(L to R) Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman and Raphael Teken

Author relentless in investigating Waltham triple-murder ties to Marathon bombing

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Author relentless in investigating Waltham triple-murder ties to Marathon bombing

(L to R) Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman and Raphael Teken

The fall of 2024 will mark 13 years since a still-unsolved triple homicide in Waltham claimed the lives of three men – Erik Weissman, Rafi Teken, and Brendan Mess. They were killed on Sept. 11, 2011 – the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Weissman and Teken were Jewish and had connections to Israel through their families. Weissman’s friend, Jewish-American journalist Susan Clare Zalkind, has spent over a decade investigating the case, which includes researching possible connections to the late Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Now Zalkind has written a book about her investigation – “The Waltham Murders: One Woman’s Pursuit to Expose the Truth Behind a Murder and a National Tragedy.”

“This is extremely emotional and challenging material to work on – all homicide is,” Zalkind said. “Ideally, there would be others investigating this case. It is what it is.”

Previously, in 2022, she was the writer and producer of a Hulu docuseries on the case, The Murders Before the Marathon.

The author grew up in West Newton and Newtonville, in what she described as a nonreligious Jewish community. Her father is the criminal defense attorney Norman Zalkind. The book contains moving descriptions of their relationship, including how the elder Zalkind acquired the nickname “Big Bird” from officials at the Moakley federal courthouse in Boston.

“For me, understanding what it meant to be Jewish was aligning oneself with the oppressed, the underdog,” Susan Zalkind said. “I’m proud of the tradition of truth-seeking.”

Susan Zalkind/NAFIS AZAD

She describes her book in a similar vein: “The story really is about truth.”

The narrative is a sensitive portrayal of the three victims. Although they were stigmatized as drug dealers following their gruesome stabbing deaths in Mess’s Waltham apartment, Zalkind humanizes them through descriptions of their overall lives as well as their family members and friends, including Weissman’s mother, Bellie Hacker, and his sister, Aria Weissman; Teken’s father, the spiritual leader Avi Teken; and Mess’s brother, Dylan Mess.

As the book explains, Brendan Mess and Tsarnaev developed a friendship. They came from different backgrounds – Mess grew up in Cambridge, where Tsarnaev lived after his parents of Chechen and Avar heritage emigrated – but they bonded over their interest in martial arts, according to the book. Mess had a circle of friends that included Weissman and Teken, both of whom eventually met Tsarnaev. Zalkind writes that Mess sometimes tweaked Tsarnaev over the latter’s dislike of Israel, while Teken and Tsarnaev – who became a devout Muslim – had a sometimes tense relationship because of Israel.

Regarding connections between the murders and antisemitism the author said “absolutely, Erik and Rafi were Jewish,” and continued, “Their families were Israeli. They spoke Hebrew … It absolutely appears they were targeted because they were Jewish and Israeli.” She added that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was vocally antisemitic, believed in antisemitic conspiracy theories, and had been arguing with Rafi Teken and Brendan Mess about Israel.

However, Zalkind reflected, “I think this story does not fit neatly into a narrative that would support anybody’s political platform,” whether through a lens of either antisemitism or Islamophobia. Instead, she says the story reveals that “in seeking the truth it is crucial to consider the complexity and humanity of others, even those who seek to hurt us.”

The narrative took another turn following the April 15, 2013, Marathon bombings and the manhunt during which Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed and his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was shot and captured. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was put on trial and convicted. His initial death sentence was appealed and vacated, but was reinstated by the Supreme Court. His sentence is currently being investigated by the U.S. federal court because of possible juror bias during the penalty phase of his 2015 trial.

In the book, Zalkind presents a theory of how the Waltham murders occurred. It is based upon many sources that took years to obtain. These include evidence from the trials of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and several of his friends, and documentation of a 2013 FBI interrogation of Tsarnaev’s friend Ibragim Todashev – a fellow Chechen and martial arts enthusiast, according to the book – about a month after the Marathon bombings with Massachusetts law enforcement and FBI agents present. The interrogation was conducted at Todashev’s home in Orlando, during which Todashev was fatally shot by an FBI agent, which was later justified as self-defense.

Years later, investigators said “Todashev confessed that he and Tamerlan participated in the Waltham murders” of Mess, 25, Weissman, 31, and Teken, 37.

“Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Ibragim Todashev did it,” Zalkind writes in the book. “They killed those three men in Waltham. The basic facts of what happened are not ‘unknowable.’ The evidence of their guilt is readily available for anyone invested in seeking it.”
“I don’t know with certainty who slit which man’s throat,” she adds. “But by all indications this was a cold-blooded, premeditated murder.”

As detailed in the book, her theory suggests multiple motivations, from ideological to financial (all three victims regularly sold marijuana). An example of the former is Tsarnaev’s reading of the antisemitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” while an example of the latter comes from Todashev reportedly telling law enforcement of a plan to steal drug money.

The Waltham murders case remains open, and Zalkind remains frustrated with law enforcement.

“Others have not latched onto it,” she said. “I think it speaks to the complexity of the story. I think we would do well to grapple with the complexity.” Θ

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