Surrounded by her family last fall at the home of her parents in North Kingstown, R.I., Katherine Tsarnaev seemed like the bubbly woman they all remembered: “Her eyes lit up as she told the story of an elderly patient at her job as a health-aide worker,” recalls a relative. “The patient wouldn’t take her medicine and had given up on life.” At first she wouldn’t talk, but Katherine began chatting with the woman about her grandchildren. “Katie said, ‘If you can get them to see the future, that proves they have a will to live,’ ” says the relative. And sure enough the woman was soon talking about the holidays and seeing her family. As the patient’s condition improved, Katherine thought of it as a personal victory. Says the relative: “It was like we had our old Katie back.”
But that small flash of the “old Katie” was quickly replaced by the woman Katherine had become during her three-year marriage to Tamerlan Tsarnaev: unchatty, unsmiling, unflinchingly devout in her practice of Islam—and unwaveringly submissive to her demanding husband. Now investigators are wondering just how much this obedient wife knew about her husband’s alleged plans to cause lethal mayhem at the Boston Marathon. On April 29 FBI agents searched her parents’ home, where she’s been staying since the attacks, removing several bags and reportedly taking a sample of her DNA. Her attorney says that Katherine first learned her husband and brother-in-law were suspects while watching TV with a patient in the Boston area.
While some investigators believe she may have phoned her husband to alert him, the relative says she was “blindsided,” and her first move was to leave the $18-an-hour job she loves and flee to her parents in Rhode Island. Hours later, when Tamerlan went down in an exchange of gunfire with police, Katherine became a widow at age 24—and a single mom to her 3-year-old daughter. Now she is faced with not only piecing together a new life, but piecing together the truth about her marriage. All of this, says the relative, has left her “wondering what was true and what was a lie.”
The answers may be out of reach for Katherine, who was once a popular all-American girl named Katie Russell. Excelling in art and dance, “she was such an outgoing person to be around,” says high school classmate Rochelle Rose. Adds Danielle Flynn, a classmate at Suffolk University in Boston, where Katherine studied communications: “If you made a list of everyone you’d think would be caught up in this type of thing, Katie would be at the very bottom of that list.” Raised in a Christian home by Warren, a doctor, and Judith, a social-services worker, she was a college student when she met Tamerlan in a nightclub. They married in 2010 in a small ceremony at a Boston mosque. “The family kept it a secret,” says the relative. “No one was happy that she was leaving behind everything she had been taught.” When Tamerlan and Katherine moved to Cambridge, Mass., that same year, she began working 80 hours a week—changing bandages and administering medication to the elderly and the disabled—while he stayed home to care for Zahara. But when she returned from work, she took over child-care duties. “She always has flash cards, teaching Zahara letters and numbers,” says her relative. After Tamerlan’s death, Katherine told her daughter that “Daddy has gone to heaven and that he still loves her very much,” says the relative. “She broke the news as gently as possible, but Zahara wants to know why.”
Authorities have the same questions. Although her attorney Amato DeLuca says she “is doing everything she can to assist with the investigation,” she has yet to speak with the FBI. “If she had anything to do with it, I’d be very surprised,” says her relative. “If she did, I guess it will show that she has really changed.”