COLFAX – Shortly before he was sentenced Wednesday to 14 years in prison for vehicular homicide, Fred Russell stood and faced for the first time the families he’d harmed.
Tossing away a prepared statement, Russell took a deep breath, fingered a black rosary with a silver cross provided by a former employer who had spoken on his behalf, and said, “I’m sorry. You waited too long to hear that.”
Russell told the packed and hushed courtroom that he wasn’t expecting forgiveness from the families of three Washington State University students who died on the night of June 4, 2001, when his SUV struck the old Cadillac in which they were riding. Three other students were seriously injured in the alcohol-fueled crash; a seventh escaped without injuries.
“I’m definitely not the same man I was then,” said Russell, who led authorities on a global chase that landed him on the U.S. Marshals Service’s list of most wanted fugitives before he was apprehended in Ireland.
Russell was legally drunk at the time of the 2001 crash. That night, he’d purchased a 1.5-liter bottle of vodka, drunk it at a house party, and followed that with about two Guinnesses at a local bar before getting behind the wheel of his jacked-up Blazer.
He was declared guilty on Nov. 6 by a Cowlitz County jury on three vehicular homicide charges for the deaths of WSU students Stacy Morrow, 21, of Milton, Wash; Ryan Sorensen, 21, of Westport, Wash; and Brandon Clements, 22, of Wapato, Wash.
Russell was also found guilty of vehicular assault for injuring three other students: John “Matt” Wagner, of Spokane; Kara Eichelsdoerfer, of Central Park, Wash; and Sameer Ranade, of Kennewick.
Russell’s apology didn’t sway Whitman County Superior Court Judge David Frazier.
“You were grossly irresponsible. You are going to get the maximum sentence because you need to be held accountable,” Frazier said.
He imposed a sentence of 14 years and three months for each of the three vehicular homicide charges and seven years on each of three vehicular assault charges. Under Washington law, the sentences must run concurrently.
Russell will also lose his driver’s license for two years, must serve as long as three years on community supervision after he’s released, will be subject to alcohol and drug monitoring, and will have to pay $500 into a crime victims assistance fund.
Earlier in the emotional sentencing hearing, those affected by the head-on collision spoke out for more than two hours in a torrent of pain.
Cynthia Fulton, the mother of Stacy Morrow, spoke of her daughter’s love for animals and her passion for working with abused and neglected children. She called the accident on the Moscow-Pullman Highway preventable, caused solely by Russell’s choices and actions. Morrow was 21 when she was killed.
“I will miss you every day for the rest of my life,” Fulton said through tears, asking for the maximum sentence for Russell.
Karen Overacker, of Wapato, the mother of 22-year old Brandon Clements, the Cadillac’s driver, said she suffered debilitating depression after the death of her youngest child and only son.
“In a dream, I see his battered body behind the wheel of his car,” Overacker said. “In the months following his death, I wanted to die so I could be with him,” she added.
She also called for the toughest sentence possible for Russell, saying he should “pay the price for the choices he made.”
Crash victim Kara Eichelsdoerfer described how the impact of the crash broke her pelvis in three places, collapsed her lung, bruised her heart and brain and rendered her unable to walk or dress herself for months. She said she still has daily headaches and shooting pain throughout her body.
“I’m only 28 years old – way too young to be lying in bed,” Eichelsdoerfer said. She has filed a civil suit against Russell.
Karen Eichelsdoerfer, Kara’s mother, said she was initially told by deputies that her daughter had died – learning an hour later that she was still clinging to life. After a frantic seven-hour drive from Seattle to Pullman, she found her daughter had multiple injuries, blood-soaked hair and was “unrecognizable.” Months of agonizing rehabilitation and plastic surgery followed.
John “Matt” Wagner, of Spokane, injured in the accident, said he hadn’t intended to speak at the sentencing hearing but decided to address Russell directly. “Over the past six years, there’s been a lot I’ve wanted to say to you. My body hurts, my back hurts. … I just wanted to hear you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” the 28-year-old Wagner said.
After Russell apologized, Wagner said he felt better.
“In 6 1/2 years, he’s never said he’s sorry,” Wagner said after the sentencing.
Russell’s lead attorney, Francisco Duarte, repeatedly referred to Russell as “FDR” during a lengthy plea for leniency where he acknowledged the “pain in the courtroom” expressed by the victims. He has said he will appeal the jury verdict in Russell’s trial.
Duarte said Russell was a changed man years after the fatal accident.
“He’s not the monster that some people have spoken of,” Duarte said.
But when he added that Russell is “just like you and me” in making a foolish choice to drink and drive, several people in the courtroom benches frowned and shook their heads in disagreement.
Duarte called several people to vouch for Russell, including his Irish girlfriend, Hazel McMaboe, who was connected to the Colfax courtroom by cell phone and told the judge she wanted him to return to her. She called him “David” – his middle name – because he lived in Ireland as David Carroll.
Shortly before his first trial was scheduled to start in 2001, Russell fled the country after receiving multiple death threats while living in Pullman. He lived in Ireland until Oct. 23, 2005, when he was captured by U.S. marshals. He was extradited to the United States in November 2006.
Leo Higginson, a Pullman businessman, said Russell had been one of his best employees among the many college students he’s hired. Higginson also asked the judge for mercy for Russell, leaving a rosary on the defense table when he was done.
Russell’s mother, Linda Wilms Russell, of Chico, Calif., defended her only child, saying he never intended to hurt anyone and has been portrayed maliciously in the media.
“One error in judgment – not a pattern – led to this tragedy. But for the grace of God, any one of us could be sitting in his seat today,” she said.
“I hope, your honor, that there is no shortage of mercy in this court,” Duarte said, asking for the low range of the standard sentence for his client and credit for jail time Russell has served in Ireland and in Whitman County.
Frazier refused to give Russell credit for time served in Ireland while he was fighting extradition, but he did allow credit for time served in the Whitman County Jail.
Overacker said she approved of the sentence Frazier imposed.
“It’s the maximum the law allows. Nothing will bring back my son, but I’m satisfied.”
The 14-year sentence means Russell will likely serve 10 or 11 years in prison with time taken off for good behavior, said Rich Morrow, Stacy Morrow’s father.
“To me, 10 years may not be fair, but I don’t know what’s fair. I don’t want vengeance, but something reasonable,” the West Seattle man said.
“That’s why I came today.”