Robel Phillipos was the third name we heard on May 1, when the FBI announced that they had arrested three more suspects connected to the Boston bombings last month. Phillipos's past and character isn't as much of a mystery to us as fellow suspects Dias Kadyrbayev and Azamat Tazhayakov, but the question still remains, how did this former daycare worker turn into a suspect?
Seeing what happens to Phillipos, who is an American citizen like Tsarnaev, will show us how investigators and law officials treat someone who allegedly aided suspect accused of terrorism. At a time when people are still trying to figure out if Dzhokhar was brainwashed by his brother, we're also trying to figure out why Phillipos, who pretty much fits the mold of a college buddy, would be dumb enough to help a possible terrorist? Phillipos isn't charged with physically tampering with evidence, more specifically throwing out Tsarnaev's backpack, but he is being charged with lying to federal investigators over the course of four interviews. "The only allegation he made is a misrepresentation," his lawyer Derege Demissie said.
It's a testament to local papers in the Cambridge area, where Phillipos is from, that we can build an understanding of what kind of young man he is. Papers in the area have interviewed friends, mutual friends of Tsarnaev and Phillipos, neighbors, and even basketball buddies—giving us a narrative to wrap around the cold hard facts of the indictment: that investigators believe the 19-year-old Phillipos lied to investigators, possibly protect his friends and the prime Boston bombing suspect. Here's what we know:
He Was Classmates with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Even Before College. Phillipos, according to school officials who spoke to Bloomberg, was a 2011 graduate of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. Tsarnaev also graduated in 2011, and actually received a $2,500 scholarship. What isn't clear is how close they were in school. "A yearbook photograph shows a smiling Phillipos. Almost directly in front of him, Tsarnaev stares at the camera -- his hand gently resting under his chin," reads the CNN report, but that doesn't tell us if or how close Phillipos and Tsarnaev were friends in high school. And though there are multiple reports from friends, neighbors, and people who played basketball with Phillipos, none of them have commented on the type of friendship, if any, that he and Tsarnaev had. He and Tsarnaev were classmates for a brief period at UMass Dartmouth.
He Dropped Out of School to Take Care His Sick Mother. UMass Dartmouth said that Phillipos, like Dias Kadyrbayev, was not a student at the time of his arrest. But reports say that before he dropped out, he was studying marketing. "According to a former classmate and friend who worked with Phillipos at a daycare center, Phillipos was attending classes remotely at the time of his arrest because he was staying home to care for his mother, who is ill," report Erin Baldassari and Amy Saltzman for the Cambridge Chronicle. Though the daycare center where Phillipos worked at isn't specified, we know he was also active in the Cambridge Kids Council, Cambridge Kids' Council—a program chaired by the mayor of Cambridge and is, according to its website, "dedicated to developing policy recommendations and programs aimed at improving the quality of life for children, youth and families in the City of Cambridge."
Phillipos, according to USA Today, was raised by his mother who herself was an immigrant from Ethiopia. "She is a single mother and works with refugees," NBC Boston reported, while the Cambridge Chronicle team added, "A devout Protestant, Phillipos’ mother worked directly with refugees and often involved herself in charitable work, the friend said."
"Do What You Have to Do." That's the phrase that Phillipos is quoted as saying in the criminal complaint. He apparently muttered those words to Kadyrbayev, while discussing what to do with Tsarnaev's backpack. That sounds like reluctance on Phillipos's part, and according to one of his friends, that's his catchphrase when he doesn't like what's going on. The Chronicle report reads:
One friend said Phillipos wasn’t prone to drama and would often detach himself from sticky situations. Defending allegations that Phillipos lied to investigators to protect Tsarnaev, friends said Phillipos didn’t get in trouble often.
“I know Robel, if he’s not with something, he’s going to say, ‘You do you.’ That’s how Robel works,” a friend said, referring to the criminal complaint that quotes Phillipos as reportedly saying, “Do what you have to do.”
If you look at the reports out there trying to establish Phillipos's character, they're all linked by disbelief. "Robel is a nice boy, very nice kid -- he [doesn’t] talk too much…he’s a very nice boy," a neighbor told NBC Boston, while a basketball buddy told NECN: "I think it's just crazy, I don't know what to say, I've known him since he was young, so, the type of person he is, he wouldn't try to purposely ruin an investigation. I don't know though, if he did, it's crazy." And there's the Cambridge Chronicle's which not only includes the passage about Phillipos's reluctance, it goes on to add another account from another anonymous friend, "He was probably thinking he was just being a good friend."
Phillipos Lived Close to the Carjacking. This was mentioned in the initial reports, but Phillipos and his mother lived very close from the carjacking the Tsarnaev brothers committed, which eventually became their undoing. "The family’s apartment building is located next to the gas station where the carjacking victim from the night of the shootout in Watertown escaped," reports NBC Boston. There's no indication from officials that Phillipos did anything more than lie to federal officials, but that's a strange coincidence to have the Tsarnaev brothers on the loose that night and were in walking distance to their friend's house.
What's Next? Phillipos's next hearing is on Monday. If he's found guilty of lying to investigators, he could face up to eight years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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