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Friend of Boston suspect is released pending trial on lying charge

Robel Phillipos, a friend of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is released pending trial on charges that he lied to the FBI.

May 06, 2013|By Richard A. Serrano and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
  • A sketch shows defendant Robel Phillipos, center, in federal court. Phillipos, a friend of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was released on bail pending his trial on charges that he lied to the FBI.
A sketch shows defendant Robel Phillipos, center, in federal court. Phillipos,… (Jane Flavell Collins / Associated…)

A federal magistrate released a friend of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from jail Monday on strict pretrial conditions that include 24-hour home confinement and $100,000 bail.

The friend, Robel Phillipos, a 19-year-old Boston native, is charged with making false statements to the FBI related to the April 15 explosions that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others. After a hearing before Magistrate Judge Marianne B. Bowler, Phillipos quickly left the courthouse in street clothes and a baseball cap, surrounded by family and friends.

If convicted, he faces up to eight years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Meanwhile, the funeral home that has the body of Tsarnaev's 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with police, still has not found a cemetery willing to accept it.

Some Boston-area residents, angered by the idea of burying a terrorism suspect in the United States, have started to raise money to ship the body to Russia. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was born in Russia, and his parents have returned there. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a U.S. citizen and Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a permanent legal resident.

Phillipos must remain at his mother's Cambridge, Mass., home and wear a GPS bracelet, refrain from alcohol and illegal drugs, and leave only for medical emergencies.

He and two other friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were arrested May 1 after the FBI repeatedly visited their apartment in New Bedford, Mass. The friends and Tsarnaev were students at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

According to a court affidavit by FBI Special Agent Scott P. Cieplik, Phillipos lied to federal agents, denying that he was at Tsarnaev's dorm room after the bombings and claiming he was unaware of his friends' decision to hide Tsarnaev's backpack by tossing it into a trash bin.

Phillipos told agents he was shocked when he saw television images of the Tsarnaev brothers as the bombing suspects and said he tried to text Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, "but it would not go through."

Later, Phillipos said he did not remember being at Tsarnaev's dorm room, and then he denied he was there at all, Cieplik said. Three times he told the FBI that the friends had knocked on the dorm room door but it was locked, Cieplik said.

In a fourth interview, Phillipos "confessed that he had lied to the agents during his previous interviews," Cieplik said. Phillipos signed a statement admitting that he saw the backpack with "approximately seven red tubular fireworks, approximately 6 to 8 inches in length." Authorities believe the Tsarnaev brothers obtained gunpowder from fireworks to make the two bombs used at the marathon.

The other two friends, Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, who are from Kazakhstan, are charged with obstructing justice.

Several family members filed statements in court supporting Phillipos' release.

"Everyone knows Robel as being a compassionate, thoughtful and sociable person," wrote his mother, Genet Bekele. "My whole family is in complete shock over the accusation made against him."

His aunt, Zewditu Alemu, said: "I was shocked and stunned when I heard the news of his arrest. I could not control my tears."

Phillipos, in a March 2012 video for school, described himself: "I grew up in a very mild-mannered way of living. I wasn't too poor, I wasn't too rich. I was, you know, an average guy."

Tamerlan Tsarnaev's body remains at Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester, Mass., where demonstrators have gathered outside.

Funeral director Peter A. Stefan told reporters the situation made the country "look bad."

"I understand everyone's feelings on this," he said. "But somewhere along the line we have to set the feelings aside."

The Tsarnaev brothers' uncle, Ruslan Tsarni of Maryland, arrived Sunday to oversee Muslim burial preparations and expressed hope that Tamerlan Tsarnaev could be buried in Cambridge, where he lived for more than 10 years.

But after several cemeteries rejected the body, Cambridge City Manager Bob Healy urged the family not to apply for burial in the city cemetery either, citing broad statutory language about keeping "peace within the city."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, said the family, not the government, should handle Tsarnaev's burial. He declined to say whether he opposed burying Tsarnaev in the state.

Serrano reported from Washington and Pearce from Los Angeles.

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