Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Mysterious Side Business

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 24 2013 3:40 PM

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev May Have Had Two Shady Side Businesses. Only One Involves Pot.

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The Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston on April 20, 2013, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, remains hospitalized

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The Boston Globe today brings us the best look yet at the apparently meager finances of the Tsarnaev brothers, who reportedly scraped by thanks to a series of odd jobs—both on and off the books—along with financial help from the government in the months and years leading up to the Boston marathon bombings.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

Tamerlan, the older brother, reportedly worked a series of short-term jobs (as a pizza delivery guy, a driver, etc.) to help his family make ends meet but appears to have relied mainly on his wife, Katherine Russell, to carry most of the financial load. Russell, according to her lawyer, works 70- to 80-hour weeks as a home health care aide, although even with her salary the family's finances were still reportedly tight. They were still qualifying for state assistance until 2012, according to the government. Dzhokhar's work history, meanwhile, appears to have been largely off the books:

Tsarnaev’s younger brother never seemed strapped for cash, according to people who knew him at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where he was a sophomore. But Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a scholarship student who earned spending money by selling marijuana, say three people who bought drugs from the 19-year-old. ...
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev didn’t live a particularly lavish lifestyle. He drove his father’s green 1999 Honda Civic. And while UMass Dartmouth costs more than $22,000 a year, including room and board, many students receive significant student loans and other financial aid. UMass declined to give details on Tsarnaev’s aid package, but he received at least one scholarship—$2,500 from the city of Cambridge, where he went to high school.
Several fellow students reported he earned at least some cash selling marijuana—at least the portion he didn’t smoke himself. “There was a permanent stench of marijuana in his room,” said one person who asked not to be named.
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The revelation that Dzhokar may have dabbled in drug dealing isn't a complete shock, particularly given the pot-smoking portrait of the 19-year-old that began to emerge even before he was captured by police late last Friday. (Representative quote from friends: "He was a pothead, a normal pothead.") But perhaps the more puzzling nugget in the Globe piece is what the paper calls his "mysterious side enterprise involving repairing damaged cars":

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev regularly brought cars to Junior’s Auto Body, a well-worn shop on the Cambridge-Somerville line, on a road lined with scrap metal and auto repair garages.
Why a 19-year-old college student was bringing cars in for work for people he said were friends remains unclear, though his father had worked as a garage mechanic before he returned to the family’s native Russia. The shop owner, Gilberto Junior, said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sometimes accompanied friends to the shop, riding in the passenger’s seat. Often, the friends told Junior they were students at MIT, he said.

As the paper notes, it's unclear exactly what Dzhokhar was getting for his trouble, and Junior apparently hasn't said whether he paid him a commission for the work he brought in. The most we get in the Globe piece is Junior saying: "I don’t think he ever brought any friends in here that spent more than $500."

Also noteworthy is the fact that the same auto body shop may have also inadvertently played a role in the Tsarnaevs inability to flee Boston before the FBI released their photos last week. As Junior has previously recounted to multiple newspapers, Dzhokhar showed up at the body shop the day after the bombings looking to pick up a damaged car that he'd dropped off two weeks before. "He was very nervous, biting his nails, agitated," Junior told the Los Angeles Times last week. "I thought he was on drugs, medication." That car—a white Mercedes station wagon with a damaged rear bumper—wasn't ready, but Dzhokhar, according to Junior, took it anyway. Two days later, however, when the brothers led police on a chase across suburban Boston, they weren't in that station wagon, instead driving both a Honda Civic one of them had in their possession, and a black Mercedes SUV they carjacked.

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter, and read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.***

This post was updated to make it clear that we don't yet know when Russell began working overtime.

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