‘I hope I’m not being abducted’: American student found dead in Russia after texting mother

Warning: distressing details.

The last message that Beccy Serou received from her daughter was ominous: “In a car with a stranger. I hope I’m not being abducted.”

Four days later, Catherine Serou, a 34-year-old former Marine who had moved to Russia in 2019 to study law at the Lobachevsky University in Nizhny Novgorod, was found dead.

Alexander Popov, a man who was arrested on suspicion of murder sits behind the glass in a courtroom in the city of Gorodets, 60 km north-west of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Credit:AP

According to Russian state news, investigators have detained a suspect who they believe gave her a ride in his car, took her to a wooded area, and killed her.

The man appeared in a central Russian court on Sunday on murder charges, the Associated Press reported, adding that local media has identified him as 43-year-old Alexander Popov.

When she shared her story with NPR on Friday, Beccy Serou was distraught but hopeful that the daughter she described as a resourceful veteran who had served a tour in Afghanistan would be found alive. But a day later, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced that the body of a missing “foreign citizen” had been found.

Alexander Popov, a man who was arrested on suspicion of murder of the American. Credit:AP

Though the Russian state agency did not identify the victim, the US State Department confirmed Catherine Serou’s death in a statement and offered condolences to her family, as well as assurances that the US government was providing them “all appropriate assistance”.

“We are closely monitoring local authorities’ investigation into the cause of death,” the State Department said.

Beccy Serou could not be reached for comment on Sunday but spoke to several news outlets after her daughter’s disappearance. Speaking to the Daily Beast, she described Catherine as athletic and hard-working with an artistic streak and longtime fondness for Russia.

“She enjoyed Nizhny Novgorod so much, she loved her life in a Russian family, her friends at the university,” Beccy Serou told the outlet.

Beccy Serou didn’t see her daughter’s text message until 40 minutes after it was sent. When she tried to respond, her daughter’s phone was off, she told the Daily Beast.

At least 100 volunteers participated in a search for the student, media reports said. Police later used pings from Catherine’s mobile phone to track her location to a wooded area in Bor, a suburb of Nizhny Novgorod roughly 400 km east of Moscow.

It was unclear why Catherine Serou got into an unfamiliar car before she vanished the evening of June 15. In interviews with NPR and the Daily Beast, her mother speculated that she may have gotten into a passing car instead of an Uber she had called.

Beccy Serou said that Catherine had visited a salon or clinic earlier that day and that it later called and said her payment did not go through, prompting her to rush back before the business closed.

“I think that when she saw that the person wasn’t driving to the clinic, but instead was driving into a forest, she panicked,” Beccy Serou told NPR.

Beccy Serou told NPR that her daughter had done her undergrad and master’s programs at the University of California at Davis and that she sold her condo in 2019 to finance the move to Russia.

In a statement to faculty and students announcing Catherine Serou’s death, Lobachevsky University said it was a “personal, painful loss for all of our staff and students.”

In spring 2020, she appeared in a video for a local Russian news station in which she lightheartedly discussed cultural differences between her native and adopted countries, recounting such US traditions as dressing up in costumes for Halloween.

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