A court in central Russia on Sunday arraigned a suspect on murder charges in the death of an American woman who was studying at a local university. The body of 34-year-old Catherine Serou was found Saturday in a wooded area near the city of Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow. She had been missing since Tuesday.
Her mother, Beccy Serou, of Vicksburg, Mississippi, told National Public Radio that her daughter had last texted her: "In a car with a stranger. I hope I'm not being abducted."
Her sister, Marie Claire Serou, told CBS Sacramento that it's unclear if the text was sent by her or someone else.
"It's hard to say whether she wrote it or whether her phone was taken and someone in the car wrote it, but I know that she was terrified in that car," Marie Claire Serou said.
State news agency RIA-Novosti cited the local court as saying the suspect gave her a ride in his car, then took her to the wooden area and beat her and stabbed her "in the course of a dispute." Russian news reports have identified the suspect as Alexander Popov and said he had a record of violent crimes.
He faces up to life in prison if convicted of murder.
"It does not feel real, it really doesn't feel real," Marie Claire Serou told CBS Sacramento. "She was just a brilliant, wonderful person."
Serou moved from California to Russia in 2019 to study law at Lobachevsky University in Nizhny Novgorod.
Beccy Serou told NPR that her daughter was in a hurry to get to a clinic Tuesday and may have gotten into a passing car.
"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 said.
Catherine Serou was also a Marine who served in Afghanistan. Marie Claire Serou says she is in daily conversations with the U.S. Embassy in Russia. She and her mother plan to travel there soon.
"The police have told us what they know but there are still so many holes, and I don't know if we'll ever get all of the answers," Marie Claire Serou said.
A GoFundMe page organized by the family had raised more than $15,000 as of Tuesday morning.
"We need your help to honor her memory," Marie Claire Serou wrote. "Repatriating her remains will require travel to Russia, and we would like to hold a funeral befitting a veteran."
NPR reported that a video posted last year by the nn.ru news site shows Catherine Serou speaking in Russian and English as she discusses differences between the U.S. and Russia.