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The Widow Tsarnaev: What -- If Any -- Relationship Did She Have To The Boston Marathon Bombings?

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Katherine Russell, widow of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
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In less than two weeks, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be formally sentenced to death. Victims will speak. Tsarnaev could too. But there’s one person close to Tsarnaev who we have yet to hear from, and may never will— the wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Katherine Russell was raised in North Kingston, Rhode Island, lived in Cambridge, and is now hunkering down in New Jersey —trying to stay out of the public spotlight.

During the penalty phase of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial, Russell’s internet search history raised questions about her advanced knowledge of the Boston Marathon bombings. According to court documents, Russell searched online for the spiritual rewards that the wife of a martyr, or shahid, might receive, typing on her Macbook the following:

“If your husband becomes a shahid, what are the rewards for you?”

That was in January 2012, a few days before Tamerlan flew to Dagestan hoping to join the Mujahedeen or armed Jihadists, and more than a year before the marathon attacks. It was not Russell’s only search that month that pointed to her husband’s heightened interest in engaging in what he had discussed with close friends as “a holy war”. After Tamerlan left for the Caucasus via Moscow, Russell, a convert to Islam, conducted another internet search that read:

“the rewards for the wife of Mujahedeen.”

Russell’s online search history prompted a flurry of questions from reporters to law enforcement officials, including to Boston Special Agent in Charge, Vince Lisi,who said at a press conference overlooking Boston Harbor: “I’m not going to comment on anything to do with anybody that hasn’t been charged or convicted or any pending investigations we may or may not have.”

Which all leads to one of the many unanswered questions surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings: was Katherine Tsarnaev complicit and did she know the marathon bombings would occur? If so, will she be indicted? Authorities are reportedly investigating whether Russell is the woman seen with Tamerlan in a grainy video-surveillance tape in February of 2013 purchasing five pressure cookers at Macy’s in Boston. The US Attorney‘s Office refused to comment….but Katherine Russell’s attorney Amato DeLuca told WGBH News “Obviously my client had some involvement in what transpired before these events occurred.

DeLuca is a Providence attorney representing Russell, whose family lives in Rhode Island. He said his client never suspected her husband of doing anything illegal before the bombings, and life seemed normal in the days after. But do the authorities believe her?

Deluca says “You’re always concerned about what may happen, but we feel very confident that she’s done nothing wrong. As far as I know, she’s not a target and there’s been no suggestion at all by the government that she’s going to be indicted.”

It’s reasonable to ask, why not? After all, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s friends didn’t know of the attacks BEFORE they happened and all four of them are going to prison. Russell wasn’t called on to testify at her brother in laws trial by EITHER side, even though with Tamerlan’s death—spousal testimonial privilege no longer applied.

Russell was living here with Tamerlan on Norfolk Street in Cambridge while he schemed to bomb the marathon. So it seems reasonable to ask, how could she NOT know?

At their house, a neighbor, Kathleen Flannery, says Katherine and Tamerlan were together in the days and months before the marathon bombings. Flannery, who had lived next door for years says “It was him, his girlfriend or wife, and the baby. And she used to park her car in here sometimes. I mean you see them everyday. You see them all the time.”

But Katherine Tsarnaev was also the family breadwinner and was away from home working long hours as a home health care aid. In the hours after the marathon explosions, when there was panic in the streets and life-threatening injuries in the hospitals, Katherine heard from her best friend Gina Crawford in RI. Crawford testified that she texted Russell to make sure that she was ok.

Once again Russell’s written words provide us with a glimpse into her world. She texted back to her friend:

“Yeah, as far as I know … Tamerlan was home in Cambridge.”

And 3 minutes later

“…… a lot more people are killed every day in Syria + other places. Innocent people.”

Crawford testified she thought it was strange that her best friend was texting about Syria as Boston was dealing with horror.

Katherine Russell was picked up by the FBI once they identified Tamerlan as a prime suspect—“the man in the black cap.” As the criminal investigation began, she refused to testify before a grand jury and invoked the 5th, after the Government declined to provide immunity. Her lawyer, Amato DeLuca, says he doesn’t know why the US Attorney’s Office made this decision, saying “You’ll have to ask them.”

The US Attorney’s office declined to comment. But according to DeLuca, she’s talked extensively with investigators. “She cooperated,” he says. “I mean, look! Let’s call it for what it is. She spent a lot of time with the FBI and the terrorist task force and provided them with a lot of information, many, many, many many hours. I don’t know what else she could have done.”

The unanswered questions surrounding Katherine Russell won’t go away. Deluca says the public may just have to deal with what it views as an imperfect outcome.

“You know people just naturally I think respond,” says Deluca. “They’re upset by what’s going on. They hear things that may suggest that she knew something but they really don’t have a complete understanding of what happened. And what she did know. And that information was provided to the government.”

Katherine Russell Tsarnaev now lives on a quiet street in New Jersey, hoping to live her life with her 5 year old daughter—— uninterrupted by questions of culpability and the shadow of suspicion.

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