Dan Bohrs moved out to Watertown from Boston for the suburb’s peace and tranquility, though the last week has been as far from the quiet life as he could imagine. Bohrs, a teacher, awoke at 3 a.m. on Friday to an automated phone call from the Watertown police, instructing him to stay indoors because an armed fugitive was on the loose. It was followed within minutes by a knock on his front door by seven police officers, guns drawn, wanting to know if he’d seen anything suspicious. By then, Bohrs had turned on the TV to news that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, had escaped after a shootout with police that had killed his older brother, Tamerlan, sparking a region-wide lockdown that would paralyze greater Boston for nearly 24 hours.
Dressed in his pyjamas, his roommate watching from the upstairs window, Bohrs watched as a member of the SWAT team and a state trooper in camouflage gear headed outside, where they began scouring his backyard for the lanky 19-year-old suspected of committing one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism on American soil. That’s when he thought, “We have a canoe back there. It’s overturned and when you look at it, you can imagine somebody could fit under there and hide.” Bohrs rushed outside. But by the time he arrived, they had left the canoe untouched and moved on toward his neighbour on adjacent Franklin Street, five doors down, with the red boat in his backyard shrink-wrapped for the winter. “I don’t know if that would have changed anything, if we had had any sort of discussion, [if I] had also said: ‘Hey there’s also a boat back there,’ ” he says. “But I’m sure if I was staring at my canoe for part of the day, the neighbour must have been looking at his boat.”
It wouldn’t be for more than 16 hours, after investigators had officially lifted the lockdown that forced residents to stay inside their homes, that Bohrs’ neighbour, David Henneberry, would go outside for a smoke break and a chance to check on his beloved boat, a red 22-foot Sea Hawk called Slipaway II. Friends and relatives of the retired telephone worker said he was taking in the mild sunny weather when he noticed that one of straps on his boat had been cut and the plastic wrap was flapping uncharacteristically in the breeze. He grabbed a stepladder, climbed up to check and spotted a pool of blood and what he suspected was a body lying inside. His 911 call to police would unleash a police operation the likes of which few communities—let alone picturesque suburban Watertown—have ever seen.
Sisters Jeanne and Marlene Mangabat were cowering on the kitchen floor of their house on nearby Birch Street when it all went down. They heard a volley of gunfire. Police knocked on the door and told them to hide while officers stormed their backyard. The Mangabats’s two-storey, cream-coloured detached house sits at the end of the street, looking out over an empty lot with an unobstructed view of the boat where Tsarnaev was hiding. The sisters grabbed the children—Jeanne’s three-year-old daughter and five-month-old son—and hit the floor. “I didn’t want the kids to see, so we went to lay down on the floor,” says Jeanne.
“We heard the bangs go off. The guy was returning fire,” says Marlene. “The officer told us to go down into the basement.” Police finally told the women and children to get out of the house, escorting them to a neighbour’s home.
Devi Singh had been getting ready to head out to the grocery store just after the lockdown was lifted around 6 p.m., when all of a sudden, dozens of SWAT team and FBI officers came running past her home on Arsenal Street toward Franklin Street, followed by a crowd of reporters who had been gathered at a press centre at the nearby Arsenal Mall. “Then we heard the live gunshots. It sounded like firecrackers,” she says. “It was so fast, so quick, repeating.” Officers told her to get back inside her house. “That’s when we got really scared,” says Singh, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 15 years. “It was the most terrifying moment. Seeing it on television is one thing, but actually living it in reality and seeing it, it’s much scarier than you might think.”
Dan Bohrs was on his porch, getting fresh air after a day of anxious waiting inside, when he heard the shots; officers, running past his house, shooed him back indoors, as well. “The whole street filled up,” he says. “It was almost a surreal scene to look out your window and see 20 police cars and realizing that the eyes of the world are on your neighbourhood.” A phalanx of police officers moved down Franklin Street toward Henneberry’s house, followed by sounds of more gunfire, then the sounds of flash-bangs that police had detonated to disorient the suspect. “The grenades went off as the sun was setting,” says Bohrs.
Then, he says, everything got quiet. “It was as if they were settling in for a siege of some sort.”
Around 8:30 p.m., Bohrs, who had pulled up the police scanner on the Internet, heard “suspect apprehended,” followed by a roar of applause from the sea of police converged at the end of his street. Minutes later, neighbours were out on their porches, cheering the procession of police cars. With the fugitive suspect in custody and the lockdown finally lifted, the neighbourhood breathed a collective sigh of relief. Bohrs and his neighbours even pulled together for an impromptu celebration of dinner and drinks. “We felt like we needed to relax a bit and just try to feel normal again,” he says. “Then afterward, it settles in that, ‘Hey, this is not a movie.’ ”
The Boston Marathon bombings killed three innocent people—including an eight-year-old boy—and injured nearly 200 others. The twin blasts were powerful enough to sever people’s legs and litter the sidewalks with blood. Of all the hyperbole in today’s world of 24-hour news networks, one description was tragically accurate: Boylston Street resembled a war zone.
But as a city, and an entire nation, begins to recover from the horror of that afternoon, the unanswered questions are as haunting as the carnage. How could two immigrant brothers, men who had spent the formative years of their lives in an upscale American suburb—playing sports, chasing girls, driving fast cars—resort to such unthinkable evil? Officially or not, they were Americans, too. Yet there they were, the younger behind the older, strolling down the sidewalk with homemade bombs stuffed in their backpacks. How could they go through with it? How, after seeing so many kids lining the route, could they set those bags down?
“The most troubling aspect of this for most Americans is: ‘My goodness, we gave you sanctuary and we gave you opportunities. And this is how you repay us,’ ” says Edward Turzanski, co-chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism, part of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “There is a presumption in there that what we have is so wonderful that everyone naturally wants it. That’s not necessarily the case, especially those whose character, whose belief system, is hard-wired into an ideology that is antithetical to everything we stand for.”
Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev arrived in Boston roughly a decade ago with their two sons and two daughters. Ethnic Chechens, they had been living in Kyrgyzstan, where Anzor’s parents had been exiled by Stalin. Zubeidat was from Dagestan, the largest of the Islamic Russian republics and known for its ties to jihadist groups. After war broke out with Chechnya in the late 1990s, Anzor was reportedly fired from his job in the prosecutor’s office and the family fled, first to Dagestan and later to America. Their application for asylum was supported by Anzor’s sister, Maret Tsarnaeva, who was already living in Canada.
The family settled into a ramshackle, three-storey, shingled home on a narrow street in Cambridge, Mass., nestled among autobody and scrap-metal recycling shops. Though he had been a lawyer in Kyrgyzstan, Anzor found work in Cambridge as a mechanic. Fixing cars had been a hobby of his in his home country, recalled Joe Timko , who worked with Anzor at Webster Auto Body when he first arrived. “He was very good at it,” Timko recalled. “You have a guy out on the street fixing cars in zero degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as tough as they come.”
Anzor later quit to start his own business. Neighbours would often see him out on the street fixing cars, which he would later sell. If Anzor wasn’t occupying neighbour Patricia McMillan’s driveway with car parts, his sons would be using it to play soccer. “I always thought when I saw [Anzor] that he seemed like he would be a decent father,” she says. “He smiled a lot when I talked about his kids.”
Tamerlan was a talented boxer who, coached by his father, also an avid boxer, qualified for the 2009 National Golden Gloves tournament. He once hoped to gain U.S. citizenship so he could compete on the Olympic boxing team.
“He was a really cool guy,” says a friend who played on the high school volleyball team with Tamerlan at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. “He was always laughing, always joking, never angry.” Although he was a talented boxer, the friend says he was merely an average volleyball player. The two tried out for the high school basketball team, but neither made it. Tamerlan “just laughed it off,” he says.
Dzhokhar, seven years younger, was a popular student who worked as a lifeguard and volunteered with disabled children. He was athlete of the month in February 2011 at Cambridge Rindge and Latin for wrestling and, later that year, won a $2,500 scholarship from the City of Cambridge to attend University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, an hour south of Cambridge.
He left for school in 2011, staying in a freshman dorm for honour students, and joined the school’s indoor soccer team. In August of that year, he wrote in a blog post for a freshman-year class assignment about the West Memphis Three—Arkansas teenagers convicted of murder and long thought to be innocent: “Because of stories like this and such occurrences that make a positive change in this world, I’m pretty sure there won’t be any more similar tales like this,” he wrote. “In any case, if they do, people won’t stand quiet, I hope.”
“He was just a normal, decent guy,” says Sanzhar Syzdykov, an 18-year-old freshman at UMass Dartmouth who met Dzhokhar several times. Originally from Kazakhstan, Syzdykov says he was grateful to find someone on campus who spoke fluent Russian. “We mostly talked about soccer and cars,” he says. Dzhokhar never discussed politics or religion and Syzdykov says he never asked his friend about his early years in Russia.
Despite the outward appearance of harmony, there were signs the family was strained by a split over Zubeidat and Tamerlan’s increasing turn toward religion.
Neighbour Mary Silberman, whose condo balcony looks directly into the Tsarnaev’s third-floor apartment, would often hear loud, late-night arguments emanating from behind the sheets and plastic bags that kept the windows covered. “You’re talking about two, three o’clock in the morning,” she says. “Sometimes it would go on for a long time.” It was often a woman’s voice she heard yelling angrily. Another neighbour told Silberman she would often see a young girl peering out one of the windows. But when she would smile and wave, someone would close the blinds.
Even in the family’s early days in America, there seemed to be a gulf forming between the parents over religion, with Anzor seeming to be far more interested in seeing his sons follow his passion for sports than following a spiritual path. Neighbours at the Islamic Center of Boston mosque down the street in Cambridge said Anzor occasionally fixed cars for worshippers there, but never attended any service. Zubeidat spoke often of her religion, but, “I didn’t even think [Anzor] was Muslim,” says the former co-worker, Timko, who would sometimes go over to the family’s house for dinner.
Alyssa Lindley Kilzer used to get facials from Zubeidat when she worked at a spa in the Boston suburb of Belmont, and later, in the business she ran out of her home. Over the years, she says, Zubeidat became “increasingly religious.” She donned a hijab to go outside, stopped allowing adult male clients in the house because she said a spiritual leader had told her it was sacrilegious, and began quoting conspiracy stories that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had been fabricated to turn Americans against Muslims. “My son knows all about it. You can read on the Internet,” Lindley Kilzer recalled her saying. She told Kilzer she “cried for days” when Tamerlan told her he was moving out, since he wasn’t yet married and she often argued with him, particularly after he got his girlfriend pregnant.
Zubeidat told the Wall Street Journal she had urged her elder son to give up drinking, smoking and partying, and to embrace religion, which she said he had eventually done. “You know how Islam has changed me,” she told him.
Tamerlan’s religious transformation seemed to come as other aspects of his life were falling apart. He was arrested for domestic assault on an ex-girlfriend in 2009, although the charges were dismissed at trial the following year. He dropped out of community college, and neighbours said they thought he was unemployed. On Sept. 11, 2011, his good friend, Brendan Mess, was murdered along with two other men in an apartment in Waltham, Mass. The case has yet to be solved.
He met Katherine Russell, a Suffolk University student from a well-to-do Rhode Island family, at a Boston nightclub in 2010. The couple married when she became pregnant and Russell dropped out of school and converted to Islam. According to her lawyer, Amato DeLuca, Russell would work 70 to 80 hours a week as a home-care aid while her husband stayed home with their young daughter. She was working the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, her lawyer said, only to learn days later from the news that her husband was a suspect.
Neighbours said Tamerlan went from wearing tight jeans, flashy shoes and slicked-back hair, to growing a beard and wearing more traditional dress. He began attending the Islamic Society of Boston mosque down the street from his Cambridge apartment about two years ago, says Anwar Kazmi, a mosque board member.
At first, he seemed to fit in well with the congregation, apologizing to one member because his father had once taken too long to fix the man’s car. He once ran home to get a jerry can to fill with gasoline when another member of the mosque ran out of gas.
But on Jan. 18, Tamerlan created a scene at the early-morning Friday prayer during a sermon comparing the Prophet Muhammad to Martin Luther King, whose birthdays are celebrated close together. He complained that Muslims shouldn’t celebrate any holiday, says Kazmi, and that comparing the Prophet to a non-Muslim was munãfiq, the Arabic word for “hypocrite.”
Friday prayers at dawn are sombre occasions, where it’s a breach of etiquette to so much as greet another worshipper. “People objected to it, and some people might have even asked him to leave if he didn’t like what he was hearing,” Kazmi says.
Later, Kazmi says members of the congregation took Tamerlan aside and explained to him the proper etiquette. “He seemed to understand and nothing happened after that,” he said. Tamerlan kept coming to Friday morning prayers. His brother, Dzhokhar, came rarely and never without his older brother.
About a month ago, a neighbour says, he saw Tamerlan clean-shaven and back to his old street clothes.
Dzhokhar was away at school, where classmates said he often hung out while smoking marijuana and seemed to spend more time with friends in other dormitories. Few students in his sophomore residence seemed to know him, though, like many of the dorms on campus, his room was a revolving door of casual acquaintances coming to hang out and smoke up. A week after the bombing, it was as if he had never lived on the third floor of Pine Dale Hall. The door to his room was stripped of the brightly coloured name tags and stickers that adorn every other door in the hallway. Even the number plate, 7341, was missing.
Although classmates said Dzhokhar showed no obvious signs of religious fervour, at some point, he replaced the slogan on his active Twitter feed from “probably the only Chechen dude you know” to the Arabic greeting, Salaam alaikum. Until recently, his Twitter feed was a mix of jokes, pictures of flashy cars and the mundane observations of a student. (“I got these bros that I’d take a bullet for, in the leg or the shoulder or something nothing fatal tho” he wrote on Jan. 29.) But in the weeks before the bombing, he posted several cryptic messages. “Most of you are conditioned by the media,” he wrote on March 6. A few days later: “People that say ‘I hate posts about religion, like stop trying to convert me,’ and then go on to post some s–t about jersey shore.”
On the day of the bombing he wrote: “Ain’t no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people,” and the next day posted: “I’m a stress free kinda guy.”
His final post, on April 17, was a quote from Mufti Ismail Menk, a conservative Muslim scholar and motivational speaker from Zimbabwe: “Attitude can take away your beauty, no matter how good-looking you are or it could enhance your beauty, making you adorable.”
As he was updating his Twitter feed, several classmates spotted Dzhokhar on campus in the days after the bombing, going to class and working out at the gym.
Derek Juozaitis, 20, a sophomore who lives on the second floor of Dzhokhar’s residence, saw him walking to class on the Tuesday. His roommate, Santo Dell-Aquila, spotted him the following day leaving campus around noon in a green Honda Civic. Normally, he drove a BMW. “When I saw him driving the Honda, I was a little thrown off,” says Dell-Aquila. “But I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Two days later, it hit me.”
Gilberto Junior, who owns an autobody shop around the corner from the Tsarnaev apartment, says Dzhokhar came by his shop around 1 p.m. on Tuesday, looking to pick up what he said was his girlfriend’s 1967 Mercedes station wagon. “He said that he wanted to get the car and I told him the car wasn’t done,” Junior says. “I hadn’t touched the car. I’d just removed the bumper. He said the person who owns the car wants it back.”
Junior had known Dzhokhar for nearly two years. The car-obsessed teen would come by as often as once a month, bringing friends with damaged cars, always paying cash. They’d chat, mostly about “cars and soccer and Brazilian girls,” says Junior. Never about politics or religion.
But on Tuesday, the young man seemed agitated. He was biting his nails, something Junior had never seen the teen do. “I thought he was nervous because the person who owned the car was mad at him because their car was sitting here for two weeks,” he says. “I thought he was going back to live his normal life.”
Just how much authorities knew before the bombings remains an open question. Zubeidat has said FBI agents interviewed Tamerlan several times leading up to the bombings. Authorities confirmed they investigated Tamerlan in 2011 at the request of a foreign government, widely believed to be Russia, who said Tamerlan “was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.” With Dzhokhar recovering in hospital from multiple gunshot wounds, including what is believed to be a self-inflicted shot to his mouth, perhaps authorities and the world will finally have some answers. But in a case that has wrought so much devastation and baffled the closest friends of the two suspected bombers, even answering the question of why anyone who seemed to have so much would throw it all away to destroy the lives of so many, offers little comfort.