Boston suspects: Immigrant dream to American nightmare

Updated 10:49 AM EDT, Sun April 21, 2013

Story highlights

The two brothers came to America with their family to start a new life

The older brother was a good boxer who quit college, got married and had a baby

The younger brother won a scholarship and wrestled

"I don't have a single American friend," says a website post in older brother's name

(CNN) —  

They might have fulfilled every immigrant’s dream, fleeing a war-torn part of the world and settling into a quiet life in America, one buoyed by aspiration and a will to succeed.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, loved to box. And he was talented. At 196 pounds, he represented New England as a heavyweight in the National Golden Gloves boxing tournament. He wanted to make it on an Olympic team.

His brother, Dzhokar, 19, graduated in 2011 from Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, the alma mater of actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The city awarded Dzhokar a $2,500 scholarship. And he, too, was an athlete – a wrestler. He was named student athlete of the month and made the state playoffs.

But something went wrong somewhere.

This week, the brothers Tsarnaev became the target of a massive manhunt after police identified them as the suspects behind Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings.

Tamerlan died early Friday after a night of ferocious gun battles. The world watched live on television Friday night as police laid siege to Watertown, Massachusetts, and finally captured Dzhokar.

It was unclear what might have motivated the brothers to commit the heinous crime they are suspected of carrying out. All day Friday, reporters sought out people who knew them, trying to understand one thing: Why?

What unfolded was a story typical of the American immigrant narrative: A family originally from the Russian republic of Chechnya fled the brutal wars in their homeland in the 1990s. They moved to neighboring Russian republics before at last arriving in the United States.

The youngest, Dzhokar, came first with his parents, according to his aunt, Maret Tsarnaev. The older son, Tamerlan, was initially left behind with his two sisters.

Eventually, they were reunited – a family of six whose American journey contained elements of a struggle to fit in and success in making a new life.

Analysis: Older suspect grew increasingly religious

Hints of unhappiness

Another familiar narrative also emerged Friday: a high-profile crime followed by a crusade to find out who did it. First, there were photographs, then names attached to the images. And shock.

Friends and acquaintances of the Tsarnaev brothers expressed disbelief. The two men were nice, friendly. Quiet. The kind of guys you’d never even notice or look at twice if you passed them on the street.

Their aunt spoke with Canada’s CTV and described the boys’ childhood as perfect. Their father, Anzor, was a loving, soft-hearted man. She said he and his wife, Zubeidat, have moved back to Dagestan, which borders Chechnya.

Dzhokar came to America on July 1, 2002, as a tourist and asked for asylum, a federal official told CNN. He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen on September 11 last year.

There was some dispute over when his older brother arrived. The U.S. official said he came four years later on September 6, 2006, and held a permanent resident visa. But another federal official said Tamerlan first entered the United States on July 19, 2003.

Alyssa Lindley Kilzer said she often visited the apartment at 410 Norfolk St. in Cambridge, where the Tsarnaevs lived. Kilzer used to get facials from Zubeidat at a local spa but, after she was fired, Kilzer began going to her house.

She wrote about her experience on her Tumblr blog and said the staircase was crowded with shoes and the house was filled with the noise of arguments, cooking and other household chores. It was hardly spa-like but Kilzer thought Zubeidat gave great facials.

But she became increasingly uncomfortable going to the apartment because of Zubeidat’s growing religious fervor.

“She started quoting conspiracy theories, telling me that she thought 9-11 was purposefully created by the American government to make America hate Muslims,” she wrote.

Zubeidat told her: “It’s real. My son knows all about it. You can read it on the Internet.”

Kilzer said she met Tamerlan only once – he wasn’t friendly, she thought.

He was a dapper dresser and drove a Mercedes, according to an online photo gallery titled “Will Box for Passport.”

“I’m dressed European style,” Tamarlan said in a caption accompanying a photo of white leather shoes.

FBI agents interviewed bombing suspect in 2011

Photographer Johannes Hirn shot images of Tamerlan at the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Center on Brighton Street in Cambridge. That’s where he trained before the Golden Gloves.

He was a good boxer, said Gene McCarthy from the Sommerville Boxing Club, who’d coached Tamerlan since he was 16.

He was more than 6-feet tall, with long arms and determination written all over him. Once, he fought in a New England championship match even though he had the flu and fever blisters covered his lips. He won.

Tamerlan had been boxing since he was a kid – his father began training him while they were still living in the Caucasus region.

His younger brother started coming to the gym from the time he was 10, McCarthy said. Dzhokar followed Tamerlan around like a puppy. He’d be just behind him, doing calisthenics.

Tamerlan told Hirn, the photographer, that he gave up drinking alcohol and smoking in accordance with Muslim values. His aunt said he had become more devout a few years ago and started praying five times a day.

His mother told Russian TV channel RT that her oldest son embraced Islam but never spoke of anything extreme; never said he was on the side of jihad. Her son, she said, would never keep secrets from her. She would’ve known had he been involved in unsavory activities.

However, she said the FBI was checking on him, following his moves on the Internet.

“How could this happen? They were controlling every step of him, now they are saying this is a terrorist act,” she said Friday.

FBI agents interviewed Tamerlan two years ago and looked at his travel history, checked databases and searched Web postings, but found no connection with terrorist groups, an FBI official told CNN.

Tamerlan traveled to Sheremetyevo, Russia, in January 2012, according to travel records provided by a U.S. official. He returned six months later, those documents show.

A YouTube page in his name had links to Islamic websites, videos from a radical Australian preacher and rap music.

What their family has to say

He had quit college, gotten married and had a daughter two years ago, said his aunt and father.

In an interview Friday with the Russian national TV network Zvezda in Dagestan, Anzor Tsarnaev said his sons had been framed. He said he had been trying to call Dzhokar but his phone is switched off. He’d spoken with Tamerlan the day before. He wanted to make sure Tamerlan was taking care of his brother; that he was studying hard.

This was Anzor’s belief: that if his sons did not get an education, they would be left to toiling their entire lives.

But there were hints that all did not sit well for Tamerlan in his new country.

He said this during the photo shoot with Hirn: “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them.”

And in 2009, Tamerlan, then 22, was arrested for domestic assault and battery after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, according to Cambridge Police records cited by the website

’I cried … when they named him’

Dzhokar’s friends included Torrie Martinez, 20.

Friday, Martinez stood on Cambridge Street looking down Norfolk Street, where the Tsarnaev brothers made their home. Martinez used to catch the city bus with Dzhokar every day to school and was on the wrestling tea