Americas

Saudi Sisters, Fleeing Abuse and Seeking Asylum, May Have Committed Suicide, Police Say

Two months before their bodies would wash up dead on the rocky banks of the Hudson River, becoming known throughout the world, two sisters from Saudi Arabia anonymously traveled from Virginia to Manhattan for reasons yet unknown.

During their two-month stint in New York City, the two sisters stayed at pricey Midtown hotels — the Hilton, the Hyatt, the Knickerbocker — ordered room service twice a day and maxed out their credit cards shopping.

Last week, before their bodies were found bound together by duct tape, a jogger saw the two young women in a playground on Riverside Park burying their heads in their hands and praying. Their bodies would be found by a passer-by five miles downriver from the park.

On Friday, the police revealed more details of their investigation into the deaths of Rotana Farea, 22, and Tala Farea, 16, that gave a clearer picture of the sisters’ whereabouts in the past two months before their bodies were discovered last week. The mysterious circumstances of their deaths have puzzled investigators and gripped the world.

Investigators said they were investigating reports that the sisters, who emigrated to Virginia from Saudi Arabia with their family in 2015, had been physically abused by family members and had claimed asylum in the United States.

Dermot Shea, the chief of detectives at the New York Police Department, said the investigation revealed that the sisters had expressed they would rather kill themselves than return to Saudi Arabia. The leading theory for the police is that the sisters died by suicide driven by despair, but investigators have not ruled out other circumstances.

“At this time we have no credible information that any crime took place in New York City, but it is still under investigation,” Chief Shea said.

Chief Shea said a witness came forward on Wednesday to share information that had been “haunting him.”

The man, who Chief Shea said was exercising in Riverside Park about 7 a.m. on Oct. 24, told the police that he had seen the two women nearby sitting approximately 30 feet apart with their heads bowed and making loud noises that he described as praying.

The sisters, who were seen in a playground by the witness roughly between 158th and 163rd Streets, were several feet from the river and would have had easy access to the water, which could explain why they were found downriver, Chief Shea said.

At about 3 p.m. that day, a passer-by discovered their bodies, clad in similar black jackets and black leggings, below a pier about 100 blocks south near 68th Street. Their bodies were wrapped in tape, which was “keeping them together,” but it was not tightly binding them, Chief Shea said.

“It is entirely credible that the girls entered the water alive,” Chief Shea said. “We have them praying a short distance from the water, we also have sources that detectives have developed thus far, statements that they would rather inflict harm on themselves, commit suicide, than return to Saudi Arabia.”

The Farea family moved from Jeddah, a port city in Saudi Arabia, to Fairfax, Va., about three years ago. The sisters lived with their mother and at least two brothers, according to neighbors and the Arab News, an English-language Saudi Arabian newspaper. Their father traveled back and forth between the two countries, relatives told the news outlet.

Tala Farea briefly attended a public school in Fairfax County for her sophomore year, according to a spokesman for the school district, and Rotana Farea was an engineering student at George Mason University from early 2016 until last spring.

“The news of her death is tragic,” a spokesman for the university said. “University officials are cooperating with police and will assist in any way we can.”

The family was kind and cordial, said a neighbor who lived next door to the family at an apartment building in Fairfax from 2016 until they moved out in early August and who asked not to be named. He said he saw the father about three times and would typically see the mother interacting with other Muslim women who appeared to live in the building.

She once knocked on his door and gave him a Saudi Arabian dessert similar to star fruit. He occasionally saw the mother with her two youngest boys.

The neighbor said he saw the daughters “very rarely, and within the last six or seven months, I didn’t see the girls at all.”

On Sept. 22, the neighbor said, he ran into the mother in the plaza outside the building. He said he asked about her well being, and she told him that she was O.K. but that one of her daughters — she did not say which — had been missing for “months.”

The sisters were first reported missing to the police in Virginia on Dec. 1, 2017, by their mother, whom the New York police have not identified.

When the police in Virginia located the sisters the next day, they asked for protection and were placed in what Chief Shea described as a “shelterlike facility.” The sisters said they had been physically abused and “some other things,” Chief Shea said.

“We have reports of abuse involving the family; this is not corroborated at this time from us, but there are reports of abuse between the brother, the mother and the father that have been brought to our attention,” he said. “This is in another jurisdiction and this is some time in the past.”

The family had no contact with their daughters in the eight-month period they spent in the shelter and after their disappearance from that location on Aug. 23 or 24, according to Chief Shea.

Using credit card billing data, investigators found that the girls traveled from Fairfax to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, before arriving in Manhattan on Sept. 1. The police said there was no indication that they left the borough after arriving. Their credit card activity suggests that they were always together.

Chief Shea said the police obtained two pieces of surveillance footage that showed the sisters alone and “in good health” about five to six days before they were found dead.

“It’s just the two girls, dressed as normally as two girls would be dressed.”

Follow Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Ali Winston on Twitter: @luisferre and @awinston

Ashley Southall and Emily Baumgaertner contributed reporting.

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