A few years ago, in a photo essay for Slate.com, boxer-turned-Boston-Marathon-Bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev said: “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them." But Tsarnaev, 26, who died Friday in a police shoot-out during a botched getaway, fell in love with and married one: Katherine Russell, a 24-year-old Rhode Island native and the mother of their 3-year-old daughter, Zahara.
The young family lived in a Cambridge apartment that had been leased more than 10 years ago by Tsarnaev's parents. Russell worked 70 to 80 hours, 7 days a week as a home health-care aide, her lawyer, Amato DeLuca, told reporters, and she thought her husband was caring for their toddler at home while she was at work. Instead, he allegedly was planning out the terrorist attack that killed 3 and maimed more than 170 others at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last week.
Her husband "was home" on Thursday when his wife left for work, DeLuca told the Associated Press. When asked whether she suspected him of anything, DeLuca answered: "Not as far as I know." She found out that her husband was a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing after seeing pictures of him on TV, DeLuca said.
Bea Arthur, a psychotherapist and the CEO and Founder of Pretty Padded Room, a virtual therapy platform for women, told Yahoo! Shine in an interview that it's quite possible Russell didn't know what her husband was planning.
"People like him have double lives," she told Yahoo! Shine. "They really are like two people. They have you questioning what you would be without the person."
ABC News reported that friends said Tsarnaev was controlling Russell. So why did she stay with him? In situations like this, Arthur says, the victims "don't trust their own instincts anymore. The manipulation is so deep they really are at the will of this other person. That's what keeps them around."
Russell was a student at Suffolk University in Boston when friends introduced her to a handsome young boxer named Tamerlan Tsarnaev at a local nightclub in 2008 or 2009. They dated "on and off," her lawyer told The Associated Press, before she married him and started using his last name "in 2009 or 2010." According to CBS News, "none of their old friends attended the wedding."
"She was just this all-American girl who was brainwashed by her super-religious husband,” one friend, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Daily Mail. “Nobody understands what happened to her.”
Russell grew up in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, the oldest of three girls. Her father, Dr. Warren Russell, is an emergency physician; her mother, Judith, is a nurse. She attended Davisville Middle School and North Kingstown High School, where she played the saxophone and happily took part in pep rallies and Class Color Day.
In high school, her personal motto was "Do something about it or stop complaining about it," her old friends told reporters. She was a member of the art club and the dance team, and dreamed of joining the Peace Corps after college. Instead, she converted to Islam, changed her name to Karima, dropped out of college, got married and was a mother by the time she was 21. On Saturday, the former all-American girl was spotted returning to the Cambridge apartment she had shared with her husband, wearing a brown-and-tan printed hijab as she climbed out of a car.
"Before Katherine went to Suffolk she wore normal clothes like jeans, T-shirts and skirts," a neighbor, Paula Gillette, told The Daily Mail. "But when he came back she was wearing a white headscarf."
"None of us would have dreamed that she would marry so young or drop out of college and have a baby or convert or be part of any of what’s happened," another friend, who also asked not to be named, told The Daily Mail. "She’s just not the same person at all."
Neighbors indicate that the Tsarnaev household was probably not a very happy one.
A man who lived next-door to the Tsarnaevs on Norfolk Street in Cambridge told The Boston Globe that he heard yelling "constantly" and that police would often show up at the Tsarnaevs' apartment. Another unidentified neighbor spoke of “screaming and arguments,” The Globe reported.
The Tsarnaev brothers' extended family has been divided about news of the bombings and the fact that the brothers are the suspects. While their father called the younger brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar (now in custody) "a true angel" and their mother insisted that the young men had been framed, one uncle called 26-year-old Tamerlan a "loser" and said that his nephews "do not deserve to live on this earth."
"I used to warn Dzhokhar that Tamerlan was up to no good," their cousin, Zaur Tsarnaev, 26, told the Boston Globe. "[Tamerlan] was always getting in trouble. He was never happy, never cheering, never smiling. He used to strike his girlfriend. ... He was not a nice man."
In 2009, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was arrested and charged with domestic assault and battery for assaulting his girlfriend in Cambridge, police records show.
"Girlfriend called 911 on her cell phone indicating that she was beat up by her boyfriend," the police report states. The woman was described as "crying hysterically" and told police that she had been yelling at Tsarnaev "because of another girl." When asked if he had hit his girlfriend, Tsarnaev told the officer on duty, "Yes, I slapped her," the police report states. (His father, Anzor, confirmed the report but told the New York Times that Tamerlan only "hit her lightly.")
Tsarnaev may have been dating Russell at the same time (the girlfriend in the report is not Russell). Her roommate at Suffolk University, who asked not to be identified, told CBS News that Tsarnaev had also been violent with Russell and may have been arrested for assaulting her in 2009 as well. Three women who knew him have told National Public Radio (NPR) that Tsarnaev's personality changed in 2008 and 2009, when he suddenly became a more devout Muslim.
"He stopped drinking and wouldn't come around as much and kind of judged us for wanting to go out and he would forbid her for wanting to go out with us," the roommate told CBS News. "He became very violent with her and was brainwashing her into converting into Muslim." She said that Russell soon started wearing a hijab, and she and her friends fell out of touch with the couple soon after. (Russell's lawyer, DeLuca, says that she converted because "She believes in the tenets of Islam and the Koran. She believes in God.")
Given that her faith, her friends, and her family were all nearby, "He must have offered her a lot for her to turn her back on all that," Arthur, the psychotherapist from PrettyPaddedRoom.com told Yahoo! Shine. Relationships like the one described by Russell's friends can be very intense, Arthur explained, and they're often centered around the idea that the one person is actually trying to protect the other from the outside world. It's all about power, Arthur explained. "They're really trying to get the victim to think that they're the only person who cares about them."
"Once the sense of ownership is established—pregnancy or, in her case, once she converted—that's when they can turn the switch and become more abusive," Arthur said. The police reports about domestic abuse with another woman were filed right around the time Russell became pregnant with their daughter.
Russell has been staying with her parents in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, since Tsarnaev was killed during a shoot-out with police on Friday; she refused to speak to federal officials who tried to interview her over the weekend, the Associated Press reported.
“Katherine is innocent, and she has no knowledge of any of this," DeLuca told the New York Post."
The fact that the FBI wants to talk to her does not mean she's been involved in any terrorist activity. "Quite frankly, she was married to that man," DeLuca said. "So it doesn’t surprise me that they would do something of an investigation.’"
In the meantime, the Russell family is asking the public to respect their privacy.
"Our daughter lost her husband today, the father of her child," read a note posted on the door of the family's home in Rhode Island. "We cannot begin to comprehend how this horrible tragedy occurred. In the aftermath of the Patriot's Day horror, we know that we never really knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Our hearts are sickened by the knowledge of the horror he has inflicted. Please respect our family's privacy in this difficult time."
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