Shooting in Orlando

Murder suspect’s death and accusations against him shock Kissimmee neighbors

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Ibragim Todashev, the Chechen martial-arts fighter killed by an FBI agent in Orlando on Tuesday, was a bit of a mystery to his neighbors in his modest gated community in Kissimmee.

They knew little about his lifestyle, his travels or his relationship with one of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing.

They did know him as the kind of guy who helped neighbors in the multi-ethnic Sun City Village bring in their groceries, bought a fishing rod for the three-year-old daughter of his next-door neighbor and practiced his kick-boxing in the grassy area next to the community pool as children watched. To them, the portrait painted by police of a hot-tempered bully and cold-blooded killer was a surprise.

“He was very helpful, very nice, never disrespected women,’’ said Jessica Porteneur, a Sun City Village neighbor, who said Todashev lived in the community about two years.

Police say Todashev, 27, was shot by an FBI agent when he attacked them with a knife or another object during an interview at an Orlando condominium.

He confessed, they say, to the brutal stabbing murders of three men in Waltham, Mass., on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and he implicated Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the killings.

Then, police say, he lunged at a police officer with a knife and was shot dead.

The turn of events has many of his former neighbors suspicious — of both police and Todashev — and has left several of his Chechen friends and roommates in disbelief, and fear.

“I don’t believe nothing,’’ said Muslim Chapkhanov, 29, one of Todashev’s roommates who was the first of the close-knit group of Chechens to emigrate to the U.S. in 2006. “It’s easy to say these things now that he’s dead. Before, I felt safe here. Now, I feel way in danger.”

Chapkhanov, who works as a long-haul trucker, said he came home Wednesday to discover his friend was dead at the hands of police.

He told the Herald/Times that, from the time the FBI had aggressively questioned Todashev after the Boston bombings — when investigators found Todashev’s phone number in Tsarnaev’s cell phone — “Ibragim was very scared.’’

On Monday, Todashev gave one of the roommates his parents’ number, Chapkhanov said. “He said, ‘If anything happens to me, call them.’”

Chapkhanov told the Herald/Times that many of Todashev’s other Chechen friends now believe the FBI “came from Boston to kill him” and set up the interview to frame him for crimes they are convinced he did not commit.

“He just got his green card two months ago,’’ he said. “Why would they give him a green card if he did this?”

Russell and Debbie Diaz, who live in the townhouse next door to Todashev and his roommates, said the news stunned them.

“Their door was always open,’’ Debbie Diaz said. “Why would someone with something to hide have his door open?”

Russell Diaz said he can’t believe that Todashev was involved in the brutal slaying outside Boston that left three men nearly decapitated and covered with marijuana. Diaz said he never saw Todashev use drugs or alcohol.

“He’s a good kid,’’ Diaz said. “He comes outside, smokes a cigarette, plays with his computer.”

On Saturday, Todashev gave Diaz’s three-year-old daughter a little fishing rod “because he knows I like fishing.”

Now, Russell Diaz conceded: “You never really know. You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

The emerging portrait of Todashev, who emigrated from war-torn Chechnya to Boston in 2008, is more complex than the one conveyed by the occasional acquaintance of his neighbors in the tidy community pastel-blue town homes.

Todashev, a skilled competitor in mixed martial arts, was arrested on May 4 by Orange County deputies after he allegedly got into a fight with two men in a mall parking lot over a parking space.

The sheriff’s office report said Todashev left the scene while one of the victims was unconscious on the ground, his teeth knocked out and surrounded by a “considerable” amount of blood.

When deputies stopped Todashev afterward, he told them that he was fighting in self defense “to protect his knee,” which was healing from surgery. He also told police that several vehicles that were also following him were FBI agents.

YouTube videos uploaded nine months ago show Todashev, trim and muscular, in a series of bouts. State records show his last documented MMA fight was in July 2012 in Tampa, when he won against fighter Bradford May of Spring Hill.

Todashev moved to Orlando in 2011, said his estranged wife, Reni Manukyan, a 24-year-old assistant hotel-housekeeping manager now living in Atlanta. She told the Wall Street Journal that she married Todashev at a mosque near Boston in July 2010, and they separated in November 2012.

While Todashev spent some time with his Chechen roommates in Kissimmee, he also lived across town with a 19-year-old girlfriend at the Windhover condominiums, a mile from Universal Studios. There, he spent much of the last two months walking the landscaped sidewalks, swimming in the pool and recovering from knee surgery.

Residents there said he drove a white Mercedes with a Russian emblem and shared a place with his girlfriend that had a plaque of a rifle on the front door.

It was there where police questioned and killed Todashev after he allegedly confessed to the 2011 murders of 25-year-old Brendan Mess, 31-year-old Erik Weissman and 37-year-old Raphael Teken, who were found dead with their throats slit and bodies covered in marijuana and cash.

Police said Todashev told them the murders were provoked when a drug robbery went wrong and he and Tsarnaev feared they could be identified. Manukyan, Todashev’s wife, told Orlando’s Channel 9 TV that Tsarnaev called her husband this year after he injured his knee fighting. It was weeks before the deadly Boston bombing, but they only talked about the surgery, she said.

It is unclear how Todashev supported himself, or his martial arts hobby.

Manukyan told the Wall Street Journal she still shared a joint bank account with Todashev and helped support him. Chapkhavov said Todashev picked up odd jobs, but was supported in part by his girlfriend, who worked at a nearby Pizza Hut.

The manager there, however, told the Herald/Times it has been six months since she worked there.

Todashev listed the two-bedroom apartment at Sun Village Center as his address, but that is also home to a stream of Chechen friends, as many as eight who would come and go, Diaz said.

Several of his roommates said Todashev had recently purchased a ticket to return to Russia because he felt targeted by police after the Boston bombings, but the FBI asked him to cancel the tickets and he agreed.

Khusen Taramov, 22, said he felt Todashev was being “bad set up” by police. “They are making up such crazy stuff.”

Taramov said he spent most of Monday at Todashev’s side until police asked him to leave when he was being questioned at Windhover, the condo community where Todashev was killed.

“I know that after Boston, the police were here asking him questions,’’ said Aida Bennett, 73, who lived across from Todashev and his girlfriend’s condo. “He was very polite.”

Over the last two months, neighbors at Windhover said they saw him trying to rehabilitate his injured knee by walking the landscaped sidewalks, swimming in the pool.

Police emphasized Todashev is not believed to have been involved in the Boston Marathon bombings, but his violent death, and the aggressive interviews by the FBI of his Chechen friends, has rattled residents in both Orlando communities.

“These people are being harassed by the FBI just because they are friends with somebody,’’ said Haydee Colon, a Puerto Rican who lived near Todashev in the Orlando Sun Village apartment complex in Kissimmee.

She said she was angry because “we should be going to a trial, not to a funeral” and worried that “if it could happen to him, it could happen to any of us.”

Across town, at Windhover, neighbors said they are chilled by the fact that they no longer know their neighbors.

“It’s so unsettling because nobody does background checks anymore,’’ said Maureen Short, a 30-year resident of the community.

She pointed to the hollow bed rails stored in a patio next to Todashev’s condo. “Couldn’t that be used for a pipe bomb?’’ she asked. “Wake up, people.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas. Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei and Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau staffer Rochelle Koff contributed to this report.

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