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The untold story of ‘The Murders Before the Marathon’

A Boston journalist poses an uncomfortable question about a 2011 Waltham triple murder: "If police investigated this thoroughly, would they have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing?"

A screen grab from Hulu's docuseries "The Murders Before the Marathon." Hulu

On September 11, 2011 — the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — the town of Waltham was shaken by a triple homicide. Authorities found Waltham residents Erik Weissman, Brendan Mess, and Rafi Teken dead. All three of the men’s throats were violently slashed, and a Waltham investigator called the crime scene “the worst bloodbath” he had ever seen, comparing the carnage to “an Al-Qaeda training video.”

One of the early suspects in the case? Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

To this day, no one has officially been charged in the slaying, which is the subject of a new three-part Hulu docuseries, “The Murders Before the Marathon.” Produced by ABC Studios, Story Syndicate, and Anonymous Content, the documentary, which debuts September 5, presents compelling new information about Tsarnaev’s ties to the murder, and asks an incendiary question: “If police investigated this thoroughly, would they have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing?”

The journalist at the center of “The Murders Before the Marathon”

Investigative journalist Susan Zalkind in "The Murders Before the Marathon."
Investigative journalist Susan Zalkind in “The Murders Before the Marathon.” – ABC News Studios, Story Syndicate & Anonymous Content

“The Murders Before the Marathon” follows the decade-plus investigation of Boston journalist Susan Zalkind, who has written extensively about the case since the very beginning.

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Zalkind was a friend of Weissman’s who found out about the murder while working as a freelance production assistant at NECN. From the outset, she and other friends and family of the deceased were unsatisfied with the lack of answers about the case, and by a seeming lack of interest from authorities, who believed the murder to be drug-related. (All three victims regularly sold marijuana.)

Early on, many of those friends suggested that police speak to Tsarnaev. Tamerlan trained at the same gym as Mess and could often be found hanging out with the trio at Mess’s apartment, but was conspicuously absent from their funeral. According to the New York Times, the Middlesex DA’s office did not question Tsarnaev, even though his name was given to them by Waltham Police.

According to Zalkind, authorities didn’t visit the gym where Tsarnaev and Mess trained, didn’t follow up on a lead that Teken had been involved in a dispute with a Chechen individual shortly before the murder, and didn’t see a connection between Teken’s apartment being robbed shortly before the murder.

“There was no public outreach,” Zalkind told Boston.com “And the people that did come forward were intimidated or harassed.”

Zalkind also faulted authorities for not establishing a tip line, something she had come to see as standard operating procedure during her time in the NECN newsroom.

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“Whenever a murder case broke, law enforcement would reach out for the public’s help, and I would be there typing the number into the chyron,” Zalkind said. “The tip line thing just showed a lack of interest and curiosity that was pretty staggering.”

The death of Todashev

A still from "The Murders Before the Marathon."
A still from “The Murders Before the Marathon.” – ABC News Studios, Story Syndicate & Anonymous Content

The breaking point for Zalkind came about a month after the 2013 Marathon bombing, when Tsarnaev’s friend Ibragim Todashev was killed by an FBI agent in what was ruled to be self-defense. This occurred after hours of interrogation in Todashev’s Florida home, and shortly after Todashev made a written confession to his involvement in the Waltham triple murder.

Zalkind quit her full-time job and threw herself into investigating the case, driving for Uber on the side to help pay the bills. She flew down to Orlando to speak with Tatiana Gruzdeva, Todashev’s live-in girlfriend. She knocked on doors of anyone who knew Todashev and Tsarnaev. She requested records from the FBI and Middlesex County District Attorney’s office, the agency in charge of the Waltham murder investigation.

In February 2014, Zalkind published an in-depth investigation for Boston magazine and discussed the case at length on an episode of “This American Life.” She found that the FBI had asked many friends, acquaintances, and close associates of Todashev and Tsarnaev about the Waltham murder. According to Todashev’s wife (who had previously separated from Todashev), the FBI told her they had hard evidence that tied Todashev to the killings.

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In her continuing quest to find answers, Zalkind teamed up with screenwriter Matt Cook in 2017, which marked the very beginning of what eventually became “The Murders Before the Marathon.” Zalkind said she was initially very skeptical of turning her investigation into a Hollywood story, but Cook convinced her that they would do the story right, joining her to knock on doors and help deepen the investigation.

“I knew if I had a partner and more resources, I could push this story further,” Zalkind said. “I could find answers that I wouldn’t be able to find on my own.”

Radicalization and conspiracy theories

Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Beyond digging into the events of September 11, 2011, “The Murders Before the Marathon” also re-examines the personal life of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Tsarnaev was convinced that his path to a prosperous life in the U.S. was through boxing, and by all accounts, he was extremely talented. In 2010, he won the New England Golden Gloves heavyweight title, a traditional gateway to competing in the Olympics and progressing as a professional fighter. But newly instituted rules prohibiting non-citizens from fighting in the national championships meant Tsarnaev’s trajectory stalled.

After his singular focus was taken away from him, Tsarnaev began to read extremist literature and embrace conspiracy theories. He read English language versions of a propaganda publication created by Al-Qaeda and took a shine to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. He also became a virulent anti-Semite, and fought regularly with Mess and Teken about Israel.

The segment shows the similarities that Tamerlan’s radicalization bears to other domestic terrorists in the U.S., as well as how a lack of information from people in power can lead to radical thought.

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“When it comes to the Waltham murders and the connection to the Boston bombing, there should have been answers and accountability,” Zalkind said. “And there wasn’t, which created a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. And it hasn’t been until very recently that we’ve seen how dangerous conspiracy theories can be.”

The Dzhokhar death penalty connection

Jane Flavell Collins
A courtroom sketch of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

There is a gnawing question that anchors the third part of “The Murders Before the Marathon”: Who benefits from all this secrecy? Zalkind’s reporting suggests that the ongoing legal appeals of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — who earlier this year had his death sentence reimposed by the Supreme Court for his role in the 2013 Marathon bombing — could be a factor.

Dzhokhar was initially sentenced to death in 2015, but a panel of appeals judges in 2020 vacated the death penalty, ruling that the judge in Tsarnaev’s original trial had, among other issues, precluded Tsarnaev’s defense attorneys from presenting evidence about the 2011 Waltham murders. Following this ruling, the Biden administration decided to appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which ruled in the government’s favor, 6-3.

“Had Dzhokhar’s defense team been able to present evidence related to the Waltham murders at the original trial, Dzhokhar’s lawyers contend, they could have argued that Tamerlan, seven years Dzhokhar’s senior, had become a radicalized Muslim before Dzhokhar, that he’d committed a violent act previously and independently from Dzhokhar, and therefore he could have intimidated his younger brother and must have played a larger role in the marathon bombings,” Zalkind wrote in a February 2022 Boston magazine article. “Following this logic, Dzhokhar is still guilty under the law, but arguably less culpable than the government claimed and does not deserve to die.”

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To stand a better chance of winning their Supreme Court appeal, Zalkind reasoned, it was in the Justice Department’s best interest for the 2011 Waltham murders to remain a state and local investigation. If the murders were classified as an “act of terror,” it would warrant further examination of the evidence and Tamerlan’s potential involvement.

The government’s argument in court is “that the Waltham murders were a completely separate, irrelevant crime,” Zalkind said. “That it was a random, unplanned drug rip-off. Which it was not.”

“This was a radical act,” she continued. “It was very much planned. And my reporting also strongly indicates that it was ideologically motivated as well.”

What happens next?

A still from "The Murders Before the Marathon" showing the apartment of Brendan Mess where the 2011 Waltham murders took place.
A still from “The Murders Before the Marathon” showing the apartment of Brendan Mess where the 2011 Waltham murders took place. – ABC News Studios, Story Syndicate & Anonymous Content

After 11 years, no charges or arrests have been made in connection with the murder of Erik Weissman, Brendan Mess, and Rafi Teken. Despite presenting compelling evidence and actionable leads in “The Murders Before the Marathon” and in her upcoming September 2023 book, “The Waltham Murders: An Unsolved Homicide, a National Tragedy, and a Search for the Truth,” Zalkind openly admits that she “is not the justice system.” Her decade-plus investigation must be accompanied by action from the proper authorities.

Zalkind is hopeful that the release of “The Murders Before the Marathon” will put pressure on authorities to be more forthcoming about what they know.

In that vein, a glimmer of hope appeared over the summer: According to Zalkind, two months ago, the Massachusetts Supervisor of Records ordered the Middlesex County DA’s office to turn over all of the records related to the case for an on-camera review. So far, however, the DA’s office has not responded.

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“The Middlesex County District Attorney needs to comply with the Secretary of State and turn over their records,” Zalkind said.

Zalkind hopes that “The Murders Before the Marathon” raises awareness about the case and encourages people to come forward with new information. But no matter what happens in the coming months, she’s not going to stop digging.

“One of the questions people often ask me is, ‘Why wasn’t this case apparently investigated more thoroughly?'” Zalkind said. “And hey, if people have information about that, they can send me an email.”

“The Murders Before Marathon” is available on Hulu starting Sunday, September 5.

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