Mystery after Saudi sisters found dead by New York river

Women’s bodies found duct-taped together by the Hudson with no clear signs of trauma

Sisters Tala and Rotana Farea, whose bodies were found duct-taped together on the banks of the Hudson River in Manhattan last week. Photograph: NYPD/HO/AFP/Getty Images

Sisters Tala and Rotana Farea, whose bodies were found duct-taped together on the banks of the Hudson River in Manhattan last week. Photograph: NYPD/HO/AFP/Getty Images

 

A person strolling through Riverside Park in New York on Wednesday afternoon last week spotted something jarring on the riverbank and called police. There, below a small pier that juts out from the park at 68th Street, lay the bodies of two young women, bound together by duct tape at their waists and ankles. They had not been in the water long, police said. Clad in similar black leggings and black jackets with fur trim, their bodies bore no obvious signs of trauma.

Police initially had trouble identifying the young women. Hints that they might be related surfaced a day after they were found when police sketches revealed striking similarities: the same curly dark hair, the same build, the same skin tone.

By Friday, detectives had learned the women were sisters from Saudi Arabia who lived in Fairfax, Virginia. Rotana Farea was 22; Tala Farea was 16. They had a history of going missing, and they had recently requested asylum in the United States, police said. But beyond that, the circumstances of their deaths have remained a mystery.

Investigators have struggled to piece together how two young women from a city more than 400km away turned up along Manhattan’s Hudson River shoreline. Police are investigating the possibility that the sisters may have carried out a suicide pact, taping themselves together and throwing themselves in the river. But detectives have not ruled out murder. The medical examiner’s office has yet to determine the cause of death. No one has claimed the bodies.

“We do not know that a crime took place,” Dermot F Shea, the chief of detectives, said. “We have a terrible tragedy for sure.”

Theories

At first, police theorised the women might have leapt from the George Washington Bridge. People who jump from the bridge often end up in Riverside Park. But the women’s bodies would have had signs of trauma after falling from that height, investigators said. Plus they would have had to have jumped during the day, and a motorist would likely have seen them.

“We are currently looking for what might have been their entry point into the water,” one law enforcement official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation. “We are checking both sides of the river.”

It remains unclear where the sisters were staying before they died. Fairfax County police declined to provide any information about the sisters’ lives in Virginia, citing a law prohibiting sharing any information that would help identify a crime victim under the age of 18.

In a statement, Saudi Arabia’s consulate general in New York said it had appointed a lawyer to follow the case “to avoid inaccurate reporting”. The Saudi embassy in Washington was also extending its “support and aid in this trying time” to the sisters’ family, the statement said.

Reported missing

The Arab News, an English paper in Saudi Arabia, reported that Rotana Farea had been living in New York, while her mother and younger sister remained in Virginia. The mother had reported Tala missing two months ago, the newspaper said, but then called off the search when she discovered the girl was visiting her older sister. The sisters were in contact with their mother until about a week ago, the Arab News said.

But police in New York said the mother, whom they did not identify, also reported her daughters missing last year. When local police located the sisters, they asked for protection and were placed in a shelter, the police said. Earlier this year, Rotana Farea was living in a fifth-floor apartment in a luxury complex on the edge of an outdoor mall in Fairfax Corner, Virginia, a suburban neighbourhood about a 30-minute drive from Washington, DC, a leasing agent there said. Farea moved out in July.

In late August, Tala Farea was again reported missing to Fairfax County authorities, who distributed a missing-person poster online. The poster said she might be with her sister Rotana. In October, someone again reported the sisters missing in Virginia, police in New York said.

The mother also received a call from the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, DC, informing her that her daughters had applied for asylum, police said. – New York Times/Reuters