Portrait emerges of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Friends tell Salon the wannabe engineer liked to talk about rap, not politics. Also: "Dzhokhar likes the chronic"

Published April 19, 2013 6:12PM (EDT)

This undated photo provided by the vkontakte website shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.                                                  (AP)
This undated photo provided by the vkontakte website shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (AP)

BOSTON -- None of the young local neighborhood guys who grew up with the brothers Tsarnaev could believe they were the same pair fingered on video last night as the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.

“When I first heard the news (last night), I thought they were joking,” said Derek Winbush, who graduated in 2011 from Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school with Dzhokhar, the youngest brother.

“But the way they [the two brothers] were walking, the way [he] was holding his backpack, it was them” seen placing the bombs near the finish line Monday afternoon on Boylston Street in Boston’s Copley Square.

“I wouldn’t say he was a good friend, but we hung out,” Winbush said of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from the seat of his silver Schwinn 7-speed bike, amid an endless stream of SWAT team vehicles arriving to cordon off the working-class Cambridge neighborhood where the brothers have lived since they were preteens.

Although they kept their home lives to themselves, the brothers got respect on these streets as skilled wrestlers and boxers, and also as fairly good students. Winbush said they used to attend parties on nearby Magazine Street with ordinary high school kids, just drinking and smoking pot.

“Dzhokhar likes the chronic,” he shared. He said he never discussed politics, preferring to talk about rappers.

Winbush said he “didn’t want to call the hotline on my friend after seeing the video because it couldn’t have been them, but it was. I couldn't believe it.”

As the National Guard rolled in with swarms of FBI agents to surround the tenement home of the two brothers in this working-class neighborhood not far from MIT, and as gawkers gathered as close to the home as you could get, about half a city block away, he became a believer.

Friends said the younger brother seemed non-religious. The older of the two, Tamerlan, was more overtly open about his Muslim religious convictions, at least online. Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police late last night, was less social.

“They didn’t seem angry at all,” said Devon Clark. “We all hung out because we lived in the same area. They were very gentle guys, very soft spoken.”

While Tamerlan, the older brother in the video who led the procession down Boylston Street at the marathon, was shot and pronounced dead at 1:30 a.m. — and as the noose tightened around a 20-block area of Watertown, a sleepier, wealthier crosstown neighborhood where the younger brother is believed to be strapped with an explosives belt — neighbors were still trying to take in the Hollywood stage set that the streets of Boston have become.

Eighteen-year-old Jean Almodovar, wearing a gray hoodie and Vancouver Grizzlies cap tilted sideways, said he felt there were more than just the two brothers living on the third floor of the triple-decker unit. An older brother of the two may have been living there with his wife, and they were thought to have a toddler. (Note: reports have indicated the boys have two sisters but have not confirmed the existence of another brother.)

Although friends said they’d never met another brother, they said he was often referenced by the other two brothers in terms of his new car, a green Honda Civic, and his boxing abilities.

Almodovar said he last saw Dzhokhar at a house party in December. They talked about school and music and his aspirations to be an engineer.

Both brothers graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin. The younger one went on to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, while the older brother pursued studies at Bunker Hill Community College.

All seemed perfectly normal. Then, four days after exploding the bomb that killed three and injured more than a hundred, the two reportedly robbed a 7-11 convenience store, shot and killed an MIT security guard, and lobbed hand grenades from a bag at police returning semi-automatic gunfire on a mad chase along Memorial Drive, a winding roadway that passes MIT and Harvard University along the Cambridge side of the Charles River.

The day after the bombing, Dzhokhar was seen in the gym working out at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, campus.

Meanwhile, Boston has remained in surreal lockdown, not 24 hours since the president spoke here in the city’s South End. Residents are indoors as the police helicopters that shifted spotlights all night from the Boston to the Cambridge side of the river continue to spin overhead.

By Patrick Tracey

Patrick Tracey, author of "Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia," is a writer in Boston.

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