Athletic and intelligent, with a ready smile and a laid-back vibe that appealed to girls, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the kind of kid communities take pride in. At home he babysat his nephew and tinkered with his dad fixing used cars. At his high school in Cambridge, Mass., where he was captain of the wrestling team, he had a reputation for making jokes—and was the type of kid you’d want if you needed a designated driver.
“Everyone liked him,” says classmate Sanjaya Lamichhane, 22. “You would want to be his best friend.” He sought constantly to enlarge his world, working with kids with learning disabilities, serving as a lifeguard and participating in the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. “He hung out with Harvard professors; he hung out with people from the projects,” says Gonpo Tenzin, 21, a school friend. But Dzhokhar never forgot the turbulence his family had experienced in their native Chechnya. “He said it was a new world and a new beginning,” says Larry Aaronson, who taught history at his high school. “I’m so grateful to be here.”
Now Dzhokhar lies in a Boston hospital, handcuffed, intubated and surrounded by security guards, charged with using a weapon of mass destruction—a crime that could result in the death penalty. He is unable to speak because of a neck wound authorities say could have been self-inflicted, so Americans must wait to make sense of the incomprehensible. There is, first, the question of why Dzhokhar, 19, and his brother, Tamerlan, 26, allegedly set off the two bombs on April 15 that killed three bystanders and brought the Boston Marathon to a bloody halt. By the time the brothers led police on a heavy artillery chase on April 19 that culminated in Tamerlan’s death, details were emerging of the older brother’s discontent with American life and his drift toward radical beliefs. But that doesn’t answer a more confusing question about Dzhokhar: He may have idolized his older brother, but enough to turn this seemingly good kid into a ruthless killer? Even now, says Gilberto Junior, an auto mechanic who’s known Dzhokhar almost two years, “if I said anything bad about him, I’d be lying.”
On the face of it, the two brothers had opposite experiences after their Chechen parents emigrated from Kyrzygstan in 2002. Dzhokhar, who came at age 7 with his parents, Anzor and Zubeidat, adjusted easily to American life, developing a taste for soccer, skateboards and pizza while his parents, who had identified themselves as lawyers and political activists back in Russia, developed new livelihoods, Anzor buying and selling secondhand cars, Zubeidat working as a cosmetologist. A year later, after Anzor secured refugee status, Tamerlan followed with his two sisters. Now the whole family was crowded into a third-floor Cambridge apartment, their stairwell crammed with shoes. Often tensions ran high, the sounds of their squabbles drifting onto Norfolk Street below. “They used to have so many domestic fights,” says a neighbor. “Police were always in and out of that place.” Yet Dzhokhar seemed happy, always smiling and joking.
“Tamerlan was totally different,” says Junior. “He was very quiet.” In Russia he had both boxed and been a music student, studying the flute and piano. In the U.S. Tamerlan concentrated on sports, joining the high school volleyball and swim teams and continuing to show promise as a boxer. Yet he never seemed to find his niche. “I don’t have one American friend,” he told an interviewer in 2010, the year he won the New England Golden Gloves in the novice class. “I don’t understand them.” Alyssa Kilzer, one of Zubeidat’s clients, observed that Tamerlan, who identified openly as a Muslim, maintained “a tight mother-son bond.” With other women, however, Tamerlan could get nasty. Police documents show he was arrested for domestic violence in July 2009 after his then-girlfriend phoned 911 and said she was “beat up by her boyfriend.” He admitted to hitting her but was never convicted.
The following June he married Katherine Russell, an all-American beauty and daughter of a doctor, from North Kingston, R.I., who attended Suffolk University in Boston. Quickly she went from “outgoing” and “popular,” as someone who knows her says, to “withdrawn.” She had a baby girl, Zahara, converted from Christianity to Islam and began wearing a headscarf. “She was with him a short time before she decided to convert to Islam, and that took away a lot of what we knew of her,” says the source. “She became very quiet, very studious of the Koran.” Tamerlan too grew more devout. “Maybe two years ago he started praying five times a day,” says his aunt Maret Tsarnaeva, who lives in Toronto. He attended weekly Friday prayers at a mosque and shopped often in Cambridge’s halal market. “Tamerlan came in two to three times a month,” says Abdou Habak, who runs the market. “Sometimes he would come in with his wife, his daughter. I never saw his younger brother.”
In 2011 Tamerlan applied for a visa to visit Russia. Moscow authorities sent up a red flag: This guy might have ties to terrorists in Chechnya, the largely Muslim republic at loggerheads with Russia. But the F.B.I. found nothing untoward and cleared him to travel. His father claims Tamerlan’s visit to Dagestan, where his now-divorced parents had moved about a year before, was strictly a family visit. “I was very sick,” Anzor, 47, told PEOPLE by phone. “I thought I was dying.” Investigators are trying to nail down Tamerlan’s movements and contacts during those six months. Around this time, Tamerlan learned that his baby brother Dzhokhar had been granted U.S. citizenship—while he, as yet, had not.
After he returned home to Cambridge, his wife assumed Tamerlan was looking after their toddler while she worked up to 80 hours a week as a home health aide. “As far as I know,” says the person who knows her, “Katie wasn’t aware of what he was up to. He was very controlling. I don’t think he let her into his life very much.”
But others were beginning to notice an emerging argumentative streak in Tamerlan. Neighbor Albrecht Ammon says that three months ago he heard Tamerlan “trash-talking the Bible and claiming, ‘America is a colonial power.’ He said that most casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq are innocent bystanders gunned down by American soldiers.” Habak, the halal grocer, recalls two similar outbursts at the mosque. When congregants were encouraged to participate in U.S. elections, he says, Tamerlan shouted, “No! Stop! This is a country of no Muslim people! We do not participate!” When the imam spoke admiringly about Martin Luther King Jr., Tamerlan stood up and yelled, “He is not a Muslim!” He even took issue with the local halal market stocking turkeys at Thanksgiving. “He said, ‘What is this? You are American in the heart!’ ” Habak recalls.
Dzhokhar also seemed to be changing. At the University of Massachussetts Dartmouth, where he was focused on math and science, he began to struggle academically and socially. Accustomed to getting B’s, he now sat silent in classes, racking up F’s. “College is really hard,” he told his high school pal Lamichhane. “I’m not getting as good grades as I was expecting.” His attempt to pledge a fraternity by rushing every house didn’t yield even a single bid. “I’m not sure how it affected him,” says Jonathan Luciano, 20, a classmate and friend.”In recent months he looked real tired and strung out. He was almost in zombie mode.” Though he still played soccer, Dzhokhar smoked Camels incessantly. “He also smoked a lot of weed,” says Luciano. After spring break ended on March 23, says Tim Bachli, 19, who was in his math class, “he never showed up.”
The day after the bombing, Dzhokhar returned to campus to reclaim a few of his items. “He told his roommate that he could have all of his things, that he was leaving the country,” says Luciano. Perhaps that had been the brothers’ escape plan all along. Instead, Dzhokhar now faces a determined interrogation team. “They will talk to him and ask questions,” says an FBI source. “Lots and lots of questions.”