Advocates for a 19-year-old Cambridge man charged with lying to federal investigators after the Boston Marathon bombings are calling on a federal judge to release him from jail Monday, saying he had “nothing to do” with the deadly attack.
In court documents filed Saturday, his lawyers and supporters said Robel Phillipos is a doting and civic-minded young man and that the authorities’ claims that he gave conflicting accounts to them is “refutable.” He has a detention hearing Monday in US District Court in Boston.
“This case is about a frightened and confused 19 year old who was subjected to intense questioning and interrogation, without the benefit of counsel, and in the context of one of the worst attacks against the nation,” lawyers Derege B. Demissie and Susan B. Church of Cambridge said in court documents.
“The weight of the federal government under such circumstances can have a devastatingly crushing effect on the ability of an adolescent to withstand the enormous pressure and respond rationally.”
Federal investigators charged Phillipos on Wednesday in US District Court in Boston, saying he gave three different versions of events until he finally admitted that he and two friends went to dorm room of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspected bomber, on April 18, three days after the Marathon bombings killed three people and injured 264 others.
The two friends, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, 19-year-old students from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, were also charged Wednesday with conspiring to obstruct justice and destroy evidence in the case, for taking a backpack and other items from Tsarnaev’s dorm room and dumping some of them in a trash bin near their off-campus apartment in New Bedford.
Of the three friends, Phillipos is facing the longest possible incarceration – up to eight years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov are facing up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
On Saturday, lawyers said in court records that Phillipos was at UMass Dartmouth—where all four men had studied—by coincidence on April 18.
At that time, the lawyers said, Phillipos had not talked to Tsarnaev or the other two men for more than two months.
“By sheer coincidence and bad luck, he was invited to attend a seminar on campus on April 18,” the night the three friends allegedly went to Tsarnaev’s dorm room, according to the court records. “As such, he did not have much to offer the authorities regarding the investigation of the suspect.”
Phillipos took a leave of absence from UMass Dartmouth in December and was seeking an internship at the time of his arrest, according to the court records.
To support the request for bail, lawyers filed multiple affidavits from friends and relatives of Phillipos, including a Wellesley College art professor, the owner of a limousine business, and a Harvard Kennedy school program administrator.
In the affidavits, supporters described Phillipos as a considerate, thoughtful and friendly young man, the son of a single mother who emigrated to the United States from Ethiopia.
Phillipos is bilingual in Amharic and English and proud of his Ethiopian heritage, they said.
But he was born and raised in Massachusetts and well-integrated into American life. He attended school, played in soccer and basketball leagues, and idolized Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
He is the only son of Genet Bekele, a domestic-violence specialist who moved to Massachusetts in 1981 and raised her only son working two jobs while she pursued three college degrees. She earned an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree in political science from Northeastern University and a master’s degree in social work from Boston University.
She became a naturalized US citizen in 1996 and has helped many other immigrants and refugees adjust to the United States.
In an affidavit on behalf of her son, Bekele said she was deeply involved in his life despite her work schedule. She said she attended all teacher conferences, chaperoned field trips and made sure he did his homework every night.
In return, she said, her son helped her. He washed dishes, did the laundry and went grocery shopping.
“With every opportunity he had, Robel has always tried to make things easier on me,” she said in the affidavit. “He was very cognizant of the hard work that I had to put in being a single parent.”
She said Phillipos was an honor student in his first two years at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, where he graduated in 2011 with Tsarnaev, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who also grew up in Cambridge.
Phillipos served on the Cambridge Mayor’s Program, tutoring younger students, and on the Cambridge Kids’ Council as recently as 2010. On his resume, he said he lobbied to pass a bill that would lower the voting age to 17 in Massachusetts.
Like Tsarnaev, Phillipos enrolled in UMass Dartmouth in 2011, majoring in marketing and minoring in sociology, court records show. He took a leave of absence in December and was seeking an internship when he was arrested.
His mother said Phillipos wants nothing more than to clear his name and said she and her family were horrified by the Marathon bombings. As US citizens of Ethiopian descent, she said, they look forward to the Marathon every year.
The male winner this year was 23-year-old Lelisa Desisa from Ethiopia.
The outpouring of support for Phillipos contrasted sharply with authorities’ accounts of the night of April 18.
In the criminal complaint, authorities say Phillipos, Kadyrbayev, and Tazhayakov went to Tsarnaev’s dorm room late at night, three days after the deadly explosions, and then returned to the Kazakh men’s off campus apartment in New Bedford. Phillipos told authorities that Kadyrbayev went through Tsarnaev’s belongings and took it, then drove Phillipos and Tazhayakov back to the apartment.
Phillipos then said, according to the complaint, that Kadyrbayev and ¬Tazhayakov “started to freak out”—sometimes in Russian, which he did not understand—because they realized from a CNN report that Tsarnaev was one of the Marathon bombers.
At one point, he said, Kadyrbayev asked Phillipos whether he should throw away the backpack.
According to authorities, Phillipos allegedly replied: “Do what you have to do.”
Phillipos said he then took a nap. When he awakened, the backpack was gone.
The three men are not accused of participating in the bombings and their lawyers say none had any idea that Tsarnaev was involved in the bombings.