Katherine Russell was a talented artist, a good student who grew up Christian, the daughter of a suburban doctor.
Then she went off to college in Boston.
A few years later, she had dropped out of school, converted to Islam and was Katherine Tsarnaeva, wife of a man who would become a suspect in the deadly Boston Marathon bombings and a subject of one of the biggest manhunts in American history.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, two ethnic Chechen brothers from southern Russia, are accused of planting two shrapnel-packed pressure-cooker bombs near the marathon finish line last week, killing three people and injuring more than 200. Tamerlan was killed in a getaway attempt after a gunbattle with police. Dzhokhar, who was captured hiding in a tarp-covered boat outside a house in a Boston suburb and is hospitalized, was charged Monday with using a weapon of mass destruction to kill. Authorities have not released a motive, but two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the investigation, told The Associated Press that evidence suggests the brothers were motivated by a radical brand of Islam.
Tsarnaeva, 24, has avoided the public eye since her identity became known Friday. On the rare occasions when she has emerged from her parents’ Rhode Island home, she is dressed in the traditional Muslim headscarf, a hijab, and has refused to answer questions.
Those who know her and knew her husband describe her as sweet and dedicated to Islam.
Tsarnaeva grew up with two younger sisters on a quiet cul-de-sac in North Kingstown, a rural, wooded town a 90-minute drive south from the apartment she would eventually share in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband and his family. Her father, Warren Russell, is an emergency doctor whose Facebook profile lists his high school alma mater as the elite New Hampshire boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy and college as Yale. Her mother, Judith Russell, was listed on her Facebook profile as working at a social services agency.
Tsarnaeva attended North Kingstown High School, graduating in 2007. Her yearbook entry lists her plans as college and the Peace Corps. Her art teacher for four years, Amos Trout Paine, remembered her talent in painting and drawing and said she was at the top of her class.
“The reason why I remember her is she was very nice and very smart,” Paine said. “She was ready to learn.”
She had friends and was well integrated into class, he said, and did not seem to be interested in religion.
“There was none of that with her,” he said. “She was neutral.”
She went off to Suffolk University, and Paine did not see her again after that. He said he was surprised to hear she had dropped out of school and even more surprised to hear she was married to a man now accused of bombing the marathon.
“From how I know her, she’s a really good person,” he said.
Suffolk University said Tsarnaeva attended from 2007 to 2010 and majored in communications. Her lawyer, Amato DeLuca, said she was a student when she met Tamerlan Tsarnaev at a nightclub, introduced by one of her girlfriends. Tsarnaev, who had attended Bunker Hill Community College, was no longer in school, DeLuca said, and was seeing another woman at the time.
“They went out for a while, and then they stopped and then they went out again,” DeLuca said.
Tsarnaeva knew nothing about Islam when they met, said her lawyer, adding he didn’t know if marriage was a motivating factor in her conversion. The reason was that she is a believer, he said.
“She believes in the tenets of Islam and of the Quran,” DeLuca said. “She believes in God.”
The couple got married on June 21, 2010, a Monday, in a ceremony performed by Imam Taalib Mahdee, of Masjid al Qur’aan, in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, according to their marriage certificate, which lists his profession as a driver.
The couple had a daughter and lived with her in the Tsarnaev family apartment, which was shared over the years with his mother, Zubeidat, and father, Anzor, now divorced, and Dzhokhar, DeLuca said. He said Tsarnaeva rarely saw her brother-in-law there because he was living in the dorms at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s relatives have said that in recent years he became a devout Muslim and prayed five times a day. DeLuca said the couple attended the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, although the mosque’s executive assistant, Nichole Mossalam, said that Tsarnaeva had never been there to her knowledge.
Leaders at the mosque say Tamerlan Tsarnaev did attend and in recent months had outbursts during two sermons that encouraged Muslims to celebrate American institutions such as the Fourth of July and figures including Martin Luther King Jr.
Last year, Tsarnaev traveled to Russia for about six months, while his wife stayed in their Cambridge apartment. His aunt said he spoke with his wife every day using Skype and at times she would instruct him on how to observe religious practices correctly when he lapsed.
Tsarnaeva’s lawyer said she had no reason to suspect her husband of anything and was focused on supporting her family, working 70 to 80 hours, seven days a week as a home health care aide. Her husband cared for their daughter when she was away, Deluca said.
But Anne Kilzer, a Belmont, Mass., resident who went with her daughters to the Tsarnaev home to get facials from Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s mother, said when she visited the apartment Tsarnaeva was always there with the baby and her mother-in-law.
Kilzer, who had not been to the home since around Labor Day, when the mother told her she was leaving the country, described Tamerlan Tsarnaev as surly and intimidating and painted his wife as cowed and intimidated by him.
“She was a very sweet woman, but I think kind of brainwashed by him,” she said.
She said Tsarnaeva seemed lonely and would bring out the baby for her to hold when she visited.
The apartment was so cramped and crowded, Kilzer said, that it would have been difficult for Tsarnaev to hide criminal activity from his wife.
“Maybe she’ll provide answers for all of us,” she said.
Federal authorities have asked to interview Tsarnaeva, and DeLuca said he is discussing with them how to proceed.
DeLuca would not provide details on what his client told him her husband was doing in the days before and after the April 15 bombing but said as far as he knew nothing seemed amiss to her in the days after.
Tsarnaev was home when his wife left for work the last day he was alive, DeLuca said. Police say he was run over by a car driven by his brother as he fled gunfire early Friday morning. His brother was captured later that night, wounded and bloody, in Watertown, 10 miles west of Boston; his lawyer has declined to comment.
DeLuca said she learned of her husband was suspected of being responsible for bombing the Boston Marathon the same way a lot of other people did: on TV.