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Classmates of suspected bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev suggest 'brainwashing' by older brother

Stephen Troio, 19, a former classmate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, says the suspected bomber is shown, kneeling at left, in this January 2012 photo of their intramural soccer team. Troio is squatting in the center, wearing yellow gloves.

NORTH DARTMOUTH, Mass. -- As students trickled back to the university on Sunday where surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, has been enrolled as a sophomore, the teenager's classmates expressed disbelief over his involvement in the attack and suggested that he may have been the victim of "brainwashing" by his older brother.

Tsarnaev is suspected of acting with his older brother, Tamerlan, to detonate two pressure cooker bombs at the city's iconic road race last Monday, killing three people and injuring more than 170 others. Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police early Friday; Dzhokhar was arrested later that day.

Two classmates of Tsarnaev’s at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth said they saw the bombing suspect at the gym working out on Tuesday -- the day after the bombing.

Sophomore Nathan Young, who described himself as a good friend of Tsarnaev's, said that Tsarnaev seemed glum when he saw him at the gym.

"He seemed really ... down and out of it, just like he wasn't really working out. He was just sitting there," said Young, 20, who is studying pre-law and finance.

Zach Bettencourt, 20, a sophomore studying political science who said he met Tsarnaev in a Spanish class during their freshman year, also encountered Tsarnaev at the gym and said he seemed normal, except for appearing tired.

"We talked about the bombing for a little bit ... and basically I was like, 'Yeah, man, did you see the bombings that was crazy?' And he was talking about, 'Yeah it's a tragedy.' ... I can't remember the exact words, but I went up to him and said, 'yeah the people in Boston must be feeling like how the people in Iraq feel kind of.' He was like, 'yeah tragedies like this happen all the time, like in Afghanistan, too, you know, all over the world.'" 

As investigators dig into the pasts of accused Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, more information is coming to light about the suspects. NBC's Jeff Rossen reports and talks to friends of the brothers.

"It was just like a normal conversation," though he noted that Tsarnaev, a former wrestler, "wasn't really working out that much."

Young said Tsarnaev once talked about his older brother, and noted that it seemed like the teenager looked up to him. He suggested that Dzhokhar might have been subject to "brainwashing."

“I definitely think that's what happened, at least with his brother," Young said. "It is speculation. That's how I feel like it happened.”

“I feel like ... that's the only thing that makes sense," said Stephen Troio, 19, who played on an intramural soccer team with Tsarnaev. "Just because I feel like he couldn't have just randomly snapped.” The two met in fall of 2011, and Troio said he stayed friends with Tsarnaev after the league ended in 2012, before summer break.

Young said he met Tsarnaev the first day of freshman year because his roommates had gone to high school with the suspect in Cambridge. He said he spoke to Tsarnaev nearly every day -- this year, they lived together in the sophomore dorm -- noting that he'd sometimes wake up late at night to see Tsarnaev and his roommate playing FIFA soccer on Xbox.

"He's a really nice kid. Like, honestly, one of the nicest kids I knew. He was friendly to everyone," said Young. "I partied with him. I hung out with him."

Young said the Friday before the bombings, he received a text from Tsarnaev asking if he could bring something to Boston for him. Young told him that he wouldn't be making it to Boston, so he never learned what his friend wanted him to bring.

"I've been thinking ... all weekend about it," he said. "He never told me what he needed. ... I could have become a hostage or something ... anything could have happened."

Troio, who dropped out of UMass at the end of last year, said he last saw Tsarnaev two weeks ago when he was visiting some other friends in the sophomore dorm. The pair hung out for a few hours and played FIFA.

He was "normal, nothing out of the ordinary," Troio said.

"I can't stress how normal a kid he was, like extremely nice. ... even in soccer, I wouldn’t call him an aggressive player," he said, noting that Tsarnaev played the striker position. He was "very charismatic" and made "friends easily," Troio said, as sophomore Blake Muccini, who described himself as an acquaintance of Tsarnaev’s, nodded his head in agreement.

Muccini and Young said friends speculated whether the first blurry images released by authorities on Thursday could be Tsarnaev, but they did not believe it was him. But Young said that when the fire alarm went off in the dorm around 8:15 on Friday morning and students were hurriedly evacuated by authorities, it dawned on him that it must be true.

"I freaked out. ... I didn’t want to believe it," said Muccini, who took a mathematics course with Tsarnaev last year. "I just really want to believe that his brother had a lot to do with this and not him." 

"I honestly don't know what to feel ... he's my friend," Young said, adding that it upset him to see people calling for his torture or death online. "I don't know what actually happened."  

"Everyone was like, 'Oh, I want him to die in the worst possible way’ and I was just like ‘I don’t want him to die in the worst possible way’ ... I just didn’t want to see him die," he said. "I think it's better that he is caught alive" and given a fair trial.

Students slowly returned to the dorm throughout Sunday, some toting bags. But Young said he was "probably going to try to stay out. ... It's a very emotional place."

"I guess everyone's lives here are changed forever,” he said.