By Shawn Musgrave and Brooke Williams
A technical blunder in an electronic report has exposed details about the shooting a year ago of Ibragim Todashev, a Chechen immigrant living in Orlando, Florida, who was friends with alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
Despite efforts by the FBI and Florida officials to conceal the identities of the Boston agent who fired the seven shots that killed Todashev in his Orlando apartment and the two state troopers who were present at the time, their names as well as uncensored photos from the scene have been hiding in plain sight since Florida State Attorney Jeffrey L. Ashton issued the report on March 25.
The photos show images from the scene as well as hand-drawn diagrams of Todashev’s apartment and text messages sent by a trooper before and after the shooting.
The revelations allow the public to learn for the first time about the FBI agent’s possible misconduct while serving as a police officer in California, which was meticulously outlined in an article published Tuesday night by the Boston Globe. The Boston Globe article also included the names of the agent, Aaron McFarlane, and the two troopers, Curtis Cinelli and Joel Gagne.
Ashton’s report determined that McFarlane’s actions “were justified in self-defense and in defense of another.” McFarlane and the two troopers were interviewing Todashev in his home a month after the bombings. Todashev allegedly confessed that he and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were involved in the murder of three men in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 2011 before he suddenly turned violent.
According to McFarlane and Cinelli, who was in the room, Todashev struck McFarlane’s head with a table and then brandished a metal broomstick at Cinelli. They said that Todashev ignored an order to stop and was lunging toward Cinelli when McFarlane fired the first volley. Todashev then recovered his footing and lunged again, prompting the final 3 or 4 shots.
Ten months later, at the FBI’s request, Ashton’s report on the incident scrubbed out practically all identifying information about McFarlane and the troopers.
At least, that was the intention.
Several pictures extracted from the report identify the FBI agent and the troopers by name. Public records and interviews show that McFarlane was accused of misconduct and assault when he worked as a police officer in Oakland.
McFarlane did not return multiple phone calls to his office, cell phone, or messages left with a family member on Monday.
Kieran Ramsey, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston field office, told VICE News yesterday morning that the FBI is tracking a specific threat to McFarlane and the two troopers. Because of this threat, he said, the FBI is “asking for the media’s cooperation in not releasing any names.”
The Boston Globe had not yet published the disclosure. Ramsey said that multiple news outlets had agreed not to disclose the identities. He was aware that people had been naming the agent in tweets and blogs for several days, but dismissed the breach as unofficial.
Fig leaf redactions for anyone with a computer
The release of the Florida State Attorney’s report in March was intensely anticipated. The report was downloaded immediately and reposted across news websites and archive portals like Cryptome and DocumentCloud.
But many of the redactions in the initial version that ricocheted around the internet were only cosmetic. Free software could remove them to reveal underlying information, as first noted by a blogger in an entry published on May 3 that revealed McFarlane and the trooper’s identities.
Red boxes obscured more than two dozen photographs embedded in the report, such one of a legal pad on which agents say Todashev outlined his involvement in the 2011 triple homicide. (The accuracy of this confession has since been questioned.)
Free extraction software easily removed the box.
The state attorney meant for a photo of one of the officers’ phones to reveal only one of three text messages — a warning sent minutes before Todashev reportedly lunged at the state trooper. “Be on guard,” it said. “He is in vulnerable position to do something bad.”
The unredacted photo reveals that the two concealed texts were congratulatory messages sent by the trooper a day after the shooting saying “well done” and “great work.” The reason for the redaction of these particular messages is unclear.
Extraction also reveals unredacted photos of the shooting scene itself, including the body of Ibragim Todashev.
Most notably, the Florida State Attorney meant to redact the names of officers involved in the shooting. In a January letter, the FBI requested that Ashton protect “any part of the names and identifying information of the FBI Agent, the Massachusetts State Troopers, and the [redacted] task force officer who were involved in the Todashev interview or shooting.”
Black boxes meticulously hardcoded redactions of the officers’ names and identifying information in the text of the report. But less secure red boxes obscured names that appeared scribbled onto shooting scene diagrams by the FBI agent and the state troopers. Basic extraction removed the red boxes on eight of these diagrams, clearly indicating their first and last names.
The Florida State Attorney’s office declined to speak with VICE News about this technical mistake, which officials recognized quickly. While the initial downloaded versions of the report and supporting documentation were searchable PDF documents, the current versions posted on the agency website are unsearchable, and each file name is overtly labeled “redacted.” It appears that the office printed out the documents with redactions and then scanned them back into digital format to eliminate the risk of disclosure.
It was too late, though. The information is now public, and the background of McFarlane, the Boston FBI agent, is becoming clearer.
A checkered history
McFarlane worked as a police officer with the Oakland Police Department from 2000 to 2004. In 2003, Oakland prosecutor David Hollister accused him of falsifying a police report during a wider corruption investigation into the “Riders” patrol squad.
Hollister, who is now the district attorney of Plumas County, California, confirmed yesterday afternoon that no charges were filed over McFarlane’s alleged falsification.
The FBI’s Boston field office refused to confirm or comment on McFarlane’s history. When asked about the public’s right to know about it, Ramsey said, “I am not even going answer that question because it will drag me into the quagmire of this specific incident.”
“Any agent that comes into the FBI has their employment reviewed,” he added. “All agents go through a very intensive background check.”
McFarlane has been with the FBI since 2008, working mostly with a bank robbery task force in Boston. A week after the marathon bombings, he was assigned to investigate Todashev in partnership with the Massachusetts State Police.
The Florida report briefly discusses the FBI agent’s employment history but does not delve into any allegations of misconduct. While Florida investigators conducted interviews with both state troopers, the FBI apparently shielded McFarlane from questioning, providing two sworn statements from him instead.
In a March 25 letter to FBI Director James Comey, Ashton acknowledged that the “absence of an actual recorded interview with the Agent detailing precise details of the movements of all individuals somewhat complicated the analysis.”
Ramsey confirmed yesterday that the FBI’s own review of the shooting incident is complete and covers whether or not the agent acted according to the bureau’s policies. On May 2, the FBI rejected a Freedom of Information Act request for its findings.
“We’ve had an independent review,” Ramsey said, referring to the Florida State Attorney’s report. “That’s what everyone was clamoring for.”
Follow Shawn Musgrave on Twitter: @ShawnMusgrave
Follow Brooke Williams on Twitter: @reporterbrooke