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New Questions in FBI Boston Bombing Witness Killing
Almost a year after an FBI agent shot and killed, under suspicious circumstances, a crucial witness in the Boston Marathon bombing case during a botched midnight interrogation in an Orlando apartment, serious questions are being raised about the FBI agent who fired seven shots into Chechen immigrant Ibragim Todashev last May 22.
Two investigations, one by the FBI itself and one by the Florida Attorney General’s office, exonerated the FBI in the shooting death, claiming the agent, never identified, had been acting in self-defense, when Todashev allegedly ran at him with a raised broom handle.
Now, in an excellent piece of investigative journalism, the Boston Globe has uncovered the identity of the agent, 41-year-old Aaron McFarlane, who joined the Bureau in 2008 after retiring on a $52,000 lifetime annual disability pension from a short stint as an officer in the Oakland Police Department.
Aside from the question of why someone who passed through the rigorous training program the FBI runs for its recruits at Quantico, VA would also qualify for a lucrative pension, it turns out that McFarlane also has a pretty checkered past at Oakland’s Police Department — a police department that has such an extraordinary record of corruption and brutality, that since 2012 it has been operated under the supervision of a federal court “compliance director,” whose job is to see that officers don’t brutalize residents or violate their civil rights.
McFarlane, the Boston Globe reported, did more than that as an Oakland cop. The paper reports that during his four years with the Oakland Police, he was the subject of two police brutality lawsuits and four internal affairs investigations. the paper found also that McFarlane, as a defense witness in a corruption trial, pleaded the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions from the prosecutor in that case, which involved officers.
The trial in question was the biggest corruption scandal in Oakland’s history. Filed in 2000, the case involved four police officers who called themselves the “Riders,” who were accused of beating and kidnapping people, making false arrests, planting evidence and falsifying police reports. The case ended up being short-circuited with no convictions under a settlement that had the city of Oakland paying damages of $10.9 million to some 119 victims of Oakland Police officer’s abuse and deceit, and with the whole department going into receivership.
According to the Globe’s report, the court transcript shows that when prosecutor David Hollister tried to ask McFarlane on the witness stand about a police report he had filed which appeared to have been falsified in order to “drum up a reason to arrest a man,” McFarlane pleaded the Fifth. Hollister told the Globe that the report in question “at first blush certainly appears to be criminal. I think on its face, Officer McFarlane should probably have some concerns about whether or not he violated Section 118.1 of the Penal Code in filing a false police report.”
Hollister also questioned McFarlane about another arrest he had made the same night of a man who suffered an unexplained head injury while being transported to jail. McFarlane said he “did not know” how the man in his charge was injured.
The city of Oakland also paid two settlements, for $22,500 and $10,000, in brutality cases brought against McFarlane and a fellow officer by two men who claimed they had been badly beaten by the two officers.
McFarlane’s record of apparent brutal behavior as a cop in Oakland is relevant to the Todashev case because it could explain why Todashev, who had agreed to talk with McFarlane in Todashev’s apartment, but later, according to Agent McFarlane, jumped up, ran to the front of the apartment, and then allegedly returned from the foyer brandishing a broomstick.
Unmentioned in the FBI’s story line of what happened, which was accepted at face value in the investigation conducted by the Orlando Florida State’s Attorney Jeffrey Ashton, was a bruise and a bloody contusion noted by the Orlando coroner on Todashev’s left cheek, right on the outside of the eye socket. The coroner said that injury was evidence of a “hard blow” to the head.
Was McFarlane, in that midnight interview, resorting to the behavior that got him in trouble in the Oakland Police Department?
As I wrote earlier, the pattern of bullets that McFarlane fired at Todashev — three to the upper middle of his back, one to the chest, two to the upper left arm and one into the top of the head, slightly to the rear of the crown, suggest not that he was shot in defense while charging at McFarlane and a Boston State Trooper also in the room, but that he was shot in the back multiple times while in the foyer attempting to flee the apartment — perhaps from a brutal beating.
As a police detective I showed the coroner’s report to pointed out, the bullets to the raised arm suggest that Todashev, hit three times in the back, may have realized he could not escape, and that he had turned, raising his left arm either defensively (he was a skilled martial arts expert and was right-handed), or along with his other arm in a sign of surrender. The last two shots had to have been the one to the chest, which blew out his aorta and would have been instantly fatal, and the shot to the head, which went straight through the center of the brain lodging in the cerebellum area — also a shot that would have been instantly fatal.
Neither Ashton nor the FBI are commenting on the Globe’s article. Ashton never did actually interview McFarlane or the other FBI agent who, inexplicably and in violation of FBI procedure, was not even in the apartment, but was outside during the entire interrogation, keeping a friend of Todashev’s from witnessing anything that was going on with his friend. Ashton instead had to rely on written answers about what happened provided by the FBI from the two men.
Hassan Shibly, a lawyer and executive director of the Council on Islamic American Relations (CAIR) Florida office, said he has sent a letter today to the US Department of Justice, the FBI and the Florida State’s Attorney’s office, demanding to know “whether the extensive history of substantial allegations of police corruption, misconduct, abuse, and civil rights violations made against the FBI agent who shot and killed” Todashev were known to them, as well as “why the state and federal investigations failed to mention” that McFarlane “had a history of settlements and allegations against him regarding misconduct under color of law.”
Clearly if McFarlane resorted to the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying under oath about apparent falsification of evidence against a suspect he had arrested, and had been the subject of brutality suit settlements as a cop, it would raise grave questions about the integrity of his account of what happened late on May 21 in Todashev’s apartment, when he was being interrogated by McFarlane.
As Shibly writes in his letter (a copy of which was provided to TCBH!):
“How do we know that the officer and FBI agent did not engage in misconduct that ultimately led to the killing of IbragimTodashev?
“How credible and thorough are the DOJ and State Attorney’s investigations-which relied heavily on testimony given by individuals who may have engaged in police misconduct, civil rights abuses, and evidence falsification-particularly when the DOJ and State Attorney’s investigations make no mention of the questionable history of the officer and agent involved?
Shibly also asks the FBI to explain whether it simply did not know about McFarlane’s Fifth Amendment plea in a corruption case and about his violent history in the Oakland Police Department, in which case “how can the public trust that the FBI is doing a competent job when hiring agents on whom the liberty and security of our nation depends?” Alternatively, he asks, if the FBI did know McFarlane’s history and didn’t see a problem with hiring him, he asks, “How then can the public trust the liberty and security of our nation to an agency that allows individuals with questionable backgrounds into sensitive positions.”
It’s a good question. In a real democracy, there would be a Senate investigation into this case.
Certainly the death of Todashev, whom the FBI claims was the closest friend of the elder brother suspected of having masterminded the Boston bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was a serious blow to the investigation of that case.
But there is a darker possibility: that Todashev was being pursued and pressured, and was ultimately killed by the FBI, because he had information about the elder Tsarnaev’s relationship with the FBI–information that at a minimum could have embarrassed the Bureau, or that might even have shown the FBI to have been involved in some kind of “sting” operation gone wrong in Boston. The FBI, after all, has had undercover agents or informants involved in some 40 purported “terror” plots that it has “disrupted” since September 11, 2001. Was the Boston bombing supposed to have been another?
Shibly notes that CAIR, which is conducting its own investigation of the Todashev shooting, had already been aware of McFarlane’s identity, and knew about his checkered history of brutality and possible corruption as an Oakland cop, but he says the organization “but did not publicly release any such information to avoid jeopardizing any possible government investigations.”
Elena Teyer, Todashev’s mother-in-law, believes that McFarlane, a relatively inexperienced FBI agent who was dispatched from the Boston office to follow and question Todashev in Florida, was selected for the job precisely because of his police record of brutality and corruption, which she says meant he was “on the hook in order to save his job” at the FBI.
She says further evidence that there was a plan to kill her son-in-law was that the Bureau arranged for the arrest by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), on a bogus charge of visa violation, of Todashev’s live-in girlfriend, visiting Russian college student Tatiana Gruzdeva a fews days prior to the killing, and that a second agent physically removed a witness from the area outside the apartment half an hour before the killing of Todashev. That witness, a Green Card-holding legal Chechen immigrant named Husain Taramov, was barred by the US from returning to the US after he returned to Russia for Todashev’s funeral. (With both Taramov and Gruzdeva, who was deported to Russia last fall, both removed permanently from the US, there were no witnesses for Ashton or the Justice Department to interview about the shooting except the agent who fired the shots and the Boston State Trooper who had been with him.)
Teyer, a Russian immigrant, US citizen, and retired veteran of the US Army, suggests the FBI wanted Todashev killed because he knew too much about Tsarnaev and his relationship with the “corrupted FBI.”
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).