Thursday, July 18, 2024

Susan Clare Zalkind (via the author’s website)

From Susan Clare Zalkind, a journalist, writer and producer whose work has appeared in Boston magazine, The Guardian, CityLab and Vice and on “This American Life” and others, comes “The Waltham Murders: One Woman’s Pursuit to Expose the Truth Behind a Murder and a National Tragedy.” Zalkind spent more than a decade – eight years of which she lived in Cambridge – pursuing the truth behind the brutal murders of Raphael Teken, Brendan Mess and Erik Weissman. Her research on the murders, which came 18 months before the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, led her to produce the 2022 Hulu docuseries “The Murders Before the Marathon.” Her new book is a deep dive into the murders and their connection to the marathon bombing, as well as an exploration of what law enforcement did and did not do at the time and up until today. We interviewed her March 7; her words have been edited for length and clarity.

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Can you explain the circumstances around these murders, for those who may not know?

On Sept. 11, 2011, three men were killed in an apartment. It was a brutal, unusual murder. Their throats were slit. Marijuana was dumped on two of the bodies. There was $5,000 cash left behind at the scene of the crime. The three victims were marijuana dealers back when cannabis was illegal and not a major tax revenue stream, like it is today. Raphael Teken was a Brandeis graduate. He grew up in Brookline. The other two victims grew up in Cambridge. Brendan Mess had a purple belt in jujitsu and he was best friends and sparring partners with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who went on to bomb the Boston Marathon 18 months later. The other victim was Erik Weissman, who was a friend of mine.

How did you know Erik?

I knew him through my childhood friends, who were all enthusiastic cannabis connoisseurs. Erik, he was a sweet man. He had a unique ability to really pull out the best in people and help you articulate your dreams and aspirations. In that way, he really saw me as a writer before I did. And in his death, over the years, reporting on this case, I’ve seen again and again that impact that Erik has had with other people. He was a cheerleader, checking in on you, and he would celebrate your wins. He was a good friend.

How did you come to start investigating these murders, and at what point did you realize this was going to be a book?

When the story first crossed the wire, I was working my first job out of college as a production assistant at New England Cable News. I was an aspiring courts and crime reporter, and I started looking into the murder because it was unusual. When I found out that Erik was one of the victims, I left the newsroom. I was overcome with grief and fear and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to report on crime at all, let alone his death. But I was also curious, sporadically taking notes about what happened and jotting down observations. And then the Boston Marathon bombing happened, and one month after that an associate of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, another Chechen MMA fighter named Ibragim Todashev, allegedly confessed and implicated himself and Tamerlan in the Waltham killings. Before he was arrested, an FBI agent shot him dead in his own home. That was the point for me that, even though I had a lot of hesitation to pursue this case because of my personal connection, and also because I was a young journalist with little experience, I just knew I needed answers. I made a promise to stick to the story and push it forward as far as I could and seek the truth, and that’s what I did. It’s been a long investigation; it’s been emotionally taxing, but never dull. I was actively reporting on this story right up until the end, and there were a lot of twists and turns and what I found ultimately surprised me.

What did you find? What connects the Waltham murders to the Boston Marathon bombing?

Ultimately, I found that there was an overlap between the criminal milieu, between the victims and members of law enforcement, which might explain why the case wasn’t thoroughly investigated in 2011. I also discovered serious questions about the woman who found the bodies, Hiba Eltilib, who had been Brendan’s girlfriend, and the death of her husband Jay Edosomwan Jr. The death of Hiba’s husband is squarely part of the Waltham murders story and where the case is now. In the book, I assert that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Ibragim Todashev are guilty of murder. Although the case is officially open, the book provides convincing evidence linking Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Ibragim Todashev to the crime. Piece by piece, the facts began to line up, and there was no logical story that they didn’t do it. You could not present a convincing argument that they did not do this. There’s a mountain of evidence, and all together it evinces a convincing story that they are guilty of this murder. But that’s only one part of the story. There are serious questions about the actions and inactions of law enforcement before the bombing, after the bombing and right up until today.

Why do you think people should know about the murders, and what do you hope they take away from your book?

I think it’s time to reassess what we think we know about the Boston Marathon bombing. Facts matter, and even if the truth is sometimes strange, it’s very much worth pursuing. This is also a story about Cambridge and the other cities and towns around the Charles River: our culture and our histories, which are complicated. There are some facts about our past that have been hidden.

Do you think there are larger lessons to be taken from this about the political or cultural climate of Boston today?

The bombing coincided with the rapid spread of misinformation. Mistakes are made by law enforcement on every level, but those in power were able to deny these allegations, and in doing so, sidestep accountability all together. I think there’s a lesson here for those seeking to enact change and hold officials to account. Like I said, truth is important and facts are effective.