National News

Doomed Sisters Said They Would Rather Die Than Return to Saudi Arabia, Police Say

NEW YORK — Two months before their bodies would wash up dead on the rocky banks of the Hudson River, making them known throughout the world, two sisters from Saudi Arabia traveled from Virginia to Manhattan for reasons that are not yet clear.

Posted Updated

Luis Ferré-Sadurní
Ali Winston, New York Times

NEW YORK — Two months before their bodies would wash up dead on the rocky banks of the Hudson River, making them known throughout the world, two sisters from Saudi Arabia traveled from Virginia to Manhattan for reasons that are not yet clear.

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

Before their bodies were found bound together by duct tape, a jogger saw the two young women in a playground in Riverside Park burying their heads in their hands and praying. Their bodies would be found by a passer-by 5 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 sharper picture of the sisters’ whereabouts in the months before their bodies were discovered nearly two weeks ago. The mysterious circumstances of their deaths have puzzled investigators and have prompted global press coverage.

Investigators said they were examining 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, chief of detectives for the New York Police Department, said the investigation revealed that the sisters had said they would rather kill themselves than return to Saudi Arabia. The leading theory police are considering is that the sisters, riven by despair, had killed themselves, 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,” Shea said.

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

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

The sisters, who were seen roughly between 158th and 163rd streets, were seated several feet from the river, which could explain why they were found downriver, 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, Shea said.

“It is entirely credible that the girls entered the water alive,” 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, Virginia, 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 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 OK but that one of her daughters — she did not say which — had been missing for “months.”

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

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

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

It’s not unheard of for Saudi women to seek asylum in the United States, fearing death for their refusal to live in a country that requires women and girls to live under the control of male legal guardians. But the sisters’ deaths, weeks after a Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was killed at the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey, sparked speculation on social media that they were the victims of an honor killing.

The police said the girls’ mother had received a call from the Saudi embassy notifying her that her daughters had requested asylum in the United States. Law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that the request had prompted the Saudi government to order the family to return home.

Fatima Baeshen, the spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, pushed back Friday in a statement, calling reports that the government had ordered the family to leave the United States because the sisters sought asylum “absolutely false.”

The consulate in New York has appointed a lawyer to investigate the deaths, Baeshen said last week. How Saudi officials would have known about the sisters’ request for asylum remains a mystery that concerns immigration lawyers and advocates. Smita Dazzo, the legal services director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit that helps refugees, said the information probably came from someone the girls told of their plans.

“I can’t imagine that the leak comes from the U.S. government itself,” said Dazzo, whose organization did not have contact with the sisters. “If it has, then we all have a lot to be worried about.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.