Suspicion grows that Boston bombers were behind 2011 murders

Families of victims, 2 of whom were Jewish, decline to speak publicly, but law enforcement are hard at work exploring possible connection

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

This composite photograph shows Tsarnaev Tamerlan, 26 (left), and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, suspected of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing (photo credit: AP/The Lowell Sun & Robin Young)
This composite photograph shows Tsarnaev Tamerlan, 26 (left), and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, suspected of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing (photo credit: AP/The Lowell Sun & Robin Young)

NEW YORK – The families of three Boston-area men gruesomely murdered in 2011 have steadfastly declined to speak to the press even as suspicion has taken root that the men, two of them Jewish, were murdered by alleged Boston bomber and Islamist radical Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

The three men were Erik Weissman, 31, Raphael Teken, 37, and Brendan Mess, 25.

FBI investigators have been speaking to the families in recent days in an attempt to determine if there was a connection between the 2011 murders of their relatives and the Tsarnaev brothers, who stand accused of the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15 that killed three and wounded over 260.

One of the 2011 victims, Mess, was a close friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, according to the accounts of friends, and was seen with him often in the weeks prior to the murder. The two were roommates at one time, relatives told officials.

The murder was one of the most gruesome killings the Boston area had known in years, local media has noted. The men had knife wounds on their bodies, had been dragged one by one into separate rooms and were “slaughtered,” according to local media description. They were found the following morning by Mess’s girlfriend, who reportedly ran screaming from the apartment. Their throats had been slit, their bodies sprinkled with marijuana, and $5,000 in cash lay untouched in the apartment.

The murders have stymied police. “It’s been an open case since 2011 and that hasn’t changed,” Stephanie Guyotte of the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office told The Times of Israel this week.

There were strong indicators the murder was related to soft drugs. The three men were known to smoke, and also deal in, marijuana. In 2008, Weissman was pulled over by police, who found marijuana in his car and heard him admit he had been arrested for possession of the controlled substance before. Teken, too, was known locally as a marijuana dealer, according to classmates and neighbors.

Police also noted there were no signs of a break-in, suggesting that the victims knew their assailant and raising speculation in the press that the assault may have started with a drug deal gone awry.

“We have indicated in the past that we do believe it was drug-related,” Guyotte noted.

But there were strange discrepancies as well.

Would a drug dealer have left behind so much cash and marijuana?

Erik Weissman (photo credit: Facebook)
Erik Weissman (photo credit: Facebook)

And then there was the date. The bodies were found on the afternoon of September 12, 2011, and the murders were initially reported as taking place on that date. But police have come to believe the murder took place the previous night, some time after 8 p.m. on September 11, 2011, exactly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The murder date also corresponds to the period during which the FBI believes Tamerlan was becoming increasingly radicalized. Tamerlan became increasingly pious in his habits, including growing a beard and rejecting alcohol. In 2011, Russian authorities intercepted telephone and SMS conversations between Tamerlan and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, who lives in Russia, that discussed jihad and Tamerlan’s willingness to die for Islam. Zubeidat had suggested Tamerlan go to fight against Israel in “Palestine,” but Tamerlan objected that he did not know Arabic.

That comment now weighs heavily in the speculation. Weissman and Teken were Jewish. Local Boston news site said Weissman, who has relatives in Israel, was “active in his synagogue.” After his death, trees were planted in his honor in the Carmel Mountains outside Haifa, according to a message on a Facebook page devoted to his memory.

Teken, 37, was a Brandeis graduate who was buried in Israel.

Could the victims have served as substitutes for attacking Israel?

Last week, just a week after the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, the Boston Globe reported that the victims’ families had approached law enforcement with the surprising revelation that may offer a long-sought explanation for the 2011 murder: that Tsarnaev and Mess had been close friends.

Law enforcement officials won’t offer details on the ongoing investigation, but say they are pursuing the new leads. “It’s an active and open homicide investigation so I can’t discuss any details,” said Guyotte, and added, “If there is information that may come to light we will absolutely pursue it.”

Raphael Teken (photo credit: Facebook)
Raphael Teken (photo credit: Facebook)

According to the Globe, relatives even suspect that Tamerlan may have been helped in the 2011 murder by his brother and Marathon bombing co-conspirator, Dzhokhar, “because of the difficulty that one killer would face subduing the three victims, at least two of whom were in good physical condition.”

Teken was a personal trainer and Mess a mixed martial artist. Even if they were high at the time of the killing, “the person or persons who committed the slayings had to be strong and highly skilled,” the Globe noted in explaining the relatives’ rationale.

Family members have declined to speak to the media since their contact with law enforcement about the possible connection to the Marathon bombers began last week. Weissman’s family in Israel has also declined to speak to the press.

But not, apparently, for lack of effort on the part of the media.

“Stop asking,” began a message posted Friday to a Facebook page in memory of Raphael Teken. “We don’t know anything except that Rafi was gererous [sic] to a fault, funny as heck, smart and his only fault was a split NY/BOS personality. Thanks and blessings to every one of his friends who are just like him, some of the nicest people in the world. You have meant the world to us. Peace.”

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