Fred Russell found guilty
KELSO, Wash. – Fred Russell’s run is over.
After six years of waiting, much of it spent as a fugitive living in Ireland, Russell, 28, was declared guilty Tuesday by a Cowlitz County jury.
“I know this has been a very difficult, very emotionally charged case,” said Whitman County Superior Court Judge David Frazier.
Russell was found guilty on all three vehicular homicide charges as well as on three charges of vehicular assault.
Russell showed little emotion, blinking and clenching his jaw as the judge read the verdict. He reddened slightly. Defense attorney Diego Vargas put his hand on Russell’s back as the verdicts were read.
“We’ve always felt there was a crime committed here, and it’s nice to know it’s being answered for,” said Richard Morrow, whose daughter Stacy Morrow died in the wreck.
None of the jurors wanted to talk to the press. And Russell’s mother disappeared immediately after the verdict, escorted by a sheriff’s deputy.
Russell was to be transported to the Whitman County Jail. He’ll be sentenced in Colfax at a date to be determined. He faces up to 14 years in prison. Sentencing will be in Whitman County, where Russell’s Blazer in 2001 triggered a multi-car wreck that killed three fellow Washington State University students and seriously injured several other people.
Frazier had moved the trial to Cowlitz County to find a jury unfamiliar with the wreck and Russell’s subsequent flight to Ireland after he received death threats.
Jury deliberations began Monday afternoon after more than three weeks of jury selection, witness testimony and arguments. In the end, jurors sided with prosecutors, who said Russell was drunk, speeding and on the wrong side of the road in a no-passing zone.
Several jurors were visibly emotional Tuesday, crying during juror polling by Frazier, and reportedly again when attorneys met privately with the jury afterward.
“It was obvious that it was a very difficult verdict for them,” said defense attorney Diego Vargas, who said jurors were initially split six to six.
Vargas said the case will be appealed on several grounds, including problems with two blood-alcohol tests, alleged ineffective assistance by a previous attorney for Russell and issues surrounding jury selection.
Vargas said several jurors felt that the driver in front of Russell, Robert Hart, had been a factor in the crash but were unable to conclude that Hart actually caused the wreck.
As for Russell, “Of course he is disappointed,” Vargas said. “He was hoping for an acquittal.”
Russell’s defense team portrayed him as a victim of police bias, shoddy laboratory work, a media witchhunt and death threats. Shortly before he fled the country, Russell allegedly told acquaintances that he felt like he had a target on his back.
Russell was a 22-year-old WSU senior majoring in criminal justice in 2001 when he bought a 1.5 liter bottle of vodka, drank it with friends at a house party, then had about two Guinnesses at a local bar. Shortly after 10:30 p.m. on June 4, his jacked-up Blazer – several feet into the oncoming lane – sideswiped a Geo. The Blazer then traveled another 215 feet, slamming into a 1978 Cadillac containing seven WSU students coming home from seeing “Shrek” at a Moscow movie theater. The out-of-control Blazer was finally struck by a Geo Prizm, at which point both cars caught fire.
Killed were Brandon Clements, 22, of Wapato, Wash.; Stacy Morrow, 21, of Milton, Wash.; and Ryan Sorensen, 21, of Westport, Wash.
Badly injured were students John “Matt” Wagner, of Harrington, Wash.; Kara Eichelsdoerfer, of Central Park, Wash.; and Sameer Ranade, of Kennewick. A seventh passenger in the Cadillac, Eric Haynes, was the only one to walk away.
Russell was arrested on vehicular homicide charges the morning after the crash but was released on $5,000 bond pending trial. He stayed in Pullman for months, where he received multiple death threats. He disappeared shortly before trial, fleeing to Canada and ultimately to Ireland, where he got a job as a clothing-store security guard and found a girlfriend. He was living under the alias David Carroll, David being Russell’s middle name.
He was arrested in Ireland on Oct. 23, 2005, four years to the day after he fled, and extradited to the United States last November.
During the three-week trial in Kelso, Russell’s three-attorney defense team portrayed the crash as a tragic accident, not a crime. Prosecutors, however, had witnesses spend hours recounting their injuries and Russell’s demeanor the night of the crash. One passing motorist described him as nonchalant as his Blazer burned, saying only that he needed a new car anyway. Witnesses also said that he and his passenger, Jacob McFarland, smelled strongly of alcohol.
“A lot of it was really hard to see. It was almost like going through his death all over again,” said Karen Overacker, of Wapato. Her son, Clements, died at the wheel of the Cadillac. “But I wanted to see this through for him.”
She added, “It angers me that anybody would even refer to it as an accident. It isn’t an accident when somebody drinks and drives. Every time they said ‘accident’ or ‘collision,’ I wanted to scream.”
Clements’ father, Hank Clements, of White Swan, Wash., said he felt a partial closure, but he doubted it would ever be complete.
Tears streaming down his face, he said he felt some sympathy for Russell’s mother, Linda Wilms Russell, of Chico, Calif., who sat directly behind her son throughout the trial. But at least her son will someday get out of prison, Clements said.
“Mine’s gone,” he said. “Pine box, never to be seen again.”
Assistant Attorney General Lana Weinmann told jurors Monday that no one was saying Russell intended to kill or injure people the night of the wreck. And she conceded that his life and his family’s have been altered by the tragedy as well.
But Russell’s decisions – to drink, to drink more, and to drive that night – make him accountable for what happened, she told the jury.
“The defendant purchased and put together the recipe for disaster that night,” she said.
On the way home to Eastern Washington, Hank Clements said, he will stop by the Wapato-area cemetery where his son is buried.
“I’ll tell him ‘We got him,’ ” he said.