Nation & World

‘This is nothing we would ever expect,’ friends say of Dzhokhar, Tamerlan Tsarnaev

Friends say Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a funny kid, an enthusiastic wrestler and a popular graduate of Cambridge’s prestigious Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. His elder brother, Tamerlan, took a break from classes at a community college to pursue the sport of boxing – and said he’d represent the U.S. over Russia in the Olympics if his native Chechnya didn’t yet have its independence.

Interviews with friends, teachers, coaches and fellow students Friday painted a portrait deeply at odds with events as a massive manhunt closed down Boston in search of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who was captured in a suburban backyard and taken into custody late Friday, suspected of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings Monday with his brother.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died early Friday after a spectacular overnight crime spree that included the shooting of two police officers and a carjacking.

"This has absolutely floored me," said Thomas Lee, the president of the South Boston Boxing Club, where Tamerlan Tsarnaev trained in 2009 and 2010.

He told McClatchy that the only thing that had set Tsarnaev apart from his fellow boxers was a propensity for offbeat training habits, such as walking around the gym on his hands.

But there was evidence that Tamerlan was a corrosive influence on his younger brother. Zaur Tsarnaev, who identified himself as a 26-year-old cousin of the brothers, told the Boston Globe in a phone interview on Friday from Makhachkala, in southern Russia, that he had warned Dzhokhar that Tamerlan “was up to no good.”

He said the older brother “was always getting into trouble. He was never happy, never cheering, never smiling. He used to strike his girlfriend. He hurt her a few times. He was not a nice man. I don’t like to speak about him. He caused problems for my family.”

Indeed, Dzhokhar’s friends were at a loss.

“This is nothing we would ever expect, ever,” said one high school friend, the nephew of Boston radio host Robin Young, who was identified on WBUR, the Boston National Public Radio station, only by the letter “Z.”

“He was a laid-back kid you could always count on just to hang out with and really de-stress with,” the friend said of Dzhokhar. “There was never a sign of anything out of the ordinary.”

Young, who appeared on WBUR with her nephew, who’s now a college student, tweeted a picture of her nephew and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and said the young man had made an impression on her when she hosted a prom party for the school’s 2011 graduating class.

“I distinctly remember him because he did something risky at one point,” she said, describing a teen prank that many high schoolers might relate to: driving his car backward down her one-way street.

By most accounts, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was an accomplished student. In May 2011, then a senior at the public high school, Rindge & Latin, he was one of 45 students who received $2,500 scholarships from the city of Cambridge to pursue higher education

The recipients were honored at a ceremony and reception at Cambridge City Hall, but it was unknown Friday whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had attended.

He’s enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, which closed Friday after school officials realized he was a student there. A message on the university’s website says it “learned that a person being sought in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing has been identified as a student registered at UMass Dartmouth” and that the campus was shut down for the day.

In an interview with The Boston Globe, Pamala Rolon, a UMass Dartmouth senior and a resident assistant at the Pine Dale dorms, where Tsarnaev lived, said she was in shock. She told the newspaper that he studied marine biology and was studious. She also said he hadn’t been seen on campus over the past two weeks, but that many students were busy studying.

“I think he’s Muslim, but not so religious,” she told the Globe. “He’s a normal city kid.”

High school classmate Sierra Schwartz said on ABC that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev “never seemed out of the ordinary at all. This is not someone who seemed troubled in high school or shy. He was just one of us. It’s very weird."

Another student said Tsarnaev "always had a positive attitude" but had expressed some political opinions in school.

"He always thought the war (Iraq and Afghanistan) was stupid," Steven Owens, who met Tsarnaev in seventh grade, told ABC News. "He didn’t enjoy the idea of war. We didn’t really talk about it much. The only time it ever really came up was when we were learning about it in school."

The brothers’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev, issued a plea for his son to surrender peacefully, and he warned that if his son is killed, “all hell will break loose."

The elder Tsarnaev spoke to ABC News from his home in the Russian city of Makhachkala and said he’d spoken to his sons by phone earlier this week. "We talked about the bombing. I was worried about them," he said.

He said his sons were innocent.

The two brothers had been living together on Norfolk Street in Cambridge for about a decade, according to their uncle, Ruslan Tsarni of Montgomery Village, Md. In television interviews, Tsarni said they came from the Russian region near chaotic Chechnya, which has been plagued by an Islamic insurgency stemming from separatist wars.

Tsarni said he was ashamed of what his nephews were suspected of having done.

"I never imagined that the children of my brother would be associated with that," he said. They "put a shame on our family, put a shame on the entire Chechnyan ethnicity."

Tsarni said he’d last seen his nephews in December 2005, and last spoke to them about three months ago.

Without elaborating, he said, "I just wanted my family to be away from them." He said his nephews’ father "spent his life fixing cars (and) working."

“Somebody radicalized them, but it’s not my brother, who spent his life bringing bread to their table, fixing cars,” Tsarni said.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a talented amateur boxer, was listed as a competitor in a National Golden Gloves competition in 2009. He told the Lowell Sun in a 2004 interview after winning his first fight that he liked “the USA.” But he told a Boston University student who profiled him in a photo essay that despite living in the U.S. for five years, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them."

Still, he told photographer Johannes Hirn, who produced the piece as a final project for a photojournalism class, that if he were to become a naturalized American and chosen for the U.S. Olympic team, “he’d rather compete for the United States than for Russia,” unless his native Chechnya became independent.

Hirn produced the essay, “Will Box for Passport,” as a final project for a photojournalism class at the school. He said in an email that he wasn’t available for comment.

The series of photographs with captions says Tamerlan Tsarnaev fled Chechnya with his family because of the conflict in the early 1990s, and lived for years in Kazakhstan before coming to the United States as a refugee. It describes him as a devout Muslim who doesn’t drink or smoke, and says he told Hirn, “There are no values anymore.” He worried that “people can’t control themselves.”

He did enjoy goofy movies, telling Hirn that he loved Sacha Baron Cohen’s ribald "Borat,” a mock documentary about a Kazakh journalist recording his impressions of America.

Hirn wrote that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was studying at nearby Bunker Hill Community College and wanted to become an engineer, “took the semester off from school to train for (boxing) competition.”

Although a photograph shows him practicing shirtless near a female boxer, he told Hirn he doesn’t usually take off his shirt around women, because “I’m very religious.” He told the photographer that his half-Portuguese, half-Italian girlfriend had converted to Islam.

Lee, the boxing club president, described Tsarnaev, a super heavyweight at 6 feet 1 inch and 200 pounds, as a gifted boxer "confident in his abilities" who bounced around the local circuit.

"He was one of those guys, he didn’t really plant himself," Lee said. Mostly self-trained, Tsarnaev won the New England Golden Gloves competition in 2009 and advanced to the finals in Salt Lake City.

Lee said Tsarnaev got along with his fellow boxers and was "always very respectful of me, always calling me ‘Coach.’ It was always, ’Coach, do you have a minute?’ He blended in very well."

But illness prevented Tamerlan from competing in the national tournament, and when he tried to return in 2010, Lee said he was told as a foreign athlete wasn’t allowed to advance to the national title.

His father told the New York Times that Tamerlan was unable to secure citizenship because of a “scandal” with a girlfriend but that he wasn’t disappointed because he “could come and go, arrive and leave as he wished.”

Federal authorities would not comment on Tamerlan’s status.

Websites that appeared to be tied to the two brothers, but could not be confirmed, show a range of interests, from videos of Islamic sheikhs and terrorism news accounts, to parody.

A video was posted on the Russian social-networking site Vkontakte under the name of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, showing news coverage of suicide bombings at two Moscow subway stations that killed 40 people on March 20, 2010.

The site also includes a homemade video in which a young man resembling Dzhokhar Tsarnaev speaks bits of gibberish in comical exaggerated accents from seven different regions of Russia and the Caucasus region.

“Show me the man I can’t break with one of my soldiers!” he says, brandishing a knife. “I’ll cut them and cut them and cut them.”

A page under the name of Tamerlan Tsarnaev shows several clips under its “favorite videos” section, including a video featuring harsh criticism of Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov, viewed by some of his countrymen as a Kremlin puppet controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A second shows a long English-language sermon by the radical Sheikh Omar El-Banna, who teaches courses about the Koran at Daar Aisha Shariah College in Lakemba, Australia, near Sydney.

“Allah is the greatest,” El-Banna says in the video.

The mother of both men, Zubeidat K. Tsarnaeva, told Russia Today that she was “100 percent sure this is a setup, my two sons are really innocent.”

James Rosen and Michael Doyle contributed to this report from Washington.

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