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United States

Police: no sign of foul play in Saudi sisters’ deaths in New York

  • Bodies of Rotana and Tala Farea were found fully-clothed, facing each other and bound together with duct tape on the Hudson River waterfront
  • Women had told people they knew they would rather die than go back to Saudi Arabia
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 5:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 9:13pm

Two immigrant sisters from Saudi Arabia whose bodies washed up on the New York City waterfront, bound together with duct tape, had told people that they would rather harm themselves than go back to their home country, investigators said on Friday.

The bodies of 16-year-old Tala Farea and 23-year-old Rotana Farea were discovered on October 24 near the Hudson River, two months after they were reported missing in Fairfax, Virginia, where they were living in a shelter amid allegations they were abused at home.

Police said the sisters had been in Manhattan since September 1, staying at expensive hotels and ordering in meals until a credit card they were using reached its limit. A jogger said he saw them praying at a playground near the river, sitting about nine metres (30 feet) apart with their heads in their hands, hours before their bodies were found, police said.

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New York City Police Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said people who knew the Farea sisters in Virginia told investigators they made statements within the last year indicating “that they would rather inflict harm on themselves – commit suicide – than return to Saudi Arabia”.

Shea stopped short of saying the sisters had killed themselves but insisted police have “no credible information that any crime took place”. The medical examiner has yet to rule on their death and the case remains under investigation, he said.

The sisters’ bodies were taped together, facing each other and fully clothed, police said. There were no obvious signs of trauma and it appeared that they were alive when they went into the water, police said.

The mysterious deaths have drawn worldwide attention and fuelled rampant speculation in the wake of the October 2 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi embassy in Turkey.

The sisters’ mother told detectives that the day before the bodies were discovered, she received a call from an official at the Saudi Arabian embassy, ordering the family to leave the US because her daughters had applied for asylum.

The Saudi embassy denied talking to the family about an asylum request.

Tala and Rotana moved to the US from Saudi Arabia with their mother in 2015, settling in Fairfax, a suburb of Washington, police said.

The sisters left their home and were placed in a shelter after a disappearance in December 2017. At the time, Shea said, “It was raised that they were the subject of abuse.”

Rotana was enrolled at George Mason University in Fairfax, but left in the spring.

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The sisters were last seen in Virginia on August 24. They were reported missing on September 12.

Police, citing credit card records, an Uber receipt and other evidence, said they arrived in New York on September 1 after making stops in Washington and Philadelphia.

They appeared in good health on security video police located from about a week before their bodies were found, Shea said.

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Police released sketches of the sister’s faces and posted repeated calls for the public’s help in identifying them on social media. Once they were identified, police sent detectives to Virginia to piece together the last months of their lives.

The jogger who said he saw the sisters praying went to the police on Wednesday. He told detectives it had been “haunting him”, Shea said.