caught hiding in a backyard boat. Moreover, it soon became clear that Tamerlan had been radicalized online, embracing a violent Islamist ideology that had previously compelled him to visit Dagestan (in Russia) to further his jihadist aims, and had also inspired him to detonate more explosives in Times Square. With Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar sitting on death row (even after his most recent appeal), the case was relatively open-and-shut.
Except, however, for the lingering question of whether Tamerlan was responsible for an earlier triple homicide—and the attendant notion that, had he been caught at that time, the Boston Marathon bombing could have been prevented.
Guided by Susan Zalkind, whose book is its basis (and who has reported on this story for The Daily Beast), The Murders Before the Marathon is a three-part ABC News docuseries premiering on Hulu (Sept. 5) that examines a potential intelligence and investigative failure of tragic proportions. It concerns the murders of Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman and Raphael Teken, three friends in Waltham, Massachusetts, who—having all gathered to watch Sunday Night Football at Mess’ apartment—were found with their throats slashed to the point of decapitation, and covered in marijuana, on Sept. 11, 2011. Given that they’d been savagely killed with a blade and hadn’t been robbed ($5,000 in cash was discovered in the residence), detectives surmised that the victims had known their assailant. Unfortunately, after only a week, the case went cold, which was chalked up to a dearth of leads and the general sense that the trio—who were known marijuana dealers—were criminals who had probably gotten themselves into some cartel-related trouble.
Weissman was Zalkind’s friend, and upon hearing about his death, she began looking into the slayings, albeit to no avail. Everything changed, though, with the Boston Marathon bombing, when the deceased’s associates quickly recognized Tamerlan as Mess’ close friend and regular partner at the gym where Tamerlan was training to be a boxer. That link struck Zalkind as suspicious. Stranger still, in the aftermath of the bombing, local and federal agents used cellphone communications to link Tamerlan to Chechen MMA fighter Ibragim Todashev, who was then in Orlando, Florida. When they interviewed him and asked him about the 2011 triple homicide, he reportedly implicated himself. Yet before he finished penning his confession, he was gunned down by an FBI agent who stated that Ibragim had become hostile and attempted to assault him.
This was exceedingly puzzling, and it was compounded by the fact that the feds had recorded their chat with Ibragim but wouldn’t release it—and, also, that they had no audio or video material from the actual moment when things turned lethal. Regardless of such obstacles, Zalkind soldiered on with her sleuthing, conducting interviews with Ibragim’s girlfriend and wife which, as heard in The Murders Before the Marathon, only additionally muddied the waters, since their assertions about Ibragim’s innocence—focusing on his whereabouts in September 2011 and his purchase of a white Mercedes sedan—didn’t align with other certifiable elements of the case. With both Tamerlan and Ibragim dead, however, pinning down concrete specifics turned out to be difficult, and to this day, the murders of Mess, Weissman, and Teken remain officially unsolved.
Nonetheless, The Murders Before the Marathon makes a persuasive argument that the truth isn’t just knowable—it’s known. To prove its thesis, it starts by painting a thorough portrait of Tamerlan, who arrived in the U.S. (along with his asylum-seeking clan) at age 16 and heartily signed up for the American Dream, only to see his aspirations for boxing glory fall apart due to his immigrant status. Looking for someone to blame, he turned to every radical’s favorite fall guy—the Jews!—and swiftly adopted a conspiratorial antisemitic Islamist worldview via the internet and its treasure trove of terrorist propaganda (including al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine). Zalkind and others intimate that Tamerlan’s mother was similarly swayed by such hateful dogma, and that this belief system ultimately drove Tamerlan and his brother to set off two homemade pressure cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds.
“Having laid out Tamerlan’s mindset, ‘The Murders Before the Marathon’ contends that the terrorist butchered Mess, Weissman and Teken in 2011 in order to steal the funds required for his trip to Russia and his planned jihadist future.”
Having laid out Tamerlan’s mindset, The Murders Before the Marathon contends that the terrorist butchered Mess, Weissman, and Teken in 2011 in order to steal the funds required for his trip to Russia and his planned jihadist future. That this massacre occurred on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, and that two of the victims were proud Jews whose parents had fought in the Israeli army strikes Zalkind as more than a mere coincidence; to her, those details mesh perfectly with Tamerlan’s evolution into a fanatic who had found purpose (and agency) through an extremist Islamist ethos that preached violence against the West and its Jewish puppetmasters. While Jesse Sweet’s aesthetic approach is of a functional cable-news variety (replete with lots of rehearsed line-readings fit for commercial-break cliffhangers), the writer/producer’s collection of talking-head commentary and archival material—all of it led by Zalkind’s interviews and narration—creates the persuasive thesis that Tamerlan, with Ibragim as his accomplice, ended the trio’s lives.
What that means, in turn, is that if law enforcement had successfully investigated Tamerlan in the first place—and, particularly, his connections to Mess and his extremist views, which eventually landed him on Russia’s terrorist watchlist—they might have put him behind bars before he and his sibling carried out the Marathon bombing. The Murders Before the Marathon doesn’t have a smoking gun to verify its speculation, and Zalkind repeatedly admits that she’s been denied access to materials that could definitively bolster her claims. Still, this isn’t a court of law—it’s a true-crime docuseries. And on the basis of its evidence, it makes a strong case about what really happened to Mess, Weissman, and Teken, and about the mistakes that let Tamerlan get away with murder and, later, kill again.