Authorities arrested three more suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing case on charges that they removed suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s backpack and laptop from his dorm room three days after the April 15 attack in a bid to frustrate the investigation.
Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev of Kazakhstan were charged with conspiring to obstruct justice. A third man, Robel Phillipos, of Cambridge, Mass., was charged with knowingly making false statements to federal investigators during a terrorism investigation.
A badly wounded Tsarnaev was taken into custody by police and charged with using a weapon of mass destruction days after the Patriots’ Day attacks that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others. All four men began attending the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth at the same time in 2011, and all are 19 years old.
Attorneys for Mr. Tazhayakov and Mr. Kadyrbayev strongly rejected the charges.
The announcement of the charges Wednesday was the first official sign that investigators think at least part of the deadly Boston drama involved more than the two suspects identified shortly after the attacks. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s elder brother, Tamerlan, died April 19 after a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass.
There were no indications from the charging documents that the three men charged Wednesday had anything to do with planning or carrying out the bombing. But in a footnote in the court papers outlining the charges, the FBI said that about a month before the attack, Tsarnaev told two of them that he knew how to make a bomb.
On April 18, Mr. Phillipos told Mr. Kadyrbayev to put on the news when he got home because one of the suspects in the bombing looked familiar, according to an affidavit that accompanied the criminal complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. After turning on the television, Mr. Kadyrbayev texted Tsarnaev and told him that he looked like one of the bombing suspects, to which Tsarnaev replied with texts that included “lol” and other messages that Mr. Kadyrbayev interpreted as jokes, such as “you better not text me” and “come to my room and take whatever you want.”
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Tazhayakov, Mr. Kadyrbayev and Mr. Phillipos met at the university campus and went to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dorm room, the complaint says. After being let in by Tsarnaev’s roommate, they noticed a backpack containing fireworks, which had been opened and emptied of powder.
“Kadyrbayev knew when he saw the empty fireworks that Tsarnaev was involved in the Marathon bombing,” FBI Special Agent Scott P. Cieplik wrote in the affidavit. “[He] decided to remove the backpack from the room in order to help his friend Tsarnaev avoid trouble. He decided to take Tsarnaev’s laptop as well because he did not want Tsarnaev’s roommate to think he was stealing or behaving suspiciously by just taking the backpack.”
After the three returned to the apartment of Mr. Kadyrbayev and Mr. Tazhayakov, they “collectively” decided to throw the backpack and fireworks into the trash because they didn’t want their friend to get into trouble, the affidavit says.
In his initial interview with federal agents, Mr. Phillipos concealed the fact that the three had gone to Tsarnaev’s apartment on April 18, according to the complaint. He subsequently changed his story, saying later that they went to the door of Tsarnaev’s room but did not take anything, and then denied going in at all. In the fourth interview, conducted Friday, he confessed that he lied to the agents during the previous interviews, according to the affidavit.
On Friday, law enforcement agents recovered the backpack from a landfill in New Bedford, Mass., where they believed it was dumped by the service that removes garbage from the apartment complex. The agents recovered fireworks, Vaseline and a homework assignment sheet from a class in which Tsarnaev was enrolled.
Mr. Kadyrbayev and Mr. Tazhayakov appeared at a preliminary hearing in federal court in Boston on Wednesday afternoon. Each faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. They agreed to voluntary detention, and another hearing is scheduled for May 14.
The two were previously detained for more than a week on charges that they overstayed their student visas. A federal law enforcement official told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that Mr. Tazhayakov was let back into the U.S. from Kazakhstan in January despite his student visa termination because the university had dismissed him on academic grounds.
A footnote in the complaint says Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told them about a month before the attack that he knew how to make a bomb, but Robert Stahl, an attorney for Mr. Kadyrbayev, said his client did not know of the evidential value of the items and cooperated fully with investigators throughout the process.
Mr. Kadyrbayev “is just as shocked and horrified by the violence in Boston that took place as the rest of the community is. … The government allegations as far as he saw a photo and recognized [Tsarnaev] immediately we dispute, and we’ll be looking forward to proving our case in court,” Mr. Stahl said. “Mr. Kadyrbayev and his family are very sorry for what happened here in Boston, and he did not have anything to do with it.”
Harlan Protass, an attorney for Mr. Tazhayakov, also said his client fully cooperated.
“My client, Azamat Tazhayakov, feels horrible and was shocked to hear that someone he knew at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth was involved with the Boston Marathon bombing, just like many other individuals who were interviewed on campus,” Mr. Protass said. “He has cooperated fully with the authorities and looks forward to the truth coming out in this case. I’d like to say also that he considers it an honor to be able to study in the United States and that he feels for the people of Boston who have suffered as a result of the Marathon bombing.”
The two Kazakhs lived together in New Bedford, and Mr. Kadyrbayev’s car, a photo of which appeared on Tsarnaev’s Twitter feed in March, had the souvenir front plate: “Terrorista #1.”
Mr. Phillipos appeared at a separate hearing Wednesday afternoon. He faces eight years in prison and a $250,000 fine and has a hearing scheduled for Monday.
The University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth said in a statement that neither Mr. Kadyrbayez nor Mr. Phillipos was enrolled at the school, about 60 miles south of Boston. Mr. Tazhayakov is enrolled at the school but has been suspended pending the outcome of the case. The school said it would “continue to fully cooperate” with the investigation.
During questioning with law enforcement authorities, Tsarnaev said he and his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, acted alone and were motivated by a desire to defend Islam in response to the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Over the weekend, several lawmakers said the FBI was looking at more “persons of interest” in the U.S.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was skeptical that issues surrounding the new suspects revealed the entire story.
“It’s not like getting rid of a six-pack when someone’s charged with underage drinking,” Mr. King told CNN. “You’re talking about the worst massacre in recent American history and the largest manhunt, and your friend is involved in it, and they’re treating it almost in a casual way. And again, I just think that what the FBI is going to be looking for now is, did they have any knowledge beforehand?”
The two brothers came to the U.S. from the Caucasus, a region on the border of Europe and Asia, a decade ago. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a citizen last year. Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s application was held up, reportedly because federal authorities were seeking more information about why the FBI interviewed him in 2011.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was placed on a government watch list before leaving for a six-month trip to the Russian southern republic of Dagestan last year.
President Obama said at a Tuesday news conference that law enforcement officials have performed in an “exemplary fashion” in response to the bombings.
“What we also know is that the Russian intelligence services had alerted U.S. intelligence about the older brother, as well as the mother, indicating that they might be sympathizers to extremists,” Mr. Obama said. “The FBI investigated that older brother. It’s not as if the FBI did nothing. They not only investigated the older brother, they interviewed the older brother. They concluded that there were no signs that he was engaging in extremist activity. So that much we know.”