Katherine Russell: Boston bombing suspect widow’s enigmatic life journey


Katherine Russell, wife of Boston Marathon bomber suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, leaves the law office of DeLuca and Weizenbaum with Amato DeLuca in Providence, R.I. (Stew Milne/AP)

Street Address A: A big tan house in North Kingstown, Rhode Island; the corner lot of a woody cul de sac near a bike path populated by joggers in Lululemon. Quiet and country charming, a well-landscaped American achievement. This is the house where Katherine Russell grew up, with her parents and two sisters.

Street Address Z: An apartment in a rowhouse in Cambridge, Mass., the most run-down structure on an otherwise cheerful block. A building with cracked window panes on the second floor and a sagging brown exterior, and the feeling of fatigue emanating from it like an odor.

This is the house where Russell lived when the Boston Marathon bombs went off. Where she went from being “normal” to — if not abnormal, than certainly very different from what people who knew her expected her to be. Where few neighbors recall seeing her outside the home, where she seemed to become a ghost.

“She was a great girl, and a good student, and normal,” a person who is familiar with the Russell family says. Any story written about her childhood would be boring, the person assures a reporter. “She was normal.”


This June 26, 2007 booking photo from the Warwick, R.I., Police Department shows Katherine Russell, arrested on shoplifting charges in Warwick. Charges were later dismissed. (Uncredited/AP)

Weeks after the finish-line explosions that killed three people and injured more than 200, Russell, the widow of alleged bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, remains a cipher. The piece of the puzzle that doesn’t seem to fit, the scared-looking young woman in a leopard-print hijab, dashing past cameras and saying nothing.

On Friday, news accounts surfaced that federal officials had found copies of al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine and other extremist reading materials on Russell’s computer. In the same span of hours, it was revealed that the female DNA investigators had found on one of the bombs did not match DNA collected from Russell.

These bombs, which were allegedly built in the small apartment that Russell, 24, shared with Tamerlan before he was killed in a shootout with the police: Did she see them, or not? This severe radicalization of Tamerlan, over the course of a three-year-marriage that produced a daughter: Did she know about it, or not?

Before and after. A and Z. Those points in between: What were they? The geography of her life can be mapped, but only in pencil, a series of dots and reroutings and questions.

***

The wedding took place the third Monday in June, on the second floor of a mosque in Dorchester, Mass., in a tiny, carpeted office cluttered with papers and books. The imam who performed the ceremony had never met the couple before they called out of the blue and asked him to marry them, and they never told him why they had chosen his place of worship.


Several relatives of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev spoke to The Washington Post and other media on Friday. Their words ranged from angry and skeptical to sad, exhausted and resigned.

It was the bride who phoned with the request. “She said, ‘We want to get married,’ ” recalls Taalib Mahdee, the imam of Masjid al-Qur’aan, and Mahdee agreed, because Muslim teachings say it is good to be married.

It was hot that day. Outside, the high reached 90.

The couple brought with them only two guests to act as witnesses, a man and a woman, and the ceremony was only 15 minutes long. Mahdee led them through their vows, instructing them to be responsible to the Creator, and to each other. The bride wore a head scarf. She seemed happy.

Afterward, they walked out the door, into a neighborhood of strip malls and discount stores. Mahdee never saw them again. “They were just another couple in front of me getting married,” he says.

Call this “point M.” Weddings are typically thought of as beginnings, but they are endings, too, of whatever life came before. Decide that June 21, 2010, is the midpoint, the bridge between whoever Katherine Russell was and whoever she became. Now work backward.

***

First, she went by Katie. In the late 1990s or early 2000s, she took ballet lessons, as many girls do, although she was too tall for it to become a professional option. She played alto saxophone in the school band. By high school, her love of dance transitioned to a spot on the North Kingstown High School dance team; she also enrolled in several years of art classes and participated in the art club, where she excelled in drawing.

Amos Trout Paine, a former art teacher at the school, had her as a student for all four years, offering to write her letters of recommendation. When he heard that Tsarnaev’s wife was from North Kingstown, “I thought, wait, that can’t be Katie Russell. But it was.” She dressed in typical teenage-girl clothes then; in well-circulated yearbook photographs, you can see her in T-shirts, brown hair loose and spilling past her shoulders. She seemed like one of the crowd, Paine says. She had friends.

Her parents, Warren, an emergency room doctor, and Judith, a nurse, were “great,” and “supportive,” writes an acquaintance who is a contemporary of the Russell daughters, via e-mail.

“It was a fairly tight-knit family,” says the person who is familiar with the Russells and who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject matter. The girls “had plenty of freedom. . . . Not like some kids where it’s not allowed for boys to see girls or girls to see boys.”

Although she’d written “Peace Corps” as a post-graduation possibility in her senior yearbook, when Russell finished high school in 2007 she enrolled in the communications department of Suffolk University — an urban campus in Boston’s chi-chi Beacon Hill neighborhood.

A former student who was a communications major at the same time that Russell was — but who did not remember knowing her — describes the institution as “friendly” and international. The student body represents more than 100 different countries, a diversity that might have appealed to someone interested in international service.

But if Russell joined any social groups or made any particular college friendships, no one has come forward to speak about them.

Instead, she met Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

At a nightclub, her lawyer, Amato DeLuca, has said, through a mutual friend.

“He was tall and handsome and had some measure of worldliness,” the family intimate says. Tsarnaev came from a foreign country, spoke multiple languages and might have seemed exotic or exciting. The family didn’t think much of him, but not because of his religion. They were concerned with his lack of employment, his apparent inability to be a good provider or partner.

One night, after a period of not keeping in close contact, the family intimate took Russell out to dinner. Russell told him that she would be converting to Islam and would begin wearing a head scarf. The person was shocked.

“The psychology of it isn’t entirely understood by any of us.” But Katie was, the person says, a little headstrong. She seemed sure of herself and resolute in her decision. Lots of young women wouldn’t have dreamed of taking such a drastic step, afraid of what people might think, worried about wagging tongues. “Katie didn’t care.”

***

There are gaps, in this road map of Katherine Russell’s life. Points F through L, maybe, or D through K. What went through Katherine’s mind when she made such a choice? Did Tamerlan force her into it? Was she yearning for a life very different than the suburban comfort in which she had been raised?

The narrative of her life is compelling in part because of the way it hews so neatly to our narratives of fear, our cautionary tales: Here is a woman who went astray. Here is a woman who did not listen to her family.

It is also compelling for the way it upends American conceptions of selfhood, womanhood, progress. For the way it draws boundaries around “typical” American behavior. The hijab and other items of traditional Muslim apparel are freighted garments in this country, often stigmatized as items of repression and regression.

“Yes, the hijab, the scarlet letter of doom,” writes Muslim journalist Deanna Othman in an essay for the Huffington Post about the public’s fascination with Russell’s clothing. Russell, Othman laments, “provides a spectacle for the public to shake their heads at because she is a tragic character, and her tragic flaw is her conversion to the Muslim faith.” Would people have the same level of fascination with a Muslim woman who had converted to Christianity in order to marry a man who committed a terrorist act?

Katherine the victim? The dupe? The accomplice?

Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been arrested in 2009 on an assault-and-battery charge after he allegedly hit his girlfriend at the time, Nadine Ascencao — a woman who recently told the British newspaper The Sun that their breakup was a “lucky escape.”

It is impossible to know where Katherine Russell’s life would have taken her if she had never met Tamerlan Tsarnaev. She is not talking; neither are her parents.

Here is a woman who, for now, we can only observe from the outside in.

Here is a woman who may have started out on an earnest journey of belief and whose route may have bound her to a very bad man.

***

Point E: In July 2007, Russell was arrested in Warwick, R.I., on a misdemeanor shoplifting charge for allegedly stealing $67 worth of Old Navy merchandise, but the charges were later dismissed.

***

Point Post-Z: A row of television cameras, white TV news vans and rental Hondas containing reporters maintain a vigil outside the Russell family’s North Kingstown home, waiting in vain for a quote from Katherine, who has been staying with her family. A red sedan drives up and down the block, the driver rubbernecking for a view of the house. The neighborhood is an archaeological site. The artifacts are answers.

***

Back at Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s apartment on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, where the Tsarnaev family had lived for years, at least one neighbor began noticing a new resident in late 2010.

Katherine Russell, newly married, had changed her name to Katherine Tsarnaeva, according to her marriage certificate, though the neighbor says he was never introduced to her by name. She had left Suffolk University in the spring of 2010, and now she was pregnant. After she gave birth to her little girl, Zahara, she was seen huddled in the courtyard, speaking Russian or Arabic with other young women in their early 20s, the neighbor said.

The neighbor said Katherine only spoke directly to him once, in English, asking him to be on the lookout for people who appeared to be casing cars for possible break-ins. He didn’t realize she was American: Although her accent was good, her voice seemed slow.

Many other neighbors say they never saw her at all. DeLuca, her attorney, has said that she was working 70- to 80-hour weeks as a home health aide.

It is unclear at what point Russell converted to Islam — such a conversion does not require formal classes or education, but rather a simple declaration of faith. Still, one of the few public places that nearby residents remember her was at Al-Hoda Market, a small halal grocer about four blocks from the apartment.

“Cookies, always cookies,” a shop clerk there remembers. She would come in and buy sesame cookies for her daughter, he says, and exchange pleasantries or make friendly conversation. “She’s not a chatty, chatty person,” the clerk said. “But she was all the time smiling.”

This clerk only ever saw her come into the store alone. Another worker in the store, however, only ever saw her shopping with Tamerlan, and his impression of Russell was very different than his colleague’s.

She was a somewhat cowering figure, he remembers. She never looked any of the customers or the shopkeeper in the eye, never talked to anyone, and shied away from those who brushed close to her in the store. Tamerlan always did the paying, and the ordering of items. He sometimes barked instructions to his wife.

“He’s a very strong personality,” the grocer said. “Maybe she loved him a lot. But it seemed odd. She’s a woman living in America. This is America.”

***

On Thursday last week, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body was released from the office of the Massachusetts medical examiner. Katherine Russell’s attorney released a statement, saying that it was Russell’s wish for the remains to be returned to the Tsarnaev family.

Perhaps this was her way of announcing her separation from her husband. Perhaps she would have claimed the remains, but her parents encouraged her not to and she listened.

Whatever the reason: As difficult as it is to trace her life from A to Z, it is impossible to go from Z to A. Back to when she was just a girl who liked dance and music and drawing. Before.

Paine, the art teacher, doesn’t remember all of his students. Part of the reason he remembered Russell is because he keeps a file of the ones who won awards, and Russell had. In her junior or senior year, she won a Silver Key — a statewide honor, for drawing.

In the notation next to her name, describing the artwork, Paine had written simply “Cat.” But the details still exist in his brain: It was an 18-by-24-inch drawing, in heavily applied colored pencil. The picture depicted a big black cat against a red background, one paw raised high. In the foreground was a mouse, running for its life.

Within five years, Russell would be standing in the mosque in Dorchester for her wedding day.

hessem@washpost.com

Carol Leonnig, Michael Rosenwald and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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