CRIME
04/19/2013 12:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2013

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Tamerlan Tsarnaev: Family, Acquaintances Describe Boston Bombing Suspects

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, brothers, have been identified by authorities as the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. Details are emerging about them online and from interviews with family and neighbors -- but there's little to explain how they wound up as suspects in a terrorist attack.

Shortly before he graduated high school at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in 2011, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had sought to understand his roots, a local professor told The Huffington Post.

Dr. Brian Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, recalled that Dzhokhar emailed him in May of 2011 asking him about Chechnya. "He was sort of rediscovering his identity," the professor told HuffPost.

Williams said that Dzhokhar had written a paper on his homeland for one of his high school teachers. The teacher connected Dzhokhar with Williams. Dzhokhar emailed Williams because the professor teaches a history class on Chechnya's troubled history, including recent wars that have decimated the country. Chechnya has lost one-fifth of its population in those wars, Dzhokhar said, which began in the early '90s. "I think that these were traumas -- being refugees and fleeing a burning homeland," Williams explained.

Williams said he sent Dzhokhar one email in return. "I seem to recall discussing my syllabus and the history of the wars," he explained. Dzhokhar, Williams said, just wanted to learn about where he came from.

Larry Aaronson, a retired history teacher at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, lives three houses down from the Tsarnaevs on Norfolk Street. An avid photographer who still takes pictures of school events, Aaronson photographed Dzhokhar many times on the wrestling team, and became friendly with him after he saw him around the neighborhood, he said.

Like others who spoke to the press on Friday, Aaronson was shocked that Dzhokhar was named as a suspect.

"I knew him as nothing but sociable, compassionate, friendly, athletic, just a wonderful kid," Aaronson said on Friday. "You would never know by talking to him that he was not born here, he just completely blended in and I had no reason to suspect anything untoward at all. And I liked him a lot, you know?"

Aaronson first learned the news that a student at Rindge might be involved in the bombings when a former student called his phone at 6:00 a.m. Shortly after, police knocked on his door and he was told to evacuate his building, as the neighborhood went on lockdown. The last time he saw Dzhokhar was in January, when Aaronson believed he was returning to school after winter break. "He was coming out of his house and I was walking down the street and he said, 'Hi Larry,'" Aaronson recalled. "We talked and I said 'Listen, if you ever get stuck on a history paper, you should call. Next time you get back to town, we'll get together.'"

Pausing, Aaronson took a breath. "Nothing, nothing, nothing that would ever suggest he'd be involved in something like this."

Liana Woskie told HuffPost that she went to the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School with Tamerlan and was in his high school graduating class of '06. He was on the volleyball team, she said.

"I think this is a huge shock in the Cambridge community," Woskie said. "This is nothing that anyone expected."

Tamerlan died in an overnight shootout with police, but police are still searching for Dzhokhar.

Woskie's younger sister graduated with Dzhokhar in 2011, Woskie said. "The younger brother acted as a lifeguard, was a scholar athlete, would be a designated driver to his friends," Woskie said. "He was a compassionate human being."

Woskie older sister ran in the marathon on Monday but was not hurt, she said.

Ruslan Tsarni, an uncle of the suspects, said he was shocked to see his nephews on the news. He had not been in touch with them for years, he told CBS Boston.

"The latest I heard about Dzhokhar was he successfully completed his high school and went to college," Tsarni told CBS Boston on Friday. "And the older brother Tamerlan ... I would call him a loser. As much as I remember, I expected from my brother that they would just finish school, go to college. I heard he's not been in school. I'm not even sure what he's been doing."

Another uncle said he spoke to Tamerlan on Tuesday. "He said, 'I love you and forgive me,'" the uncle, Alvi Tsarnaev, told the Journal News.

Rashid Haroub, 43, told HuffPost that he recognized the brothers when he saw their pictures on TV Friday morning. He was shocked. "Unbelievable," he said. "They were normal people, they go to school, very very good person."

Haroub said he lived in the same apartment building as the suspects until 2010. They moved in with their parents in 2002 or 2003, he said. Haroub knew the older brother was a boxer, but he said their relationship was mostly confined to friendly stairwell conversations when he came and went from work. The family helped him pack his car when he moved out in 2010, Haroub added.

"They were really nice, nice guys," Haroub said.

Tamerlan was reportedly born in Russia. He was 26 when he died. He appears to be profiled in a photo essay online by photojournalist Johannes Hirn, called "Will Box For Passport." The photo essay has since been removed and is not available online.

In one of the captions in the photo essay reprinted by Slate, the man who appears to be Tamerlan is quoted as saying, "I don't have a single American friend, I don't understand them."

The man also described himself to Hirn as "very religious," according to the Slate reprinting of the photo caption, adding he's worried that "there are no values anymore" and "people can't control themselves."

Connor EpsteinKraus took gym with Tamerlan their senior year of high school. Like many other alumni, EpsteinKraus spent Friday calling old friends, trying to piece together what he could remember about his old classmate.

"I feel really weird saying this now, but he was a pretty cool guy, and I genuinely enjoyed spending time with him in that class," EpsteinKraus told HuffPost. During gym, the two would joke about sports and movies, and shadow box together. "I actually called him Rocky, because he looked a bit like a Russian Rocky, and we would joke around about that."

"You'd think if he was a Russian extremist, he'd get mad maybe, but he would laugh," EpsteinKraus added. "At least I thought he did."

EpsteinKraus said it was hard to match his memories of an easygoing, friendly guy, who never talked about politics or expressed radical views, with the boxer in the photograph.

"He didn't stand out as someone who was a loner," EpsteinKraus said. Still, he couldn't remember who had been close friends with Tamerlan, either. "A friend and I were trying to figure out, who did he really hang out with? But I can't say. It's been nine years, and I haven't thought about him in that time. Still, I don't think it was the kind of thing where he didn't have a social group, I just can't place it specifically."

The suspects' aunt, Maret Tsarnaev, told the Toronto Sun that she hadn't seen her nephews for five years. She speculated that Tamerlan may have dropped out of school when his daughter was born, two years ago.

This YouTube account appears to belong to Tamerlan, and is being widely reported as his. It was created under the name muazseyfullah. As of January, according to a Google cache image, Tamerlan's name was not yet on it -- which casts some doubt as to whether it was his. The user subscribes to and likes various Islamic YouTube channels and videos.

The user also created four playlists on the site. One of the playlists is called "Terrorists." It includes two videos, both of which have been removed. Another playlist under the account includes three trance videos. A third is labeled "Islam." The "Terrorists" list was created five months ago, and the "Islam" clips were put together six months ago.

This being YouTube, the user's "favorite videos" playlist includes an iguana wearing sunglasses.

Dzhokhar, or someone with the same name, won a $2500 scholarship from the city of Cambridge in 2011, and was named student athlete of the month at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in 2011.

Additional reporting by Ryan Grim.

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