(This post is a continuation of a series. Please see Part One.)
Introduction: A Tale of One Gun
The night of April 18th, 2013, at 10:24 p.m., in the Koch courtyard on MIT’s campus, Officer Sean Collier sat in his cruiser. I can picture the quiet hum of Cambridge, the orange hue cast over the concrete sidewalk from the streetlights, the hopeful hint of warmth to the April air. However, these images are cut off from the reality that transpired when someone approached Officer Collier’s window with a gun. Did the assailant throw open the door first, or did Collier try to get out? Was there a conversation, or did the perpetrator simply start shooting? Where did the golf gloves come from — the shooter, Collier’s own car, or somewhere else entirely?
In my heart, I am a fiction writer, and these holes in the narrative frustrate me. I miss the days when I could just decide what happened in a story, nail down a detail because it seemed realistic or the imagery was striking. I’ve grown disdainful of fictionalized accounts of any “true event,” because I’ve learned that after a certain point, someone in a room somewhere simply makes it up, and everyone accepts it, even if it is wrong. I shudder to think what the upcoming Hollywood movie about the Marathon Bombing is going to do to further damage the public’s view of what happened, to callously assign blame like it isn’t literally the difference between life and death.
To combat this, I refuse to deal in approximations. I may never know exactly what happened in the last moments of Sean Collier’s life, but I think he deserves the truest possible version. After months of pouring over the eyewitness testimony and studying the location in question, I am confident of one thing: the person who appeared at Collier’s window with a gun wasn’t Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Regardless, he was killed by someone. The murder weapon was a Ruger P95 handgun with the serial number filed off, recovered from the shootout in Watertown, the gun that was in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s possession. This was established at trial through testimony and Massachusetts State Police reports also match the ballistics from the Ruger to the bullets recovered from Collier’s body. There’s no doubt about it: this is the gun.
But where did it come from?
The gun control debate has been heating up in America in the last few months, as we face a mass shooting crisis that has now been linking legal gun sales to recent attacks that could be considered terrorism. Interestingly, despite the Marathon Bombing being a frequent national security talking point, it was never mentioned in this discourse. It should be noted that thanks to strict laws in Massachusetts, it is not easy to buy a gun. The Ruger that killed Officer Collier was obtained illegally, and that opens up an entirely different line of inquiry. Who had the connections and resources to acquire an illegal firearm?
If you followed the trial as it happened, you probably know that the prosecution already offered an answer to this question. They asserted that it was Dzhokhar who obtained the Ruger, using this to show that he had a significant and independent role in the bombing conspiracy. To back up this theory, they had Stephen Silva, a former close friend of Dzhokhar’s, testify to say that he gave Dzhokhar the Ruger. While he had no idea it would be used in crimes related to terrorism, he lent the gun out, never received it back, and the rest is history. The prosecution never specified whether he got the gun to give to Tamerlan, but the defense, in their cross-examination, tried to hint at the idea that this was true. Defense attorney Miriam Conrad asked Silva if he would have loaned the gun if he’d known it would have gotten to Tamerlan, to which he said no.
I felt confused by this testimony, and oddly disappointed. At the time, I thought this twist in the story was very damning for Dzhokhar: if he was stockpiling a weapon, whether it was his original intent to give it to Tamerlan or not, it implied culpability. Maybe he was aware of his brother’s plans. Then again, maybe not. Maybe he wanted it for some other reason, and his brother simply took it from him. But what else would a 19-year-old want with an illegal weapon, which possessing is a felony? A show of bravado? Gang involvement? None of that seemed to match what I already knew about Dzhokhar’s personality and history. It didn’t make any sense.
When I talked to my dad about the court testimony the day it happened, he asked one question: “Where’s the chain of custody of the gun?”
I opened my mouth and froze, realizing I didn’t have an answer. “I don’t know. All they said was that it came from his friend.”
“Yeah, well, I want to know where it came from before that.”
At the time, I had no idea how hard that question would be to answer, nor the rabbit hole I would go down trying to find it.
The Specter of Incentivized Informants
In my last post in this series, I explained the charges against Dzhokhar that involved Sean Collier hinged on two very specific conditions: one, that he could be linked to the crime scene, and two, that he possessed the Ruger P95 handgun. At the time, merely possessing the gun was good enough to convict; the Supreme Court had not yet made their Johnson II ruling striking the residual clause in the relevant statutes. They did not have to prove that he used the firearm in a display of force as they would have to today. They simply had to show that he was present at Sean Collier’s car. My father and I have cast reasonable doubt on the assertion that Dzhokhar was even at the crime scene: there was no conclusive video surveillance, and the one eyewitness, Nate Harman, could not have reliably made an identification based on the circumstances.
However, before Johnson II, even without Harman’s ID, there was still a decent shot that the prosecution could have gotten their conviction as long as they could place the Ruger in Dzhokhar’s hands. I cannot overstate how utterly essential it was to their case that he at one point possessed this gun. While they were excused from contending that he personally killed Collier, as long as he provided the weapon, this now defunct clause would allow him to be convicted anyway.
When I realized this, I began to look at the argument in a different light. If the connection to the crime scene was so tenuous — the testimony of only one unreliable witness — what about the connection to the gun? The similarities are there: once again, we have only the word of one witness, Stephen Silva, and no physical evidence was presented to back it up. If it was possible that Dzhokhar was never at Collier’s car to begin with, could it also be possible that he never possessed the Ruger?
If so, a huge chunk of the prosecution’s case crumbles. Gone is yet another piece of evidence that indicates he knew about the bombing plot beforehand. The prosecution made the outlandish claim that his radicalization stretched back two years, but if one rules out “evidence” like a school paper about drone strikes and tweets quoting the Quran, the first and only criminal action in support of the bombing conspiracy is obtaining the Ruger. This supposedly happened in February of 2013, and if that is taken away, we are left with the accusation that he bought a cell phone the day before the bombing — hardly a crime on its own. All of a sudden, the conspiracy doesn’t look much like a conspiracy anymore.
The obvious obstacle to this theory is that we have testimony on record of someone stating he personally gave the gun to Dzhokhar. Stephen Silva, a longtime close friend, seems to emerge from nowhere with the information that he possessed the Ruger, and in early 2013, Dzhokhar wanted to borrow it. However, Silva doesn’t actually materialize from thin air: in July 2014, he was arrested for seven counts of heroin possession with intent to distribute, and one count of possessing a firearm with an obliterated serial number, also known as Sean Collier’s murder weapon. He is offering his testimony in exchange for a lenient sentence after pleading guilty.
I’ve spoken previously of the hallmarks of wrongful convictions, and explained eyewitness misidentification was a common contributing factor. Another has to do with witnesses like Stephen Silva, what the Innocent Project calls Incentivized Informants:
DNA exonerations have shown that informants lie on the stand. To many, this news isn’t a surprise. Testifying falsely in exchange for an incentive – either money or a sentence reduction – is often the last resort for a desperate inmate. For someone who is not in prison already, but who wants to avoid being charged with a crime, providing false testimony may be a desperate measure to avoid incarceration.
With this in mind, Stephen Silva qualifies as an informant with an incentive to testify. He was facing a tremendous amount of time in prison for heroin distribution and hoped to reduce his sentence because of what is legally known as “substantial assistance.” While this fact was revealed to the jury at trial, at the time of his testimony, he had not yet been sentenced, so no one knew what sort of deal he would receive. Here is the relevant information about the plea agreement from the inquiry of prosecuting attorney Aloke Chakravarty:
Q. Now, as part of your plea agreement, does it spell out what the maximum sentences are and the minimum sentences are in your case?
Q. What is your understanding of what the maximum sentence is in your case?
A. Twenty years max for each count, and I believe it’s about eight counts, so 160 years, somewhere around there.
Q. And that’s a statutory maximum?
Q. And what is your idea of how much time you’re looking at under the sentencing guidelines?
A. Between five and seven years.
Q. And is there a minimum mandatory sentence for you?
Q. And what is that?
A. Five years.
Q. How can you get out from that five-year sentence?
A. By cooperating with the government. (81-82)
And indeed, in December 2015, Silva was given a hearing, and received a sentence of time served. After seventeen months, he was free, despite multiple instances of heroin distribution, because he had “substantially assisted” in condemning one of his best friends to die.
I confess to having conflicting feelings about Silva and his role in pinning down the narrative against Dzhokhar. On the one hand, it is easy to be suspicious, and even angry: the deal was so sweet, and the story so convenient. In the words of my father, when he practiced law, the sort of deal Silva received was called “giving the courthouse away.” The government desperately needed to put Dzhokhar in possession of the gun, and Silva, in the interest of saving his own skin, seemed happy to oblige. That alone cast the account into question for me, especially with the lack of any other corroborating evidence.
On the other hand, his refusal to cooperate in a case as high-profile as the Marathon Bombing could have made prosecutors seek a maximum sentence. Silva was 21 years old at the time of his arrest, and 160 years is an awfully long time in prison. Even if he had never seen the gun before, the offer of freedom versus a lifetime in prison is a tempting one, especially at the expense of a former friend who was probably screwed anyway.
And of course, there’s the possibility that he had seen the gun before, that the story was true. Because if Silva didn’t provide the gun, then who did?
The Importance of Chain of Custody
This is why, at the time of the trial, my father was so interested in the chain of custody of the gun. According to him, if all we have is Silva’s word, and Silva is a criminal buying his freedom through his testimony, why should we have any reason to believe him? However, if we could track the movements of the Ruger and line them up with Silva’s story, we could determine if they matched. The lack of any such information given by the prosecution was suspicious to both of us, perhaps more suspicious than Silva’s testimony itself.
Before I dive into that, I asked my father if he could explain what the legal definition of “chain of custody” is. He says that it has to do with the guidelines of admissible evidence. Each piece of evidence must “be trustworthy and accurate in what it purports to prove” and to do that “you must show that it has not been altered, tampered with, switched or substituted with something else, etc. and is now in substantially similar form as it was when it was first obtained.” Take, for example, a bag of drugs recovered from someone who has been arrested. The police can’t identify it simply by sight, so they send it to the state toxicology lab and run a chemical analysis. Once the contents are determined to be cocaine, they are returned to the police. Dad says,
During this time anything could happen to that packet. How does the judge know that the packet has not been contaminated, switched, mistaken with another sample, etc? He knows by the chain of custody. Every person who has handled that packet fills out a form, signs off, and then testifies in court that:1) That is the same packet that they initially received;
2) That while in their possession it was not altered, contaminated, etc. and was, when not in use, stored in a safe and secure place that only they had access to and
3) that it is now in substantially the same condition as it was when they first took possession of it. Now the judge can be sure that the trier of fact will determine the case upon accurate and truthful evidence. (Frizzell)
In this case, the chain of custody is important in regards to the Ruger not only because the evidence could have been tampered with, but because providing a fully detailed history of the gun, from its manufacture to how it fell into Silva’s hands, will lend credibility to his story. My dad adds, “If I were the prosecutor in a case like this, I would have corroborated everything Silva testified to in order to impart as much veracity to his testimony as possible.”
This brings up an important point. The government is open about where Silva’s testimony is coming from and that he has plenty of incentive to inform. They knew the risks in presenting a witness like this — but they didn’t seem concerned with offering any physical evidence or other witnesses to back up his claims. Were they so confident in their case that they didn’t think they needed to, or was it possible that they didn’t have any corroborating evidence?
That was the question we wanted to answer by tracing the Ruger’s chain of custody. At least that way we would know one way or another. If Silva gave Dzhokhar the gun, that’s one piece of the puzzle solved, and if he didn’t… well, that raises a lot more questions, but it would be great for the defense.
So we tried to trace the chain of custody. And we tried, and we tried. I was hoping, honestly, that I could put together something comprehensive, something that illustrated a clear path, but the further we got, the muddier it all became. However, to return to the point I made in a prior post, a defense does not need to prove innocence, only cast reasonable doubt about guilt. I will have to put what I’ve learned out there and let you come to your own conclusions.
Let’s start with the version of events presented at trial, as narrated by Stephen Silva.
Stephen Silva’s Story
Stephen Silva testified on March 17, 2015, a witness called by the prosecution and questioned by Aloke Chakravarty. He establishes that he has a twin brother named Steven(34). (Quick note: I’m referring to Stephen Silva as “Silva” so as not to mix him up with his twin, given the similar spellings of their names.) He’s had a long history with Dzhokhar, meeting him in eighth grade at the Community Charter School of Cambridge where they saw each other “every day”(37). They remained close throughout high school and into college, even though Silva moved to Florida, first for college in Tampa and then later to avoid police attention for selling marijuana. Again, he’s open about when he began selling marijuana: “About 16, 17, in high school”(40) and that he continued to do so in college and when he dropped out. Then, finally, comes relevant players and timeline information:
Q. What came up in Boston?
A. Supposedly my mother told me the police came to my house looking for me, asking questions about something drug related. So I just decided it was best for me to leave the area for a little bit.
Q. And what did you do when you got down to Florida?
A. When I got down to Florida I just hung out at a friend’s house and continued selling weed.
Q. How long did you do that for?
A. From about the middle of August until the end of November.
Q. November 2012?
Q. And then did you come back to Massachusetts?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. Where did you go?
A. At that time I came back from Florida, my brother and friend had an apartment in Revere, Massachusetts.
Q. And who is your friend?
A. My friend Nicholas Silva. (42-43)
Nicholas Silva is later also identified as a cousin(45), and Silva states they were all in the business of selling pot together. Once his brother was robbed in October 2012(44), they discussed the possibility of obtaining a gun for protection. And, apparently, luck was with them. “Near the end of 2012″(45) — the timestamp provided by Mr. Chakravarty, not Silva — an opportunity arose to get a gun.
I’m already confused by the timeline involved here. If Silva was in Florida until the end of November, why was he discussing with Steven and Nicholas the need to get a gun for protection after a robbery in October? Did they have a long distance business going? But that doesn’t seem to be the case:
Q. When you went down to Florida, where would you get your marijuana?
A. I was getting it from local suppliers in the Tampa area. (40)
And if they were discussing these things somewhere other than in person, would there maybe be call logs, text messages or internet chats to back it up? Not to mention, if you were robbed in October, why wait almost two months to seek protection? If I were them, I’d want to secure my product as quickly as possible. This is just the tip of the inconsistency iceberg.
From here, the gun comes into the picture:
Q. Explain that opportunity.
A. Well, like I said, me and my brother and my friend had been talking about obtaining a gun, and around the same time a friend of mine from my neighborhood, he had asked me if I could do him a favor and hold down a firearm for him because he needed to get it out of his house.
Q. What was his name?
A. Howie. (45)
At long last, we have a new link in the chain of custody: Howie. Unfortunately, Silva offers nothing more about Howie other than his first name. There was no last name, no address, no phone number. We couldn’t even determine if by “neighborhood,” Silva meant Cambridge, where he grew up, or Revere, where he lived with Steven and Nicholas. My dad also pointed out there are no particulars about the transfer of the gun from Howie to Silva. The only details given about the exchange are these:
Q. And did you agree to take the gun?
Q. Did he get you the gun?
A. Excuse me. Repeat that?
Q. Did he get you the gun?
Q. What kind of gun was it?
A. It was a P95 Ruger. (45)
This prompted months of questions on the part of my father and myself. We first began reviewing the transcript of Silva’s testimony in January 2016, and for weeks our conversations included the never-ending refrain from Dad: “Where’s Howie?”
To which I would say, “I don’t know.”
“I want to know why he didn’t testify,” my dad would continue. “He can confirm the chain of custody.”
With virtually no information, we were unable to even begin a search into Howie. I sometimes suggested that Howie was a figment, made up by Silva in a moment of panic to the police, and not wanting to create bad evidence, law enforcement never followed up. But my dad was adamant. “They followed up. A suspect doesn’t name someone like that and they don’t look into it. Just possessing a gun illegally is a felony. If Howie was named, they went to find him.”
Dad, I was soon to discover, was right.
We’ll return to Howie later. For now, let’s look back at the chain of custody and what we know about it from Silva’s recollection.
Since nothing is given about the transfer of the gun from Howie to Silva, we are unable to establish much more about the timeline, other than it was “near the end of 2012.”
We also know nothing about who might have seen the gun change hands. However, from Silva’s testimony, he then “stored it away in my apartment, in a ceiling panel”(44-45), and states that the people who know about it are “my twin, my friend and a few close associates”(46). So that means Steven, Nicholas — assuming he is the “friend,” as Silva has referenced him this way before — and “a few close associates” could have all been called to testify to corroborate Silva’s story. But the mysterious associates never appeared at trial. Neither did Steven or Nicholas — which does seem odd, if Silva was in business with them as he claims. Perhaps law enforcement could have arrested them on possession and distribution charges as well. Instead, they are no-shows.
Now that Silva has gotten the gun “near the end of 2012,” the timeline gets even more muddled. Though he says he told several of these “close associates” about the gun, he never gives any specifics, even when it comes to the instance of when Dzhokhar learned about it:
Q. Did you tell the defendant?
Q. What was his reaction when you told him that you had a gun?
A. It wasn’t much of a reaction. He just acknowledged it. (46)
What does that mean? This is the person who would later borrow it for use in other criminal activities. He wasn’t surprised, eager, or interested? What does “acknowledged it” mean? Did he just shrug and say okay? If that’s true, why not just say, “He shrugged and said, ‘Okay.'”? The vagueness here is troubling.
“Sometime in December,”(47) Silva reports that he removed the gun from his apartment to commit armed robbery with it. This is another bizarre twist in the story, especially since it means Silva has now confessed to another crime, one for which he was never charged. He says:
A. Me and Nicholas got into the car. We were in the backseat, there were two individuals in the front passenger seat. We had talked very shortly, for a couple of minutes. We had asked to see the money, they had asked to see the marijuana. When the person in the passenger seat passed me the money I put it in my pocket, and then Nicholas reached into a bag, pulled out the gun, cocked back the slide, and then that was pretty much it.
Q. What was the reaction of the two individuals?
A. They were in a state of panic and shock.
Q. Did they leave?
A. We left the car after we had the money and then they eventually, I assume, drove back home.
Q. Did you tell other people what happened?
A. Yes. (48)
Here we have an incident that again could have been verified by a number of people — including Nicholas, who as an accomplice to armed robbery probably should have been arrested for his involvement, but I haven’t found any evidence that he was. We also don’t know anything about the people they robbed, or why they were robbed — I assume it isn’t good business to hold your clients at gunpoint. Still, until this point, perhaps this all could have happened. Silva has admitted to being a habitual criminal, and we know nothing about any of the other players to say whether or not this is plausible behavior.
This is where it starts to unravel for me, however:
Q. Did you tell the defendant about the robbery?
Q. What was his reaction?
A. He laughed. (48-49)
We may not know much about Silva or his acquaintances, but the entirety of the trial was about Dzhokhar and the kind of person he is. Given the wealth of information given by family, friends, teachers and coaches, I have a difficult time believing he would find news that a good friend had just committed a serious crime funny. However, it’s important for the narrative that he appear in support of criminal activity, because his proposed reason for borrowing the gun seems to hinge on this robbery. This will come up in the narrative again soon.
The New Year’s Eve Party
For now, let’s move on to the next event in Silva’s story. Until this point here hasn’t been a date named at any point in his testimony, the vagueness of which makes it difficult to confirm or dispute the asserted facts. But, finally, we have a date: December 31st, 2012.
Here’s what happened that night, according to Silva:
Q. Did you take the gun out of your residence again?
A. Yes, one more time.
Q. When was that?
A. New Year’s Eve 2012.
Q. And where did you take it?
A. To a friend’s apartment in Medford, Massachusetts.
Q. What was happening there?
A. Nothing. We were just throwing a New Year’s Eve party.
Q. Why did you take it there?
A. I was just being stupid. I wanted to show it off.
Q. And did you?
Q. Did the defendant come to that house?
Q. Did you bring it back ultimately to your apartment at some point?
A. Yes, I did. (49)
That’s the entire story. There is no indication whose apartment it was, who else was there, and, most oddly, no mention that Dzhokhar even took notice of the firearm that night. This is an event that should have a plethora of witnesses available to confirm that it happened, assuming the “party” contained more people than Dzhokhar, Silva, and whoever the tenant was. It’s happening on a specific date for a specific occasion, meaning many of the attendees would be likely to remember whether they were there and that someone might have shown off a gun. As I’ve mentioned, Massachusetts has strict gun laws, so it is not a normal occurrence for someone to be carrying a firearm, as it might be in some states.
The reason no one else was called to confirm the New Year’s Eve party is because it is likely that it never actually happened. In looking to verify the components of Silva’s story, I was continuously frustrated by the lack of dates mentioned. I hoped to cross-reference them with the most extensive and reliable piece of admitted evidence that can track Dzhokhar’s movements: his Twitter. While other sources of correspondence are strangely lacking — such as cell phone logs and text messages, which I plan to address in an upcoming post — the defense entered the entirety of Dzhokhar’s Twitter feed into evidence. He used it extensively, often posting several times a day. He also spoke to both Stephen and Steven Silva through Twitter, as confirmed by Miriam Conrad’s cross-examination:
Q. You communicated with him through his Twitter page?
A. Sometimes, yes.
Q. In fact, he posted birthday greetings to you and your twin brother on your birthday? Was that April 1 of 2013?
Q. He said, “Happy 20th to the twins”?
A. Yes. (91)
Through that, I took note of Silva and his twin’s Twitter handles, and then went back to December 31, 2012, to see if there had been any communication between them, and any mention of a party.
I did find that Dzhokhar spoke to them both via Twitter that day. However, due to the format of the PDF entered into evidence, only Dzhokhar’s side of the conversation was visible, rendering an exchange already rife with hard-to-decipher teenage slang meaningless. Thankfully, Dzhokhar’s Twitter account is still up, so I was able to expand the conversation with Stephen Silva. What I found stunned me.
That’s strange. Here Silva is saying he has the flu and isn’t planning to go out for New Year’s Eve, which directly contradicts the story he gave in court. Not only that, but their exchange seems to imply that Dzhokhar doesn’t have plans to go out either. At this time, he would be home from college for winter break, and the Cambridge apartment also housed Tamerlan, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter. You probably wouldn’t have the option of partying loudly with a sleeping toddler in the next room.
There’s the benefit of the doubt, of course, that perhaps Silva felt better later in the day, as the exchange was in the early afternoon, enough to go to a party to — somewhat inexplicably — show off a gun. But there’s hints from subsequent tweets that Dzhokhar didn’t. For example, his next tweet on January 1st implies he’s been sitting around drawing:
Then, after replying to a couple friends about getting together soon, on January 2nd he laments his sedentary lifestyle:
Statements like this hardly indicate he’s been doing much socializing the past few days. While it might not specifically prove he didn’t go to a New Year’s Eve party, between the tweets from him, the contradictory flu statement from Silva, the incredible vagueness of the testimony about the party, and the lack of even a single corroborating witness, I think it’s likely said party never happened — or if it did, at the very least, Dzhokhar didn’t attend.
After the New Year’s party, the prosecution hones in on the asserted interest Dzhokhar had in the Ruger.
Q. Now, after that early January trip with the gun, did you talk to the defendant again about the gun?
Q. About when was that?
A. Sometime in January.
Q. How did you have that conversation?
A. It started over the phone and then talked about it with him in person. (49-50)
Here is another opportunity for a specific date to be nailed down, one that could be backed up by the call log of Dzhokhar’s cell phone. However, the prosecution never offered any call logs from Dzhokhar’s main cell phone, the one he used until the second prepaid T-Mobile phone comes into play on April 14th. There is evidence from his Twitter, however, that his cell phone was shut off for lack of payment on or around January 16th:
Unfortunately, there’s no indication when he got it turned back on, but it should be noted that for at least some part of January, he was unable to receive phone calls, and couldn’t have spoken to Silva on the phone as a result. (There’s much more I plan to look at with the cell phone evidence in this case, but that’s for an upcoming post. For now, it is important to remember that getting his phone services terminated for lack of payment was a pattern in the months preceding the bombing.)
Not only was it impossible for Dzhokhar to receive phone calls for some part of January, but winter break also ended that month. He tweets on January 22nd (or early on the 23rd, since the timestamps are for PST while Dzhokhar was in EST) about returning to UMass Dartmouth:
Aside from expressing an understandable adolescent restlessness, this tweet places him back on campus, which is consistent with most American college schedules. Usually spring semesters begin shortly after Martin Luther King Day, which in 2013 was Monday, January 21st. This brings up another important reality that was all but ignored at trial: the distance between UMass Dartmouth and the greater Boston area. The prosecution asserted all sorts of movement on Dzhokhar’s part between UMass Dartmouth and Boston in the months before the crimes, as if the two locations are a stone’s throw from each other.
They’re not. The town of Dartmouth that houses the university campus lies near Massachusetts’ south shore, and is much closer to Providence, Rhode Island than Boston. I myself had a friend who attended UMass Dartmouth at the same time as Dzhokhar, and he frequently complained about the length of the drive. According to Google Maps, UMass Dartmouth is 63 miles (101.4 km) at its fastest route from Dzhokhar’s front door, and it easily would have taken him over an hour to get from Point A to Point B.
So it’s one thing to say they met up when Dzhokhar was home in Cambridge and Silva was living in Revere — the two cities are both north of Boston and only about 7 miles (11.3 km) apart. A twenty-minute drive could have gotten Dzhokhar to Revere. But if he and Silva wanted to meet in person after January 22nd when Dzhokhar was back at college, that travel time would have extended to well over an hour. Not to say it’s impossible, but it is much less convenient for frequent visits, especially considering testimony that Dzhokhar’s car wasn’t in great shape and often broke down.
Dzhokhar’s Alleged Interest in Armed Robbery
With this in mind, let’s return to Silva’s story. He and Dzhokhar have been discussing the gun on the phone and in person.
Q. When you talked to him about the gun, did he ask you for anything?
Q. What did he ask you for?
A. He asked me to potentially borrow the gun.
Q. Did he tell you why he needed the gun?
Q. What did he tell you?
A. He said he wanted to rip some kids from URI.
Q. When you say “rip,” what does that mean?
Q. Is that what you did with Nicholas a few months earlier?
A. Yes. (50-51)
Here we are, back at the robbery scenario. And suddenly Dzhokhar wants to commit his own, just like Silva and his cousin Nicholas did a few weeks earlier. (As an aside, I’m honestly not sure where Mr. Chakravarty got the idea that the robbery occurred a few months earlier, since Silva’s own testimony put him in Florida until the end of November. If the robbery happened “sometime in December” and this is “sometime in January,” at best it would have happened maybe 6 weeks earlier. Perhaps he misspoke, but Silva doesn’t bother to correct him, either.)
This is the portion of the story that struck me as wildly outlandish from the moment it was reported at trial. Based on what’s been presented thus far — if one discounts the supposed signs of “radicalization” — this is the only indication by any witness or piece of evidence that Dzhokhar expressed the desire to commit a violent crime before the bombing. In fact, by Silva’s own admission, he has never seen an aggressive streak in Dzhokhar. On Miriam Conrad’s cross, she points out:
Q. And he wasn’t violent, right?
A. No. I’ve never seen him violent.
Q. And he never picked on anybody?
Q. He was kindhearted?
A. Yes, he was.
Q. And he — even though he was — he had training as a boxer and as a wrestler, you never saw him fight with anybody?
A. No, I did not.
Q. And he was humble?
A. Yes, he was. (90)
Despite this glowing review, somehow Silva’s testimony would have us believe that his kindhearted, humble, nonviolent best friend came to him one day in January 2013 and said, “Hey, I’d love to rip some kids at URI, can I borrow your gun?” And instead of saying what any decent friend would — “Jahar, man, this really isn’t like you, what’s up?” — Silva instead agreed to become an accessory to armed robbery and handed over the Ruger, no questions asked.
However, there was no evidence admitted to suggest any sort of robbery at URI (University of Rhode Island) ever actually took place, and certainly nothing to show that Dzhokhar committed it, with the Ruger or any other weapon. Regardless, the convenience of the story for both Silva and the prosecution team is huge, because if Dzhokhar told Silva he wanted the gun for something other than terrorism, Silva is off the hook for accessory to those charges, and the prosecutors can, in good conscience, process the 5K1 motion that would give him a lenient sentence.
And, perhaps most interestingly, Silva’s own robbery didn’t appear in earlier versions of the story he gave to law enforcement. On cross, Miriam Conrad asks the following:
Q. Now, this robbery that you told us about, you — that you did?
Q. You didn’t tell the Feds about that the first, second, third or even fourth time that you sat down with them, did you?
A. Initially, no, I did not.
Q. In fact, what you told them was that you didn’t believe in sticking people up?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. And, in fact, you told them that you had never discussed a robbery with anyone before Jahar asked to borrow the gun, right?
A. Yes. (103)
This is interesting to me, because it’s a glimpse into the previous drafts of Silva’s story before the final version that made it to court. The fact that the robbery he supposedly committed doesn’t show up in the first four interviews is compelling, because of the importance the robbery thread plays in the narrative. According to the version on the court record, Silva and his cousin commit a robbery with the Ruger, tell Dzhokhar, who approves by laughing about it. Then because of that, he either wants to commit an identical crime himself, or thinks to use the robbery idea as an excuse to get the gun for terrorism-related crimes. The prosecution never commits to one or the other, because it doesn’t need to: they have the gun with Dzhokhar, and they have cleared their informant of supporting terrorism.
In response to this, Ms. Conrad tries to cast doubt on Silva’s reliability by emphasizing that he lied:
Q. And both of those were lies, right?
Q. And you lied to them because you wanted to make yourself look good?
Q. And because you wanted to get your deal?
A. No. (103-104)
However, I wonder if it is in fact the opposite: that he was telling the truth the first four times — that there was no robbery, because of course there was no gun to commit it with. But that wouldn’t fit the prosecution’s needs, so eventually the robbery entered the scene to provide culpability for Dzhokhar, but not for Silva.
More Timeline Oddities
From there, Mr. Chakravarty establishes more about the timeline, which at this point is likely hedging into February (although it’s difficult to tell based on its vagueness):
Q. Did he make arrangements to come by your apartment?
Q. Approximately when did he come by your apartment?
A. Within the next couple of weeks after we started talking about the gun.
Q. And was he regularly coming to your apartment around this time?
A. Yes, about a few times a month when he could.
Q. And did he actually come to talk about the gun?
A. Yes. (51)
This is an interesting statement for Silva to make, because it highlights more occurrences that could have been verified with call logs or texts if they were arranging meetings “a few times a month.” You would think, as well, that if Dzhokhar was at college during this time, these visits would be especially useful to the prosecution, because this is when they are asserting Dzhokhar was helping Tamerlan prepare for the attack. If he’s traveling over an hour back from UMass Dartmouth to the Boston area to see Silva, it’s feasible he was also taking the time to check in with his brother and help with the gathering and assembly of the bomb materials. However, the prosecution never tried to nail down Dzhokhar’s trips from college during the spring 2013 semester into any cohesive pattern. This left holes in the timeline that always baffled me, considering the prosecution was trying to convict him on conspiracy and aiding and abetting charges.
More Mysteriously Absent Witnesses
Also, according to Silva, during these visits Dzhokhar was not alone.
Q. Was he with anyone?
A. Yes, he was.
Q. Who was he with?
A. Dias. I can’t pronounce his last name.
Q. Is it Dias Kadyrbayev?
A. Yes. (51)
Finally, we have another witness: Dias Kadyrbayev, a college friend of Dzhokhar’s who Silva also knew through his twin Steven(51). If you’ve been following this case long term, Dias’s name might be familiar. He was arrested along with his roommate, Azamat Tazhayakov, for removing a backpack from Dzhokhar’s dorm room the night of April 18th. Dias then threw it in the dumpster of their New Bedford apartment complex. Both were charged for obstruction of the bombing investigation; Azamat was convicted in July 2014 and Dias pled guilty shortly thereafter. At the time of Silva’s testimony, Dias was in federal custody awaiting sentencing.
If there was ever a perfect witness to corroborate Silva’s story, Dias is it. He was in exactly the same position as Silva — he too could have testified in exchange for a 5K1 motion to reduce his sentence, which held a statutory maximum of seven years. And according to Silva, Dias had plenty he could verify:
Q. Who else was there?
A. Nicholas, my twin brother, and my friend Abdul.
Q. And what did you guys do?
A. We just hung out, chilled, smoked weed. Same thing we usually do.
Q. At some point did the conversation turn to the gun?
Q. What did you do?
A. I took the gun out the ceiling panel and showed it to the defendant and Dias.
Q. What was the gun stored in?
A. It was stored in a sock.
Q. Just a regular tube sock?
Q. Did you hand the defendant the gun?
Q. What did he do with it?
A. Handled it, acknowledged it, tried to pass it to Dias. Dias didn’t want to touch it. And he gave it back to me and I put it away. (52)
This is probably the most detailed story we’ve gotten from Silva thus far. We know where they were, who was there, what they were doing, how the gun was stored, and what exactly was done with it. Dzhokhar literally has his hands on the gun, but Dias (perhaps conveniently) doesn’t want to touch an illegal firearm. It would have been extremely easy for the prosecutors to give Dias a deal identical to Silva’s, have him testify that this happened, and give him a similarly lenient sentence.
But Dias never appeared at Dzhokhar’s trial. Instead, barely two weeks after Dzhokhar was sentenced to death, he received six years in prison for obstructing the bombing investigation. It was never asserted he knew anything about the plot, nor that he acted specifically on Dzhokhar’s orders to remove evidence. He is serving six years for throwing a backpack in a dumpster, while Silva, after seven counts of heroin possession with intent to distribute, was back on the street with time served after seventeen months.
Of course, Dias isn’t the only person who could have verified this story. The scene also has Steven and Nicholas Silva in it, as well as a new player, a friend named Abdul, though no last name is given. And now, according to Silva, they were all at least present in the apartment when Dzhokhar handled the Ruger.
The clincher to this is that for some reason, despite the multiple witnesses and the desire to borrow the gun for a robbery, Dzhokhar doesn’t actually take the Ruger at this particular time. At this point in the narrative, Mr. Chakravarty halts Silva’s story and has him identify the gun — although this ID means nothing, as it isn’t from memory, but from a provided picture of the weapon and then when the gun itself is handed to him. Silva points out nothing that isn’t directly shown to him in the courtroom.
The Narrative Unravels
After that, however, the inquiry resumes:
Q. When did you give this gun to the defendant?
A. About sometime in February 2012 — 2013.
Q. Mr. Silva, after you had your conversation with the defendant and you showed him the gun, did he take it?
A. Not at that specific time, no.
Q. How long after you showed him the first time did he take it?
A. Within a few weeks. (56)
Here is another vague time estimate that makes it difficult to verify, despite this:
Q. Did he tell you that he was going to come over to pick it up?
A. Yes. (56)
In February 2013 Dzhokhar was most certainly back at UMass Dartmouth, and so in order to tell Silva he was coming by Revere to pick up the gun, they would have had to correspond by some traceable method — phone, text, email, tweet, or chat. Yet no evidence of such is presented. There is a vague attempt to cover for that, however:
Q. How would you refer to the gun with the defendant?
A. We would — we wouldn’t talk about it over the phone, you know, we wouldn’t say “gun” or anything. We would refer to it in phrases that were less definite.
Q. Was that just in case someone was listening?
A. Yes. (57)
Aside from casting the two of them as Hollywood spy wannabes with this statement, Silva still asserts plenty here that could be verified. The code phrases they used, for instance, could be identified. If they used said phrases in any sort of text-based exchange, those could be entered into evidence. Silva and Dzhokhar are of the millennial generation who tend to prefer texting to phone calls, and I find it difficult to believe there was simply no evidence of their coordination of the gun transfer. Even a call log to show what day it was could have helped pin down the timeline. Instead, all we have is Silva’s word, as always.
There is also an attempt made to explain why Dzhokhar didn’t simply take the gun the day he had it with all the witnesses:
Q. And why did he not pick it up on that day? What did he tell you about why he didn’t pick it up on that day?
A. Either he told me that he didn’t want to drive back with that — with that type of, you know, things on him. I think he already had marijuana or something on him; he didn’t want to drive with all the hassle. (56)
Advantageous for the prosecution’s narrative, because it forces Dzhokhar to come back at another date when there are no witnesses to the transfer:
Q. When you gave him the gun, was he alone or with anyone?
A. No, he was alone. (57)
Now, it is simply Silva’s word against Dzhokhar’s, and Dzhokhar did not testify. Even weirder, perhaps, is Silva’s claim that Dzhokhar didn’t bring his own car for the exchange:
Q. Do you remember what car he was driving?
A. I think it was a black Camaro.
Q. And did you recognize that car?
Q. Whose was it?
A. It was a friend of the defendant’s, some Indian kid from UMass Dartmouth.
Q. Was that a car you had seen him driving before?
A. Yes. (57-58)
Here is yet another witness who is never heard from or even identified, despite the corroboration he could lend to Silva’s testimony. If the college friend could confirm that he lent Dzhokhar his car in February 2013, it would go a long way to giving Silva’s testimony believability. But instead, he is yet another silent bystander in a pattern that is becoming all too familiar.
The Return of Howie
At this point in the narrative, Silva has given Dzhokhar the gun and the ammo for the gun(57), under the understanding, apparently, that it was a temporary loan:
Q. After you gave him the gun, when’s the next time you talked to him about the gun?
A. Oh, a couple of weeks, three weeks after I gave it to him.
Q. And why was that?
A. Because I just wanted to ask him what happened with the situation and if he was done using it because I wanted it back. (58)
So now, timeline wise, we’re near or in March 2013, although again, that is never established by the testimony. Mr. Chakravarty asks:
Q. Why did you want the gun back?
A. Around that time the person who gave it to me, Howie, he kept calling me and asking me to return the gun. So I wanted to give him back, you know, the gun that he let me borrow.
Q. Did Howie explain to you why he gave you the gun in the first place?
A. Yeah, he gave it to me because his mother had searched his room and he needed to get it out of the house. (58)
And here Howie returns to the narrative. The enigmatic Howie, wanting his gun back, but Silva is in a tough spot, because he has lent it to Dzhokhar for another crime. Silva seems not to want to admit that, however:
Q. Did you tell Howie why you couldn’t give the gun back?
A. No, I did not. (58)
At this point, according to Silva, he starts inquiring with Dzhokhar about the gun, but gets the runaround:
Q. Did you continue to have contact with the defendant through February and into April of 2013?
Q. About how often?
A. Same amount as usual.
Q. About once a week?
A. Yeah, around there. Once a week, twice a week.
Q. Did the defendant give you the gun back?
A. No, he did not.
Q. Did you continue to ask him for the gun?
A. Yes, I did. (59)
And again, some evidence of this correspondence should exist somewhere, but it’s never entered into evidence.
Q. In addition to yourself asking, did other people ask him?
Q. Who else asked him?
Q. How did Nicholas ask him?
A. He sent him a text via phone.
Q. Did the defendant respond to Nicholas?
A. No, he did not. (59)
This text should absolutely show up on Dzhokhar’s cell phone records. But once more, it was not presented as evidence.
Q. Did the defendant respond to you?
A. Yes, he did.
Q. What did the defendant tell you as to why he couldn’t give the gun back?
A. He just kept coming up with excuses saying he — when he would come, he was in a rush, “I couldn’t bring it,” was just beating around the bush, I’d say. (59-60)
And Silva seems to take no further action to get the gun back, even with Howie asking him for it over the period of several weeks into months. Howie, for his part, doesn’t seem to care much either, despite this being an illegal firearm that has now been used in one violent crime and is at least intended for another.
This brings up a question about the enigmatic Howie’s prowess with this sort of thing. I did some research into the illegal gun trade and found a fascinating study published in the journal Preventative Medicine titled “Sources of Guns to Dangerous People: What We Learn By Asking Them.” In fall of 2013, 99 inmates from Chicago were interviewed about the sources of their illegal firearms. While Chicago is not Boston, the urban setting is similar, as is the timeline involved, so I think the results are comparable. Interestingly, the movement of guns as shown by this study is somewhat in line with Stephen Silva’s testimony: often they are linked to gang activity or the drug trade, or friends lend them out or ask others to hold one down for them.
However, one of the most interesting comments from the respondents expressed a concern about the traceability of their weapons. If a gun had been fired in a previous crime, for instance, they referred to the gun as “dirty”:
One reason that offenders voluntarily give up a gun is that they fear it has become a legal liability. There were quite a few comments on “dirty” guns — those that had been fired in a crime, and might provide evidence in a police investigation. R[espondent]10 sold a gun because it “got dirty” to a buyer who needed a gun for self-protection and did not care about the gun’s history. R11 made the interesting comment that “If you’re a friend who borrows my gun and returns it dirty, I’ll be like ‘don’t worry about it…I’m gonna demolish it or sell it.’” He went on to say that he would sell dirty guns “to Indiana or West side so that it won’t even come back to the South side.” R85 also underlined the practice of selling dirty guns in other neighborhoods, indicating that if someone came into a neighborhood to sell a gun, then it was “probably a dirty gun they’re trying to get rid of.”
Respondents characterize the desire to part with a dirty gun as resulting from their concern that it would make them a suspect in an old crime. R46 indicated that he had parted with several shared guns because “nine times out of ten, man, if you get caught with some of the guns we got you gonna be gone for a long time…they dirty, the guns we got ain’t clean.” R32 reported on his desire for newer guns by indicating if he carried a “dirty” gun, “now you can get charged for a murder that you don’t know nothing about.”
For those selling “dirty” guns, this information might not be passed on to the seller unless it is a close relationship. R65 acknowledged that “you just take a chance…unless you know the person who lets you know.” Other respondents expected that firearms sold on the street would likely have been used in crime. R13 translated gang members selling guns as “when they say they have too many [guns,]…that’s been used before, they don’t want [it].” When R47 was asked if he acquired his brand new gun from someone in the neighborhood, he replied, “Hell no. If I would I could have got it easier. I could have gotten them cheaper …I know the gun clean. …not gonna buy a dirty gun from somebody.” Instead, R47 sought an individual with a firearms license to ensure no prior use. (Cook, Parker, Pollack 34-35)
Considering this information, a few questions can be asked:
- Is Howie a gang member? There has been no evidence that Silva and Dzhokhar were, so the likelihood that this gun’s movements were due to gang activity backs up the chain of custody to Howie.
- Did Howie understand when he asked Silva to hold the gun for him that there was a possibility the gun would come back “dirty?” While there’s nothing to claim the Ruger was fired in the aforementioned robberies, now there’s allegedly two of them. That might cause more trouble for Howie than he was expecting.
- Is it good form for Silva, while holding this weapon that was Howie’s — it was never implied he paid money for it — to simply lend it out to someone else entirely with the knowledge that it could come back dirty? Or is that something that might piss Howie off? And do you really want to piss off someone who has access to illegal guns?
Sadly, such questions are unanswerable with the available information on the record at trial, but it puts a lot of the testimony’s narrative into an interesting perspective.
A Bizarre Aside
At this point in the testimony, the prosecutor’s line of questioning veers for a bit into Dzhokhar’s performance as a high school student and his politics — none of which, to Silva’s credit, indicate anything damning. However, I’m sure the prosecution would have liked it to sound that way:
I hesitated to include anything from this section, since it has nothing to do with the Ruger, but I think the reminder that the prosecution was trying to paint statements from Dzhokhar like this as supporting terrorism was worth it. This is actually quite a liberal and humanitarian viewpoint; and yet, through the same witness, we are expected believe someone like this intended to obtain a gun for robbery, terrorism, and murder. It creates a cognitive dissonance that I don’t think the prosecution team intended. Instead, it seems as though they wanted to imply that if Dzhokhar was for the fair treatment of Muslims, he must be against America — which is the same rhetoric the demagogue Donald Trump is using these days to try to get elected president.
The Final Meeting
Then Silva arrives at the last time he saw Dzhokhar before the Marathon. By now, it’s early April and he has still not received the Ruger back, but has made no more statements about what Howie was doing during this time. In fact, according to Silva, this was a brief meeting in which Dzhokhar purchased some weed. (It’s difficult to track the prosecution’s view of Dzhokhar’s marijuana usage, because at different times during the trial they either used evidence that he had cut back on smoking as a sign of radicalization, or evidence that he dealt on campus as a symptom of bad character. In this section they don’t bother to spin it either way.)
Q. Why were you meeting with the defendant after your birthday?
A. He was meeting with me to purchase some marijuana.
Q. And was he with anyone?
A. Dias. (75)
Another prime opportunity to have Dias testify to this meeting, but he remains a no-show.
Q. What happened when you guys met?
A. He was in — I believe that day he was in Dias’s BMW. I went downstairs, I met up with him inside the car. I was with my twin brother, Steven. I got in the car. The defendant was driving, Dias was in the passenger seat. We had talked very shortly. The defendant handed me some money, and then I left the car to go grab the marijuana. (75)
Where was Steven during this exchange? Where are all these people? This is never specified, as is all too common in the testimony at this point.
A. When I got back I put the marijuana in the — Dias’ car’s trunk, and then I talked to the defendant very shortly. He — I don’t know. He wasn’t really talking to me much. I was trying to get into a deeper conversation with him but he said he was in a rush. And I asked him about the gun and he gave me another excuse on why he couldn’t — why he didn’t bring it that day.
And then I remember Dias saying, “Oh, we’re in a rush, we’re in a rush.” So I only talked to him for a little bit, told the defendant, you know, I loved him, and then I got out of the car.
Q. Did he say specifically why he didn’t bring the gun?
A. He just came up with an excuse, said he was in a rush, he had to — he was driving fast, he didn’t want to be speeding.
Q. Do you believe that? Did you believe that was the reason?
A. I just took it as another excuse, so I don’t know. (76)
Once again, Dias is a major player here who could have corroborated the story. And I’ve struggled to understand Silva’s meaning, that the reason Dzhokhar didn’t bring the gun was because “he was in a rush” and “he was driving fast, he didn’t want to be speeding.” What does that mean, exactly? That he didn’t want to get pulled over with a gun in the car? But if he was focused on not speeding, why would he be worried about that? It’s a very oddly worded response from Silva. It’s equally weird that he is unable to commit to whether or not he believed the excuse. You usually tend to believe someone’s story or you don’t. It’s all strangely chummy, especially when you’ve got someone breathing down your neck to return an illegal gun you were holding, and your friend keeps giving you the run around for several weeks.
This marks the end of Silva’s narrative of his interactions with Dzhokhar about the Ruger. Everything beyond that involves his own actions after the bombing until his arrest in July 2014. The gun is never mentioned again — nothing about whether he wondered what happened to it, or ever had to confront Howie about the fact that it was gone. It’s like the gun evaporates when it is no longer needed.
The Breaks in the Chain
By now, I’m sure it’s clear that I don’t buy a word of this story. The inconsistencies, the out of character actions from both Dzhokhar and Silva, the many, many witnesses who are named but never called, the wealth of cell phone or text message evidence that should exist but was never admitted — it all gives Silva’s story the quality of a poorly spun fantasy, almost like a dream he is struggling to recall, devoid of logic and bearing no basis in reality. Then, of course, there’s the deal: out in seventeen months instead a minimum of five years and a maximum of 160. While Silva walks free, another friend who has pled guilty, Dias Kadyrbayev, who was supposedly privy to many of these events, never appeared at trial. Instead, he is serving six years in federal prison for throwing out a backpack.
At this point, it can be tempting to point fingers. I talk so much about narratives, and every one needs a villain. The prosecution assigned Dzhokhar the role, but it’s always been an ill-fitting one. If Stephen Silva lied about having the Ruger, does that make him the villain? But Silva faced his own impossible decision: sell out a good friend, or face potential life in prison. Over the course of researching and writing this post, I’ve come to feel sorry for him. There are several side characters in this tragic tale who have had their lives damaged, perhaps irrevocably, for knowing Dzhokhar. All of them are barely on the cusp of adulthood, when the world is at its scariest and hardest to comprehend. I can understand the desperate need to pull yourself out unscathed whatever the cost, to try to escape the event horizon of the black hole that formed where Dzhokhar’s life used to be.
Who’s the real villain here? I don’t know. The links in the chain are broken. All I can do is try to fit them back together, to tell my own version of events, the truest one I can find. Silva’s story is over, but the Ruger’s isn’t. There is much, much more about it that never made it to trial. Up until now, I’ve strived to stay within the confines of the court record — to argue, like a defense attorney, only the facts in evidence. However, since the trial, new information has emerged that sheds light on the origins of the Ruger, and casts further doubt on Dzhokhar’s supposed procurement of it. In the interest of justice, I have pursued these leads, and will lay out the evidence for you, my readers, the jury Dzhokhar never had, so that you may decide the truth for yourself.
And it starts with Howie.
Remember the mysterious Howie? The friend from Stephen Silva’s neighborhood who lent him the gun because his mother was searching his room, yet never followed up when Silva failed to return it to him? The person I was convinced was a figment, while my father was certain the authorities had found and wanted to know why he never testified? The one I had no idea how we could find, because there was no last name or identifying information given about him?
Well, back in March, while my dad and I were having our cyclical “Where’s Howie?” conversations, I found him.
Or rather, my Google news alert did.
I have it set to email me about anything relating to the term “Tsarnaev.” It’s pretty quiet these days, but on March 25th I woke up and saw that it had emailed me a Boston Globe article with the headline “Source of Gun Used by Tsarnaevs to Kill Sean Collier Pleads Guilty.“
I read on, trying to wrap my brain around the new information. Who was this guy, and how did he relate to Howie? Where has he been? Why was he pleading guilty now, after the trial had been over for nearly a year? The article read:
A local man pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston Thursday to charges that he once illegally possessed the gun that was later used by the Tsarnaev brothers to kill MIT police officer Sean Collier days after the Boston Marathon bombing.
Merhawi Berhe, who also goes by the name Howie, pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number. He is slated to be sentenced June 16 and faces over a year in prison.
Stephen Silva, a onetime friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, testified in Tsarnaev’s federal death penalty trial last year that he loaned Tsarnaev a gun that belonged to Berhe, whom he referred to as “Howie.” Prosecutors did not confirm that Berhe and “Howie” are the same person; however, according to a person with knowledge of the case, they are the same. (Valencia)
Merhawi Berhe. Howie. The Howie we’d been spending weeks wondering about.
I told my dad and he wanted more: what was the plea agreement? Was there an indictment? What exactly were the charges? When did they take him in?
I was able to log onto the district court’s website and pull a few relevant documents. The guilty plea agreement hadn’t been filed yet, but the indictment and the court docket were there. We looked over the indictment together, which you can view here. A few things immediately struck us as odd.
The charge was very strange. It was only one count of possession of the Ruger P95 handgun. There was nothing about the transfer of the gun to Silva, which would be a separate charge.
And then there was the date.
The indictment was filed while Dzhokhar’s trial was ongoing, one week before Stephen Silva testified. I was shocked. Silva had been in custody since July 2014. Why did they wait so long to go after Howie?
I rushed to the docket, to see if I could track the dates more clearly. Indeed, Howie had been arrested on March 11, 2015:
“I told you,” Dad said. “I knew they would go after Howie. They wanted him to testify to back up Silva’s story.”
“But he didn’t,” I said. “Why didn’t he?”
Then I read more of the docket report.
Wait a minute. Why does that date sound familiar?
What about the time?
On the same day, at the same time, in the same courthouse, one floor apart, as Stephen Silva testified that he received the Ruger P95 that killed Officer Sean Collier from him, Merhawi Berhe was pleading not guilty to possessing the very same weapon.
This is just the start of the weird, confusing tale that is the origin story of Sean Collier’s murder weapon. Moving from Merhawi Berhe, to gangbangers out of Portland, Maine, to a mysterious middle man never named, the trail only gets wilder from here.
This story is too long to contain to one post, so I invite you to move on to the next installment in the series. Thank you for reading, and you can get the next part here.
Barber, Elizabeth and Scott Malone. “Friend of Boston Marathon Bomber Sentenced to Federal Prison.” The Huffington Post. 2 June 2015.
Cook, Philip J, Susan T. Parker and Harold A. Pollack. “Sources of Guns to Dangerous People: What We Learn by Asking Them.” Preventative Medicine 79 (2015): 28-36. PDF.
Frizzell, Thomas. “Re: Blog post request.” Received by Heather Frizzell, 6 July 2016.
Horwitz, Sari. “Three arrested for allegedly helping suspect after Boston bombings.” The Washington Post. 1 May 2013.
“Incentivized Informants.” The Innocence Project. Accessed 15 August 2016.
Levenson, Eric. “Stephen Silva, Friend of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Sentenced to Time Served.” Boston.com. 22 December 2015.
United States District Court, District of Massachusetts. “United States of America v. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Testimony of Stephen Silva.” Jury Trial – Day Thirty-Four. 17 March 2015. PDF.
United States District Court, District of Massachusetts. “United States of America v. Merhawi Berhe, A/K/A Howie: Docket.” 25 March 2016. PDF.
United States District Court, District of Massachusetts. “United States of America v. Merhawi Berhe, A/K/A Howie: Indictment.” 10 March 2015. PDF.
Valencia, Milton J. “Source of Gun Used by Tsarnaevs to Kill Sean Collier Pleads Guilty.” The Boston Globe. 24 March 2016.
Wen, Patricia and Evan Allen. “Gun Charge Tied to Collier Shooting, Lawyer Says.” The Boston Globe. 23 July 2014.
Wen, Patricia. “Jurors Convict Friend of Tsarnaev.” The Boston Globe. 21 July 2014.
Zalkind, Susan. “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s College Friend Pleads Guilty.” Boston Magazine. 22 August 2014.