On Aug. 25, a New York City woman caught up in a messy child custody battle with her ex-boyfriend got into a fight on the phone with her former flame’s new girlfriend. According to the police, heated words were exchanged, and the girlfriend, who also has a child with the man, was subsequently arrested and charged with harassment after she allegedly threatened the other woman’s life.
It was an altercation that likely would have been buried in the reams of other ugly domestic disputes in New York. Except the accused was Ailina Tsarnaeva, the 24-year-old sister of alleged Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And, according to police, she allegedly threatened the other woman by telling her, “I have people. I know people that can put a bomb where you live.”
Tsarnaeva appeared in New York Criminal Court on Tuesday. She entered a not guilty plea to two charges of aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor, for allegedly threatening her boyfriend’s 23-year-old former girlfriend, who has not been named in the dispute. (Tsarnaeva's friends have said the man is her husband, but police have referred to him as her boyfriend.)
A resident of North Bergen, N.J., Tsarnaeva turned herself in on Aug. 27 and was released on a desk appearance ticket, which allows a defendant to bypass jail and appear in court at a later date. But she was led away in handcuffs after her court appearance Tuesday after prosecutors said she violated an order of protection by driving past the other woman's home earlier this month. Her bail was set at $5,000.
Tsarnaeva's brush with the law has renewed interest in an already troubled family caught up in the Boston attacks, which remain largely shrouded in mystery 17 months later.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 21, faces the death penalty for his alleged role in the April 2013 dual bombings that killed three people and injured several hundred near the marathon’s finish line. He’s also charged with shooting and killing an MIT police officer days after the attacks while he was on the run. His brother and alleged co-conspirator, Tamerlan, who was 26, was killed during a shootout with cops when, according to federal prosecutors, the younger Tsarnaev ran him over with a car while escaping from police.
Last week, a judge delayed Tsarnaev’s trial until January to give his attorneys additional time to prepare his defense, but he is expected to make his first court appearance in more than a year at an Oct. 20 status hearing. Tsarnaev has entered a not guilty plea to the charges.
But while Tsarnaev sits in a federal prison hospital outside Boston awaiting trial, members of his family have been dealing with legal skirmishes of their own as they navigate the infamy of being so closely associated with the horrific attacks. They have largely avoided the media, and associates say they’ve tried to lie low, but it hasn’t always worked out — especially for Tsarnaev’s two sisters, who have been drawn into the spotlight for run-ins with the law that occurred even before the bombings.
In addition to the latest incident in New York, Ailina Tsarnaeva is scheduled to go before a judge in November in Boston, where she’s facing jail time for allegedly lying to police investigating a counterfeit money ring back in 2010.
While she isn’t charged with passing fake bills, police say Tsarnaeva knows the identities of those behind the operation but misled investigators. A warrant was issued for her arrest last year when she skipped a court appearance, but in October 2013, she was released on $1,500 bail — though she was too broke to pay it. Her attorney, George Gormley, told the court she was “practically speaking, indigent,” and the court instead allowed her to check in weekly with a Massachusetts probation officer in lieu of posting bond.
In a brief interview, Gormley declined to comment on the case or his client, except to say that he is not representing her on the New York charge. According to court filings, Tsarnaeva is being represented by Legal Aid, an organization that works with clients who can’t afford to retain a lawyer. On Tuesday, her attorney, Susan Marcus, told the court her client did not have the means to post bail. She called the claims of harassment "uncorroborated."
"My client is an easy target," Marcus told reporters outside the courthouse.
Meanwhile, her older sister, Bella, 26, is still under legal scrutiny after she was arrested in December 2012 and charged with drug possession and distribution charges after police responding to a domestic violence incident at her Fairview, N.J., apartment found marijuana there. Bella Tsarnaeva and her live-in boyfriend, Ahmad Khalil, reached a plea deal with prosecutors last fall that allowed her to avoid a criminal record by participating in a pretrial intervention program, as long as she stayed out of trouble. She recently announced through a friend on Facebook that she’s pregnant with her second child, a girl due in February.
For their part, Tsarnaev’s parents, Anzor and Zubeidat, remain in Dagestan, Russia. They have said repeatedly that they want to come back to the United States to visit their son in jail, but so far they have not. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva has told reporters she fears being detained on an outstanding arrest warrant for a 2012 shoplifting charge in Boston. The threat of arrest, she says, could keep her from attending her son’s trial.
Besides details that show up in court filings and small snippets of gossip and family photos that have been leaked out through friends and a network of online supporters of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in recent months, little is known about the daily lives of the Tsarnaev family in the aftermath of the bombings. Associates say Tsarnaev’s sisters have faced death threats, and their connection to the case has made it difficult for them to find work. It’s unclear how they pay the bills.
For more than a year, the Tsarnaeva sisters shared an apartment in New Jersey, but at some point in recent months, Ailina and her two toddlers moved in with another familiar face caught up in the Boston drama: Katherine Russell, the 25-year-old widow of Tamerlan Tsarnaev who also remains under scrutiny in the bombing investigation.
Russell and her 4-year-old daughter, Zahara, had retreated to her parents' home outside Providence, R.I., after the attacks, but she moved to New Jersey at some point this year and lived undetected until a Boston television station was tipped off to her whereabouts in late August — just days before Ailina Tsarnaeva’s arrest. Russell’s parents — who have separated, according to a family friend — sold their home in June. Friends of Russell were caught off guard by her move to New Jersey, speculating that it might have been spurred by tensions over Russell’s decision to remain a practicing Muslim and the scrutiny she and her family have faced since the attacks.
Russell’s decision to move in with her sister-in-law also raises questions about her own theories about the Boston bombings, including Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s alleged involvement. Through her attorney, Russell has long denied any advanced knowledge of the bombing plot and has expressed shock at the allegations of her late husband and brother-in-law's involvement. In a joint statement released hours after Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s death, the Russell family said they felt they “never really knew” him at all.
But the Tsarnaev family has refused to accept the government’s version of events in the marathon attacks. They have suggested that the brothers were wrongly accused — in spite of prosecutors’ assertions that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev readily admitted his involvement after his capture. Speaking to reporters camped outside her New Jersey apartment last month, Ailina Tsarnaeva told Boston’s WHDH-TV, “My brothers got framed. Everybody knows that.”
Yet it’s unclear what Russell thinks — or what her day-to-day life is like as her brother-in-law prepares to go on trial. Approached by a reporter outside the apartment she shares with Ailina Tsarnaeva last week, Russell ran away before a question could even be asked. She has yet to be formally cleared by federal investigators in the Boston Marathon bombing case, and her attorney, Amato DeLuca, did not respond to requests for comment.
Neighbors say that until recently they used to see Tsarnaeva, Russell and their children in the local park and taking walks in the quiet, mostly Hispanic neighborhood located just 20 minutes across the Hudson River from Manhattan. “They were just two young women who smiled but never said much,” one neighbor, who declined to be named, recalled.
But after the recent spate of publicity, the women have retreated inside, with their shades drawn — rarely seen except when they are walking to and from their car or taking out the trash. Occasionally, people have been seen knocking on their door, but nobody answers, a man who lives nearby said. And after word of Tsarnaeva’s alleged bomb threat spread, neighbors noticed unmarked police cars cruising the block more frequently. Whatever sense of ordinary life the two women enjoyed appears to be in limbo, amid a new round of scrutiny.
“When I see them now, they always look around like they are being watched,” one neighbor said. “I guess it’s because they are.”