The mystery of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's widow

A year after the Boston attacks, questions remain about what Katherine Russell knew and who she really is

Holly Bailey, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

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Katherine Russell, wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, leaving the house where he lived on Norfolk street in Cambridge on …

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The unmarked police cars that used to be parked down the block are gone. So are the satellite trucks. But every few weeks, a paparazzo turns up, training a long lens on a two-story ranch-style home that sits on a quiet, wooded cul-de-sac here, hoping to land the money shot of the widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged mastermind of the Boston Marathon bombings.

That’s why, neighbors believe, they don’t see Katherine Russell outside anymore — or her parents or two younger sisters. Not even on the warm days, when the family used to sit in lawn chairs smiling and laughing as Russell and Tsarnaev’s 3-year-old daughter, Zahara, happily scampered through the open backyard.

When a tabloid ran photos of one of those backyard jaunts last summer, family members retreated inside and have rarely been seen by the neighbors since. A space that had once felt so open and free was suddenly a prison where there was no privacy from the prying eyes of a world curious about how a seemingly normal girl and her family got caught up in a horrifying crime.

Everywhere Russell goes these days — to the Dunkin' Donuts, to the store, to the gas station — people stare and wonder and whisper about a woman who is still one of the most mysterious figures in the Boston Marathon investigation. Russell cannot escape the fact that she is an object of grim fascination. (Her lawyer said Russell has also received death threats.)

“It’s upsetting,” the lawyer, Amato DeLuca, said. “It’s not like people admire you.”

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The home of Warren and Judith Russell, where their daughter Katherine, the widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is staying, …

The hot glare of scrutiny extends beyond Russell herself. Since last April, when Russell, 25, was publicly identified as Tsarnaev’s wife, her family, friends, neighbors and virtually anybody who might have had any connection to her at all have been under siege by reporters hungry for details about a woman who largely remains an enigma to a world anxious for answers about the attacks.

The voice mails, emails and Facebook messages have all asked the same thing: What did she know? How could she not know?

It’s a suspicion that has followed Russell since she and her daughter retreated to her family’s home after her husband and his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were accused of setting off dual bombs near the marathon’s finish line last April 15, killing 3 and injuring more than 260.

When Russell moved back to Rhode Island four days after the bombings, she was already a widow. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, had been killed earlier that morning when his brother ran over him with a car after a shootout with police. Dzhokhar, 20, now sits in a federal prison outside Boston, where he awaits a November trial for his alleged role in the attacks. If convicted, he faces the death penalty.

As Boston prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of the bombings, the world is still no closer to understanding why and how the Tsarnaev brothers came to allegedly commit such a terrible crime. Many believe Russell could be the key to unlocking some of that mystery, since she was one of the closest people to the brothers as they allegedly planned their day of murder and mayhem. She, along with Tamerlan and Zahara, lived in the Tsarnaev family’s Cambridge, Mass., apartment where federal officials say the brothers built the two elaborately constructed pressure cooker bombs used in the attack.

CLICK FOR SLIDESHOW: Tamerlan (R) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a photo released by the FBI, dating from when they were …

While she has talked to investigators, Russell has not spoken publicly about what she knew or witnessed in advance of the bombings or what she saw and did in the days after — in part, a relative said, because she’s terrified of being charged in the conspiracy and losing what has become the only bright spot in her relationship with Tsarnaev: her young daughter.

It’s a concern that has prompted Russell and her family to plead with people who know her to not divulge any details of her life to the media — including what they knew about her relationship with her husband, a man she loved so much she converted to Islam when she was 21 to be with him.

According to one of Russell’s relatives, she and her family have gone so far as to cut off people they believe have been leaking details about her life to reporters.

“She’s scared, really scared,” one North Kingstown acquaintance, who declined to be named, said. “She just wants to lay low and take care of her daughter and hope this passes by.”

For Russell, there is a genuine legal concern because a grand jury investigation into the bombings is still ongoing a year after the attacks. Through her attorneys, she has repeatedly insisted she had no advance knowledge of the bombing plot and was shocked and devastated by what her husband and brother-in-law are claimed by authorities to have done. In a joint statement released hours after Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s death, the Russell family said they now feel they “never really knew” him at all.

But federal investigators have been skeptical. After all, Russell, by all accounts, is a bright woman who comes from an educated family. Her father, Warren, is an emergency room surgeon at a Providence-area hospital who, like his father, graduated from the esteemed Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University. Her mother, Judith, is a nurse and former social worker who now works at a Providence charter school.

At North Kingstown High School, Russell was a good student, a talented artist and dancer who loved David Bowie and spoke of joining the Peace Corps someday. People around North Kingstown who knew her recall Russell as being outspoken, quick-witted and funny – far from the demure woman who later spoke so rarely that many of her Cambridge neighbors were surprised to learn in the aftermath of the bombings that she was an American who spoke fluent English.

DeLuca, Russell’s attorney, has cast his client as someone who was away from the home too much to know what her husband was doing. He said she worked between 70 and 80 hours, seven days a week as a home health aide, while her husband, who was unemployed, stayed at home with their daughter. DeLuca has said that she saw nothing amiss in the days before or after the bombings and that she last saw her husband on the morning of April 18 — just hours before the FBI released photos identifying the Tsarnaev brothers as suspects in the Boston attacks.

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Katherine Russell, right, wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, leaves the law office of DeLuca and Weizenbaum with Amato …

Federal investigators have been curious about a phone call between Russell and Tsarnaev after those photos were released and several hours before his death. While Russell has been questioned several times by federal officials investigating the bombing — most recently “six or seven months ago,” according to DeLuca — it’s unclear what she has told them or exactly how cooperative she has been.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly told investigators Russell played no role in planning or executing the plot, but federal officials have been skeptical that she wasn’t at least suspicious and, as a mother of a young child, more curious about what her husband was doing while she was at work.

Russell could also potentially offer insights about her husband’s motivations and state of mind. What was his evolution from a promising amateur boxer who dreamed of going to the Olympics to an intensely religious man who was allegedly motivated by the online sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida propagandist who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011?

Those are important details for a nation increasingly concerned about “lone wolf” attacks on domestic soil. And they could be critical clues for investigators who are also still probing whom Tamerlan Tsarnaev met with when he traveled to Russia for six months in early 2012 and what role that trip possibly played in his alleged radicalization. It’s unclear how Russell, who was left behind in Cambridge with their toddler, felt about the trip or its timing.

Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia came just four months after his best friend, Brendan Mess, and two others were found brutally slain at an apartment outside Boston. Tsarnaev did not attend his friend’s funeral, an absence that roused suspicions among other friends, and since the bombings, law enforcement officials have concluded that Tsarnaev likely participated in those killings.

Whatever Russell knows about that period of time, she’s not saying it publicly — in part because she hasn’t been cleared of wrongdoing by federal investigators who continue to look into the plot.

Federal officials have sent mixed signals about Russell’s fate. One federal law enforcement source tells Yahoo News that the government weighed a false statements charge against Russell in the weeks after the attack, but they didn’t have the evidence to make the case. The official, who declined to be identified discussing an ongoing investigation, said it’s unlikely at this point that Russell will be charged with anything.

But at the same time, a federal grand jury in Boston continues to hear evidence in the bombing investigation and has continued to show interest in the Russell family. Last September, Russell’s parents were called before the grand jury. In December, Russell’s two younger sisters — Becca, 22, and Anna, 20 — were also called to testify. But Katherine Russell has still not been called before the grand jury — which suggests to some outside observers that she may be under scrutiny by federal investigators.

Allison Burroughs, an attorney and former federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston until 2005, said the point of bringing someone before a grand jury generally is to “lock them into their testimony” or gain leverage on a perjury prosecution. But Department of Justice policy, she points out, is not to put a target before the grand jury.

“I am surprised that they would bring her family in,” Burroughs said. “It seems like their testimony is less important than hers so why would you put in the less important and not the more important unless she was a target?”

But, Burroughs added, “I would be surprised if she’s important to them at this point. … But that’s her dilemma, they never say it’s over for you … and maybe they are hoping there is still some information to be developed.”

It’s a limbo that has unnerved Katherine Russell and frustrated her legal team. “We think if she were going to be called, they would have done it,” DeLuca said. “I don’t know what they are doing. It’s been a really long time, so why is the investigation still open?”

Perhaps no one has felt the impact of that suspense more than Russell, who, according to her attorney, has tried to get her life back to normal as much as she possibly can — if only for the sake of her daughter, who still doesn’t understand what happened to her father.

Last year, Russell took a job working for a family friend. Her social life is minimal. She works most days and cares for her daughter at night. Contrary to some reports, she remains a practicing Muslim and still adheres to a modest dress code, wearing a headscarf and long skirt, which she accents with modern fashionable touches more fitting to her age like Ray-Ban sunglasses and a pricey Marc by Marc Jacobs handbag.

Mostly Russell tries to stay out of sight — and with some exceptions, she has.

Since the bombings, she’s been photographed just twice: once grabbing lunch at a Chipotle near her family’s home with her daughter and a longtime friend. In January, she turned up again — this time in court in Massachusetts, after she was stopped while speeding with a suspended driver’s license.

Russell told the judge she had not gotten notice that her license had been suspended because she moved and had not received her mail from her old Cambridge address — a simple explanation for a dramatic year.

Mobbed outside the courthouse by local reporters, Russell said nothing when she was asked if she had anything to say publicly about the bombings.

“This is your opportunity to speak out,” a reporter said.

Russell just kept walking.

Her silence has only heightened curiosity about her life — and deepened interest in her evolution from a young woman many described as a “social butterfly” into a silent, mysterious figure caught up in a terrorism investigation.

Unlike many people her age, Russell has almost no presence on social media. Tsarnaev reportedly forced her to close her Facebook account, but there are a handful of pictures still floating around in public that illustrate the dramatic transformation she underwent when she met her husband.

When she left home in the summer of 2007 to study communications at Suffolk University in Boston, Russell was a fresh-faced brunette. Less than two years later, in early 2009, she had chopped her hair into a short platinum-blond bob and wore heavy makeup. At some point that year, she is believed to have met the man who would become her husband through friends, and they dated on and off.

A year later, in February 2010, a friend took a picture of Russell wearing a hijab while sitting at a bar. Four months later, Russell married Tsarnaev in a brief ceremony attended by two witnesses at a mosque outside Boston. By then, she had dropped out of Suffolk and was five months pregnant with their daughter.

In the years since, few pictures have surfaced of the life she shared with Tsarnaev. While reports have suggested she was estranged from her family, who reportedly disapproved of Tsarnaev, her attorney says Russell and her husband were frequent visitors to her parents’ home in Rhode Island. “Every family has their issues, but there was no estrangement,” DeLuca said.

It’s unclear what the relationship was like between Russell and Tsarnaev. Numerous friends who knew Russell during that period of time declined to comment, but her former roommates, who were not named, told NPR last year that Tsarnaev was controlling and manipulative of their friend and frequently prone to anger, calling her a “slut” or “prostitute” and throwing furniture during their fights.

But Russell stayed in the marriage and appeared to be happy — at least according to her parents’ neighbors who recalled her smiling and waving when she would visit Rhode Island with her husband and child.

In February, online supporters of Tsarnaev, who argue he was framed for the attacks, unearthed a photo they said was Russell’s profile photo on the popular chat app Whatsapp. The photo features Tsarnaev and Russell happily posing together — a perfect picture of a young couple in love.

And that’s one element that has made the last year “difficult” for Russell, according to her attorney: She loved her husband, and the life she had was torn asunder.

“Everything she thought was good and the stability she had in her life was gone,” DeLuca said. “No matter who you are, when this happens to you, regardless of what the person is accused of or what they did do, you lose your husband, you lose your family and you find yourself in a place that no one would ever dream of being in, and it’s pretty disturbing.”

Russell, he said, is concerned that she will never have a normal life again.

“Fortunately … she’s young,” DeLuca said. “Hopefully, she can get on with her life someday.”

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