MOSCOW—The U.S. Marine forces trained Catherine Serou to survive in combat, and she did during in the war in Afghanistan. The 6-foot-tall blonde was athletic, hard-working, intellectual, an artist, a photographer and studying law at a Russian university. But it was a car ride in a sleepy provincial Russian town, Bor, in the region of Nizhny Novgorod that she did not survive: after going missing on Tuesday, her body was found in the woods this weekend. The car’s driver, 43-year-old Aleksey Popov, stands accused of her murder.
Serou went missing on the eve of a summit between President Biden and President Vladimir Putin. The fate of two other former U.S. Marines detained in Russia came up at the meeting, giving the timing of her disappearance a hint of politics, and a hope she might be still alive and under arrest. Instead, it was a crime story. Not long before the tragedy, Serou told her mother she had made up her mind to stay and live in Russia. “She enjoyed Nizhny Novgorod so much, she loved her life in a Russian family, her friends at the University,” her mother, Becci Serou, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.
Becci Serou expected her daughter’s call on Tuesday. They were supposed to build a website together for Catherine’s business, where she taught English. But after 7 p.m. Moscow time, Becci was not able to reach her daughter on the phone. “I came out of my own class and found a message from Catherine, it said: ‘In a car with a stranger. I hope I’m not being abducted,’” Becci said. “I realized she had sent me that note 40 minutes before I found it. I tried to reach her but her phone was off. Later police tracked her phone in the woods near the town of Bor.”
Earlier that day, Catherine visited a beauty salon in downtown of Nizhny Novgorod, then returned home to her room in a rented apartment in the small Soviet factory town of Bor, just across the Volga river. “I could not sleep for three nights, thinking if she got away from him— her being a strong athlete, trained to survive,” the mother told The Daily Beast in an interview before police determined Catherine’s grim fate.
Thousands of miles away from her daughter, Becci was trying to reconstruct what had happened to her child in the once-secret Soviet town. “It seems the salon called her complaining that the payment did not get through, so she rushed back but Uber did not come forever, the salon was about to close, so she stopped a random car—I am just imagining what had happened. Catherine is extremely careful; and that stranger must have seen her on the corner of her house before,” the mother told The Daily Beast. “I am on the phone with FBI, State Department, Moscow embassy and Russian police investigators, who have been very helpful.”
Over 100 policemen and National Guards units looked all over the Bor woods for Catherine for three days. Luckily, a security camera near the local railroad had captured an image of Popov’s car. Serou’s alleged murderer, who had been previously prosecuted for raping another woman, showed police the student’s body in the bushes on Friday. Catherine had several stab wounds. “Our town is on international news with a shameful story,” a local school teacher, Vladimir Khrykov, told The Daily Beast, expressing his sympathy for the American student. “Sorry, she was so unlucky to come across that criminal of Bor.”
Just a few months ago a 9-year-old girl and a 46-year-old woman were killed not far from the place where Sorou was murdered and once again Bor was in the news for violence. The local leader of the Communist Party, KPRF, Aleksey Zorov, blamed authorities for Sorou’s murder. “Our society is degrading, criminals feel unpunished, murderers come out of jail after 6-7 years and commit crimes again; the man who raped and killed the American student should get the capital sentence,” Zorov told The Daily Beast in an interview on Friday.
Serou’s university adviser and professor, Liliya Yerushkina, felt “terribly sad,” after conversations with a police investigator on Friday. “This is so hard when our children get hurt, it must be terribly painful for other students, who knew Catherine,” she told The Daily Beast. Yerushkina translated Becci Serou’s phone conversations with police, hoping for three long days there would be good news, but it never came.
Serou was one of two U.S. students among around 1,700 foreign students from more than 100 countries studying at the Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novogorod. The head of the admissions department, Yerushkina remembered Serou from her first days at the university. She recalled what a tough struggle it was for the student to learn the language and study law in Russian. That was Catherine’s second Master’s program. A few years ago, she graduated from University of California, Davis, with a master’s degree in art history. She grew up in New Orleans, where she had some Russian friends. “Catherine was always a big fan of Russian art, she also weaved scarves and sold them at a kiosk in Nizhny Novgorod,” Serou’s mother said.
Recently, Yerushkina taught a seminar on European law and international human rights for foreign and Russian students. She remembered her American student, Serou, making her proud, giving well-articulated answers in Russian. “Catherine was a very hard-working and talented student, she had huge plans for the future, planned to switch to the philological faculty; she applied and got Russian state funding for her next educational program,” Yerushkina told The Daily Beast. “We don’t know yet why Catherine left her home that night and who she was with.”