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THE WALTHAM MURDERS: THE INTERVIEW

Speaking with Susan Clare Zalkind about her new book, The Waltham Murders: One Woman’s Pursuit to Expose the Truth Behind a Murder and a National Tragedy


Susan Zalkind spent more than a decade of her young adult life impugning the unsolved murder of her friend Erik Weissman. On Sept. 11, 2011, he was killed in his friend Brendan Mess’s Waltham apartment along with Mess and their pal Rafi Teken, and over the following several years, she took on the task of unwinding the mystery which ensued and trying to understand its link to a seismic terror event.

A courageous complement to Zalkind’s 2022 Hulu documentary series, The Murders Before the Marathon, her new Little A book, The Waltham Murders, parses this immensely complicated story down to its most critical elements (and some relevant tangents), making for a robust journalistic account of a labyrinthine set of events. Subtitled One Woman’s Pursuit to Expose the Truth Behind a Murder and a National Tragedy, the work connects the dots where law enforcement—including every link in the federal food chain—failed.

At this point, as Zalkind put it in our interview, there are no spoilers. Unless some other agency or individual can make a stronger case than she presents in her book-length account and miniseries—and they certainly haven’t so far—it’s clear that Mess, Weissman, and Teken were killed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Ibragim Todashev. Less than two years later, of course, the former and his brother Dzhokhar detonated two bombs on Boylston Street near the Boston Marathon finish line, leaving carnage as well as innumerable questions in the long wake of their devastating actions. The fate of Todashev, who was shot and killed by an FBI agent in 2013, added to the intrigue, making for another strand in an enormous web of hard-to-find characters and harder-to-find answers.

I asked the author about her commitment to the subject and the journey she took to address so many open questions.

What separates this book from all of your work on this subject that preceded it? 

I consider the docuseries and the book to be my body of work. Boston Magazine is my home, and you should definitely read those [initial articles about the Waltham murders] as well, but if you’re just trying to take in my work, I would say the docuseries and the book were what I was working toward. I also did a piece with This American Life that was an important addendum, and then of course there’s my whole body of work and all of the articles that I published everywhere.

What were the parts of the story that you and your editor decided really had to be part of the foundation of this book if people were going to be able to follow the whole saga?

[The publisher] Little A really gave me tremendous resources to go off and do this work, and then they offered fact-checking, which was really great. Even after getting the book deal, though, which I worked toward for a really long time, I was alone. There was so much more to the story than I knew I needed to get, and that’s why I ended up teaming up with [Hulu for] the docuseries. 

My initial murder collage [that’s seen in the documentary] was actually something that I made myself, and it wasn’t disorganized—it was sort of cards and a timeline that I would put in a big artist portfolio and carry around to meetings under my arm. Part of it was to get people to talk to me and to talk about the story.

I’d been trying to get [iconic Cambridge-based filmmaker] Errol Morris to talk to me about this case for years; I would run into him in Cambridge cafes, and our families overlap. Finally, when I told him that I didn’t want to make the docuseries, and that I had a deal but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take it because I wasn’t sure if it would move the case forward and might derail my investigation—and I wanted to make sure that my journalistic integrity was intact throughout—that’s when he said, Come on in. I went to those meetings with a murder collage talked under my arm, and Errol looked at it, [This American Life producer] Brian Reed looked at it, and it was how I onboarded Matt Cook, who is the screenwriter of Patriots Day, to start helping me look at the parts of the case that needed investigating. 

There’s what you want to know, what you wish you could know, and, when you’re working a story, there’s what’s available—where can you make a dent? Where can you make progress in your reporting?

How hard was it to stay disciplined in hunting down leads? Or were you doing it scattered and looking for 15 people at once?

I didn’t get money to fly out [to visit sources] until the very end, and that was part of the docuseries. I didn’t want to do the talking-head thing, I wanted it to have momentum—I thought it was better television, and, big-picture, that it fit better into what I wanted to do—pushing the case forward and capturing my investigation as I was uncovering leads. I wanted to use the series as a resource to get new information, and I did.

What changed from when you were out there looking for a book deal to when you actually put the book out?

I sold this book as a neo-noir Nancy Drew, because I didn’t know the answers. Publishers wanted to know how the story ended, and I wanted resources to figure that out. So I figured that making it a story about my investigation had a narrative arc that would work no matter which way the facts led me; while it’s not traditional journalism to use the first-person voice, I actually found it to be a very effective tool.

This is a thorough account of what happened, and I’m hoping other journalists pick up on those leads and keep the conversation moving forward. For some, it is a complicated story, and I’m really glad that readers who wouldn’t typically gravitate to a book like this are picking it up and reading it as they would a fictional thriller.

As for your conclusions, I don’t want to give my readers a spoiler …

There is no spoiler. I established [that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Todashev] did it in the docuseries. After the appeal [by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of his death sentence in federal court], more information was released in 2019. I was sort of weighing the two sides and also creating a counternarrative of [Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Todashev’s] innocence [in the Waltham killings]. … There was no alternate theory that made sense. … There’s no logical counter argument. … There’s more information in the book [than was initially reported in the docuseries and in prior accounts by Zalkind] linking [Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Todashev] to the Waltham murders. This is not an allegation I take lightly, but there really is no argument that one could make in their defense regarding these murders.

There are questions about why this case remains open today. And there are questions about why investigators weren’t talking to the people that I was talking to, and why they weren’t pursuing those leads. Right now, the case is still officially open—the Middlesex DA says that they’re looking into additional potential suspects.

There are parts of the book that seem almost anticlimactic because it appears that a lot of the bullshit wasn’t due to some enormous coverup but rather part of an elaborate legal defense to put [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] away for life. As someone who has covered a lot of trials and knows the legal system well, how surprising was it to you that a lot of what was going on was because of legal strategy?

A conspiratorial narrative is a narrative in favor of an ordered universe—the world is not as chaotic as it seems, there actually is a world order, and there are people at the very top calling all the shots. That’s enticing, it’s like a Scooby-Doo narrative where you can just pull off someone’s mask and say you found the bad guy.

What I found throughout all of my reporting on law enforcement and officials—federal, state, local, and politicians as well—is a narrative of systemic rot rather than order. It’s people on every level acting in their own self-interest and taking actions that support their own narratives and their own agendas rather than doing the right thing and investigating their colleagues, speaking up, or taking important questions seriously. This is a story about systemic rot rather than a powerful group of people at the very top calling all the shots. It’s a story about not one coverup, but potentially a series of coverups, and it’s unclear if there’s any coordination. It’s everybody trying to pass the buck and protect their own.

A lot of the book has cops from towns and cities around Greater Boston chasing pot dealers. What did you learn about these departments?

With the [Suburban Middlesex County Drug Task Force, an elusive interdepartment unit] … it’s very murky who’s even in charge or who to talk to. … If there is no system of oversight or accountability, people in power are going to take advantage of that power. They’re going to do what they can get away with. If you’re talking about the Watertown Police Department, there’s a lot of legacies and people whose relatives are in the department. I think that’s the culture—not just in Boston, but in the surrounding communities. They’re these little isolated enclaves of culture; that’s part of what makes these areas so interesting, and it’s also what makes it so toxic and can lead to corruption.

There’s an allegation in the story about police beating and robbing a drug dealer. Is it shocking to me that police officers could beat or rob a drug dealer? Absolutely not. People aren’t so familiar with this part of the criminal underworld, with police officers getting away with something like that. But they’re not paid especially well, they also have rising housing costs, and if they’re doing a bust, and there’s money and there’s drugs in the evidence locker, of course people are going to take advantage of that. And if there’s no oversight, it’s going to go on for decades.

You can purchase The Waltham Murders here and follow the author at zalkind.info.

This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org

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