The fatal shooting of Ibragim Todashev by an FBI agent has raised countless troubling questions since it occurred on May 22, 2013. Those questions have multiplied since it was revealed in May that the FBI agent who killed Todashev was a former Oakland, California police officer who was involved in a notorious corruption scandal. The shooting, which happened at Todashev's apartment in Orlando, Florida, quickly became a national story because of what Todashev allegedly said just before he was killed. The FBI claimed that Todashev, a Chechen immigrant and acquaintance of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had implicated himself and Tsarnaev in a gruesome, unsolved 2011 triple murder in Waltham, Massachusetts just before the shooting.
According to the report by Florida State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton, Todashev was writing a confession when he suddenly flipped over a table, injuring the FBI agent who was interrogating him, then grabbed a metal broomstick and charged at the FBI agent and a Massachusetts state trooper who was also present, prompting the FBI agent to shoot him three to four times. Todashev tried to attack them again, so the FBI agent fired another three to four shots. A second state trooper was involved in the interrogation, but had stepped outside to make a phone call when the shooting occurred.
The FBI and Ashton's office, both of which conducted investigations of the shooting, refused to disclose the names of the FBI agent and two Massachusetts state troopers who were involved even after their investigations were closed and the three men were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.
The Ashton report refers to the three men only as "FBI Agent," "Trooper One," and "Trooper Two," however, several people realized that the prosecutor's office had improperly redacted a number of diagrams in the report. The image files can be extracted from the report, revealing the last names of the three men.
The names were first revealed on May 3 by "B Blake," an anonymous writer for the blog "THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS: What Happened?" B Blake identified the FBI agent as Aaron McFarlane and the two state troopers as Curtis Cinelli and Joel Gagne. Two days later, B Blake published a second article detailing Aaron McFarlane's history as an Oakland police officer.
She found references to McFarlane on the Mass Most Wanted website. She then ran his name through some online search tools and was able to verify that McFarlane had previously lived in Oakland. Next, she found references to McFarlane on OaklandPoliceBeat.com and TransparentCalifornia.com. Lastly, she found a number of news articles about him.
"Took me about 24 hours," B Blake told me. "From getting the unredacted pictures, then the names of McFarlane, Gagne, and Cinelli, then working out who was who, to discovering McFarlane's background took about 24 hours."
More than a week passed before The Boston Globe finally became the first mainstream news source to report on McFarlane's history as an Oakland police officer on May 14.
According to the Globe:
McFarlane had worked at the troubled Oakland department from 2000 to 2004, during the biggest police corruption scandal in the city’s history. Oakland fired four police officers who called themselves the “Riders” after prosecutors filed criminal charges against them in 2000 on accusations of beating and kidnapping people, making false arrests, planting evidence, and falsifying police reports. No one was ever convicted, but the city settled a federal lawsuit for $10.9 million and the department remains under court oversight today.
McFarlane testified for the defense in the first Riders criminal trial. In his cross-examination, prosecutor David Hollister suggested that McFarlane had falsified a police report to drum up a reason to arrest a man. According to a court transcript requested by the Globe, Hollister said the report, which was investigated by Oakland’s internal affairs unit, “at first flush 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 said.
McFarlane reluctantly pleaded the Fifth to avoid incriminating himself and later testified under immunity, but he told Hollister that he did nothing wrong.
“I write the truth in my reports,” McFarlane said, according to the transcript.
Hollister also questioned McFarlane about another arrest that night: a man who suffered a head injury. A police report said McFarlane had transported him to jail, according to the transcript. McFarlane said he did not know how the man was injured.
Shortly after McFarlane’s testimony, two men filed lawsuits against McFarlane and another officer accusing them of beating them the year before. Michael Cole, a convicted drug dealer, said McFarlane held him down as another officer, Steven Nowak, allegedly stomped on his head, injuring his eye and breaking his nose, allegedly because Cole’s uncle had filed a complaint against Nowak.
McFarlane and Nowak denied the assertions in court records. McFarlane said Cole kicked and hit him during a search of a notorious drug corner and injured himself when he fled in handcuffs and fell. The city settled the suit for $22,500. The city also settled a related lawsuit for $10,000 filed by Cole’s friend Robert Girard, who said McFarlane and Nowak beat him after he photographed Cole’s injuries at the hospital. McFarlane said Girard had barged into an off-limits area and hit McFarlane in the chest.
In the settlements, McFarlane and Nowak did not acknowledge any wrongdoing and Nowak remains in the department. Oakland police would not divulge the outcome of the internal affairs investigations, saying it was confidential. Donelan, the union president, said Oakland police are often targeted by frivolous lawsuits that are settled to avoid the expense of a full-blown trial. “This is litigation central,” he said. “It’s not about the officers. It’s about the environment they’re operating in.”
According to court records, McFarlane had repeatedly injured his leg and broken an ankle while on the force, and retired on medical disability. Amy Morgan, spokeswoman for the state-run retirement system in Sacramento, said only that he is collecting a pension of more than $52,000 a year for life.
It is unclear what McFarlane did next, but federal records show he joined the Boston FBI in 2008 after passing a rigorous background check and graduating from the bureau’s academy at Quantico, Va. At the time of the Marathon bombings, he was investigating bank robberies, working with Boston and other police agencies, and sometimes appearing as a guest speaker at industry conferences.
In Boston, the FBI refused to discuss McFarlane’s work history, saying it could threaten his safety. “Publishing the alleged name of the Agent involved in this shooting incident serves no public interest or service, except to foster continued media scrutiny,” the Boston FBI said in a statement. “The personal safety of the Agent continues to be of concern to the Boston Division, and publishing the Agent’s name potentially places the Agent and his family at risk for reprisal.”
Back in January, WBUR reporter David Boeri published a two-part series about the Todashev shooting in which he said he had learned the names of the three men who were involved in the shooting, but that he was "not releasing the names at the request of both the FBI and the Massachusetts State Police, which cited specific concerns for their safety."
"At the time we were presented with information that the agent was the target of threats of retaliation and having been presented with that, I made a decision that we would not release his name," Boeri told me during a recent telephone interview.
"At the time, I didn't think that the name in itself was important," Boeri said. "I accepted their claim that there was a security concern."
Boeri said he discussed whether the names should be released with his colleagues, but he never told any of them what the names were.
"My determination is that the identity of this guy at the time I did this story I thought was secondary. And the reason it was secondary was because the main story that I did not want to lose track of was how those three – the FBI agent and two state cops – had acted and how they had conducted themselves in that situation," Boeri explained.
In his first article, Boeri pointed out that the FBI agent and state troopers chose to question Todashev at his home where he potentially had access to weapons even though they knew he was a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter who had been accused of assault several times in the past.
"It was their conduct that jeopardized both themselves and the suspect who by all accounts was somebody who they needed to safeguard. That to me was the main subject and I didn't want that focus to change while defending myself or becoming the center of an attack that I had jeopardized somebody's safety. I thought the more important thing was to get the story out and then to return to continue," he said.
Boeri said he did not know that McFarlane was an Oakland police officer at the time that he published his series.
Boeri said he was working on another story about how Jeffrey Ashton had agreed to not interview McFarlane for his investigation, but Boeri suspended it because he was having difficulty getting some information he needed. At some point, he learned that McFarlane was an Oakland police officer, but before he had a chance to research his background, he went on vacation. The Globe's story was published while he was out of the country.
"The next thing that I was going to do when I got back was to run him through Oakland. I would've found all this stuff out, but I was on vacation," Boeri said. "Kills me that that's the way it happened, but that's the way it happened."
Even if Boeri was not able to uncover McFarlane's past back in January, it seems almost certain that someone else would have if the names had been made public, considering the ease with which B Blake was able to unearth the information.
After The Boston Globe's story about McFarlane was published, a spokeman for Ashton's office told the Globe that Jeffrey Ashton was unaware of McFarlane's past.
“Mr. Ashton did not know any of the background of the officers,” spokesman Richard I. Wallsh told the Globe. “What we presented in our report was a full and exhaustive discussion of the information that we had in our possession.”
While Ashton apparently made no attempt whatsoever to look into McFarlane's past, his report is filled with information about Todashev's.
The report includes detailed information on three incidents Todashev was allegedly involved in, one in which he was arrested by Boston police during a verbal altercation with another driver, one in which he allegedly attacked a hookah bar manager, and one in which he allegedly beat a man unconscious in a dispute over a parking space (Todashev was under FBI surveillance at the time of this third incident, but the agents did not intervene).
The report also repeatedly mentions that Todashev was an MMA fighter and even includes links to five YouTube videos of his fights, which the report says "demonstrate Mr. Todashev’s ability to deliver strikes and kicks" and that Todashev "possessed a high tolerance for pain."
Considering all the attention he paid to Todashev's background, it seems inconceivable that Ashton would not have bothered to look into McFarlane's past unless his intention was to whitewash the shooting instead of providing an honest report.
Kieran L. Ramsey, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston, insisted to the Globe that “None of your reporting to date has anything to do with what happened in that room.” While this may be true, McFarlane's past is still relevant since it casts doubt on his credibility as a witness.
Even before the information about McFarlane's past was made public, there were a number unusual facts about the shooting which raised questions. For instance, the FBI and state police only recorded parts of their interrogation of Todashev and did not tell investigators about the recordings when they were first questioned about the shooting (the recordings still haven't been made public despite pressure from The Boston Globe). Todashev's unfinished handwritten confession did not match the scene of the crime he was supposedly confessing to, raising the possibility of a coerced confession. Back in March, Boston magazine reported that several people who knew Todashev were detained by the FBI, interrogated, and deported.
Todashev's father has publicly accused the FBI of murdering his son "execution-style" and some writers have raised the possibility that Todashev was killed as part of a cover-up.
Whatever the truth about the shooting is, both Ashton and the FBI have a lot of explaining to do.
David Boeri told me he didn't regret his decision to withhold the names from his reporting, but if he had published them, Ashton may have at the very least been forced to acknowledge McFarlane's disturbing history and grapple with his lack of credibility.
While I don't know exactly what Boeri was told, I think this incident is a reminder that journalists should be extremely skeptical when government officials ask them to keep information secret.