Neighbors of Katherine Russell, the young wife of deceased Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were mystified when the Christian-raised high school student returned home from college one day in full Muslim garb with a husband and baby in tow.
“She was always very nice, but she looked completely different when she came back from college,” Avery Gillette, 16, told The Daily Beast, standing on the corner of a quiet, cul-de-sac community in the suburban town of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, where Russell grew up.
Avery and her mother, Paula Gillette, said they didn’t know Russell very well but saw more of her when she was a promising student at North Kingstown High School. After she went away to college at Suffolk University in Massachusetts, she and Tsarnaev came home with their daughter only occasionally on weekends to visit her parents and two younger sisters, according to Paula. But the Gillettes said they hadn’t seen Katherine in recent months until Friday, when the FBI knocked on her parents’ door across the street.
On Monday, 24-year-old Katherine (“Katy” to close friends and relatives) remained holed up inside her childhood home, emerging only once—her head covered in a leopard-print hijab—to visit with the family’s lawyer, Arnato DeLuca. Her father, emergency doctor Warren Russell, smiled silently at swarms of reporters as he retrieved empty garbage cans from the end of his driveway. In the early evening, Katherine’s 3-year-old daughter could be seen playing in the back yard with her grandfather and grandmother, Judith Russell, a nurse. Three dogs trotted around the house throughout the day, hopping in the car with Mr. and Mrs. Russell on occasion to do errands.
From the outside, they looked every bit the kind, supportive, and well-educated family that neighbors and friends have described them to be. It’s easy to see why people who knew the family were shocked by the eldest daughter’s sudden religious transformation in recent years, only to hear that her husband and his younger brother were allegedly responsible for the Boston bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 180 others last week.
But according to DeLuca, Katherine was just as blindsided by her husband’s involvement in the incident as the rest of America.
“She knew nothing about it at any time,” he told CNN. Katherine worked up to 80 hours a week as a home health-care aide in Cambridge, where she and Tsarnaev lived. He stayed at home and cared for their daughter during the day while Russell worked to support them, according to DeLuca, who said she was oblivious when Tsarnaev was allegedly carrying out the terrorist attacks and in the four days afterward.
“The whole family is a mess, to put it bluntly,” he said of the Russells. “They’re very distraught. They’re upset. Their lives have been unalterably changed. They’re upset because of what happened, the people that were injured, that were killed. It’s an awful, terrible thing.”
Despite Katherine’s alleged ignorance of her husband’s attacks in Boston, there are other indications that she knew of his extremist views and violent tendencies. He was a champion boxer in the Boston community when they married in June 2010 at a mosque in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. Katherine, who converted to Islam after meeting Tsarnaev, dropped out of Suffolk University the same year they married. According to Tsarnaev’s mother, she adopted the name Karima Tsarnaeva.
It’s not clear when they began dating, but 11 months before Tsarnaev and Katherine wed, he was arrested for assault and battery against his then-girlfriend at home in Cambridge. The girlfriend’s name was redacted from police records.
Prosecutors are currently investigating whether Tsarnaev had any connection to the 2011 murder of three young men, one of whom was reportedly a close friend of his. Other members in his social circle found it bizarre that Tsarnaev did not attend his friend’s funeral.
From then on, his religious views appear to have become increasingly radical. Leaders at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center say he lashed out during two sermons, which encouraged Muslims to celebrate American holidays and icons like Independence Day and Martin Luther King Jr.
In February 2012, he took a six-month trip to Russia and Chechnya, which authorities are also investigating to determine if he met with any militant groups there who carried out a number of violent attacks at the time. According to his mother, Tsarnaev attempted to get a Russian passport during the visit.
And how did Katherine feel about being left at home with their toddler for six months?
It’s a question federal officials will surely ask the young widow once they get approval from DeLuca.
“She understands the need for doing it. It’s a threat to national security, and she gets that,” he said, adding, “Katy’s just trying to raise her daughter.”