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A U.S. Citizen Has Gone Missing In Russia, Sparking A Criminal Investigation

Catherine Serou is a U.S. citizen studying in Russia.
Beccy Serou
Catherine Serou is a U.S. citizen studying in Russia.

MOSCOW — Catherine Serou, a U.S. citizen studying in Russia, has been missing since she got into a car with a stranger on Tuesday. The authorities in Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow, have started a criminal investigation and are searching a forested area outside the city where Serou's cell phone was last picked up.

On the day of her disappearance Serou managed to send a text message to her mother in Vicksburg, Miss. — the last sign of life from the 34-year-old graduate student and former Marine.

"It says: 'In a car with a stranger. I hope I'm not being abducted.' And that's the last thing she wrote," Beccy Serou said in an interview with NPR. "She's out there in this forest, I think, relying on her wits — if she hasn't been killed — to stay alive."

Serou enrolled in a master's program in law at Lobachevsky University in Nizhny Novgorod in fall 2019, according to her mother. Serou wanted to study Russian before applying for law school in the United States and pursuing a career as an immigration lawyer.

On Thursday, regional investigators said they had opened a potential murder case after Serou disappeared following the text message to her mother. Investigators have since appealed to local residents of Bor, the Nizhny Novgorod suburb where Serou lived, and environs to provide any clues of the apparent abduction.

More than 100 volunteers combed through the forests north of Bor on Thursday, said Marina Mokeyeva, a spokeswoman for the search-and-rescue group Rys, or Lynx. Her organization has posted notices with Serou's photo on social media.

Beccy Serou, a paralegal, last saw her daughter about two years ago, when Catherine sold her condominium in California to finance her studies in Russia. They stayed in touch with daily phone calls, and Beccy Serou says her daughter was enjoying her time abroad.

"She loved the university," says Beccy Serou. "I'm not going to use the past tense, I'm sorry for doing that. She loves the university. It has very small classes, extremely good teachers, and she had many friends outside the university as well."

Serou was in a hurry Tuesday to return to a clinic in Nizhny Novgorod where she had made a payment that didn't go through, according to her mother, so she may have jumped into a passing car without waiting for her Uber to arrive.

"I think that when she saw that the person wasn't driving to the clinic, but instead was driving into a forest, she panicked," says Beccy Serou. "Her telephone last pinged off a cell tower in that forest."

Beccy Serou says Nizhny Novgorod police have spoken to her five times already and that Lobachevsky University is providing support as well. Serou has also been in contact with the U.S. embassy in Moscow, which has faced short staffing because of a diplomatic stand-off with Russia.

Asked about Serou's case, the U.S. embassy said in a statement that it is "aware of the issue and is working with the host country authorities to resolve it."

Before earning a bachelor's degree in design and a master's degree in art history at the University of California, Davis, Catherine Serou served in the Marine Corps and did one tour in Afghanistan. That experience gives her mother hope about her daughter's current situation.

"She is a Marine, she has got survival skills," says Beccy Serou. "And so I think that if anybody can survive it, she can."

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Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.