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The Bomber's Wife: Inside Her Secret Life

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On July 10 Katherine Russell emerged from her parents’ ranch-style home in Warwick, R.I., to run errands. With her 3-year-old daughter Zahara in tow, she dropped her sister off at work, filled up her gas tank, hit a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through and swung by Starbucks. Swathed in black from head to toe, she looked the very model of a modest Muslim woman.

Looks can be deceiving. Although her clothes are as reserved as they were when her husband, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died in a shootout with police on April 19, those close to her tell PEOPLE that three months after the Boston Marathon bombing, Russell, 24, is undergoing a personal metamorphosis, transforming back into the “smiley” woman who loved David Bowie. “She has reconnected with the family, something the family wanted for a long time, but she had to make the first step,” says a relative. “She has reverted to her maiden name. We’re seeing glimpses of the old Katie again, and it’s wonderful. We thought she was gone forever.”

The relative tells PEOPLE that Russell is listening to rock music and watching movies again, activities once forbidden by her husband. But there’s one concession she refuses to make. “She has made it clear to her entire family that she is a Muslim and will remain a Muslim,” says the relative. “That’s non-negotiable. The family respects that.”

What is unclear to government agents still seeking clues to one of the most intriguing mysteries about the Boston Marathon bombings is what she knew. “The big question,” says a law-enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation, “is, What did she either wittingly or unwittingly do to help her husband?”

The emerging picture of Katherine offers a portrait of a young woman who has always wrestled with many contradictions. While some people describe her as an obedient wife who was afraid of her domineering husband, Cambridge neighbors recall shouting matches emanating from the couple’s third-floor apartment, suggesting a woman with a mind of her own. But a source close to Russell describes “strange things” happening in the apartment, including an incident when she came home from work early to find Tamerlan and his brother Dzhokhar talking with three men in a foreign tongue. “Tamerlan asked her to leave,” says the source. “She sat in her car for an hour.” And then there were the hardware purchases. “He was always buying things, supposedly to fix the car,” says the source. “But the car never got fixed.”

Indisputably, she strove to please Tamerlan, but Russell has a history of trying to please the people she loves. In college she bowed to her parents’ wishes that she pick a more practical area of study than art but ignored their objections to her romance with Tamerlan. While friends believe Russell was introduced to Islam by her husband, a person who knew her when she was a high school student working in a doughnut shop owned by practicing Muslims tells PEOPLE, “Katie was interested in Islam before she met that man. She asked questions. But never indicated interest in extremists.”

Now FBI agents are trying to crack several mysteries that have surrounded Russell since the bombing. Although they know there was a phone call between Katherine and Tamerlan after he was identified as a suspect, they still need to learn what was said. Authorities say that the investigation remains “open and ongoing” as they develop an intriguing profile of Katherine. “A working theory is she is not so much a possible active coconspirator as an abused enabler,” says a law-enforcement source. Among investigators’ questions: Did Katherine shop for bomb components, not knowing what they were for?

At the time she met Tamerlan during her freshman year at Suffolk University in Boston, Russell, then known as Katie, had a quick wit and a quick tongue. On visits home to Warwick to see her parents (Warren, 55, a doctor, and Judith, 56, a social-services worker) and two younger sisters (Anna and Rebecca), she radiated delight at being away at college. “She talked about meeting a guy who was ‘tall, dark and handsome,'” says a friend of Anna’s. After a lifetime of being the protective older sister, Katherine “stopped coming home weekends,” the friend says. “It’s not like she cut them off, but they just weren’t as close as they used to be.” Around Tamerlan, she says, the family was “always walking on eggshells.”

Another friend describes Katherine and Tamerlan’s relationship as toxic and dominated by his will. “He was a douchebag,” says Jesse Coyle, 25, an ex-boyfriend of Gina Crawford, Katherine’s best friend since high school. “Her friends didn’t like him,” says Coyle. Just months after they began dating, Katherine ended the relationship. Within weeks the pair reconciled; soon after, she became pregnant. “She still wanted to hang out with her friends, but he wasn’t letting her,” says Coyle. “He made her get rid of her Facebook account, and she always had to text him and let him know what she was doing.” Pregnant, Katherine quit college within two years and married Tamerlan, unmoved by her parents’ objections. “The family did not like Tamerlan,” says the friend of Katherine’s sister. “He was rude and dismissive, especially of the girls.” Both Coyle and one of her relatives heard there were abusive incidents. Says Coyle: “All her friends told her to leave him, but she was hooked on him.”

Other friends and relatives, who knew Katherine to be outspoken, even rebellious, were surprised by this submissiveness. At Honey Dew Donuts, where she once worked, an observer overheard phone fights between Katherine and her mother. “She wanted to go out, but her parents wanted her to stay in,” says the observer. “Typical fights.” Her senior year Katherine was arrested for shoplifting $67 worth of merchandise in an Old Navy. After she paid a $200 fine and completed community service, the charge was dismissed. “She was so embarrassed,” says Coyle. “She definitely knew right from wrong.”

Now Katherine’s family has reconnected with their daughter and also the sprightly little girl who still asks about her dead father. Zahara “doesn’t understand what happened to her daddy,” says the relative. “But she is surrounded by people who are crazy about her. She’ll be fine.” Meanwhile, another source close to Russell says, she’s fending off threats and cooperating with the FBI, speaking to them on a weekly basis. What does she want the public to know? “That her husband was the one who is responsible, not her,” says a source. “If she had had any idea what he was up to, she would have done something, but she was working 80 hours a week and then taking care of their daughter.” Zahara is Katherine’s priority, the source says. “The thing she’s most afraid of is that she’ll be taken away from Zahara.”