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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘The only reasonable sentence’: Bonner County man sentenced to life for murder after cannibalism charges dropped

James David Russell is suspected of killing 70-year-old David M. Flaget in Bonner County.  (Bonners County Sheriff's Office)

A 40-year-old North Idaho man accused of killing a 70-year-old man in 2021 was sentenced to life in prison Monday in Bonner County District Court.

James D. Russell pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in November. A related cannibalism charge against Russell was dismissed last June.

Judge Barbara Buchanan said that out of Idaho’s four sentencing objectives, she focused on “protection of society.”

“This court cannot fathom a way for society to be protected except for Mr. Russell to be confined,” Buchanan said.

Investigators arrested Russell in September 2021 on suspicion of killing David M. Flaget, who was found dead in his truck. Flaget was employed as a groundskeeper by Russell’s grandfather.

“I’m very sorry,” Russell repeated several times in a statement to Flaget’s family in the courtroom.

Russell rambled somewhat as he explained how he got a head injury doing judo in 2013.

“I was a normal person once,” he said.

He said he wished there was a technology to bring Flaget back to life.

Russell’s defense attorney, Sean Walsh, said Russell was not a cold-blooded killer, the killing was not premeditated and Russell showed signs of remorse.

“But for mental illness, it is not conceivable that this could have happened,” he said.

Bonner County Prosecuting Attorney Louis Marshall acknowledged Russell’s history of mental illness and head injury, but urged Buchanan to consider protection of society as the most important factor.

“Life is the only reasonable sentence,” he said. “The safest place for him and society is life in prison.”

Six family members of Flaget spoke ahead of the sentencing, asking for life in prison.

Brittney Cornwall, Flaget’s adult granddaughter, said the crime was preventable and pointed to incidents from the year before the murder that should have been warning signs, including assaults by Russell on his father and another groundskeeper where charges were not brought.

“Someone doesn’t just start a life of crime by eating people,” she said.

Flaget made it clear he was not comfortable around Russell, Cornwall said.

Family members described Flaget as quiet and gentle with a strong sense of humor and a love of the outdoors. They talked about the trauma of learning the graphic details of the case and attempting to shield their children from it.

An autopsy found Flaget died from blunt force trauma to the head and neck, according to court documents. The examiner also discovered evidence of postmortem mutilation on several parts of Flaget’s body.

Authorities searched Russell’s apartment in Clark Fork, Idaho, and found tissue “consistent with flesh missing from Flaget,” documents said. The flesh was confirmed to be Flaget’s.

Investigators seized a bloodied bowl and microwave from Russell’s residence. The Idaho State Lab confirmed the items had Flaget’s DNA on them, according to court records.

“I have nightmares,” Cornwall said. “I have visions of my grandpa’s mutilated body wrapped in plastic slumped over in his truck. … Sometimes I can’t even eat meat or use my microwave.”

Finally, Cornwall addressed Russell, saying, “I am so sorry that your family didn’t get you the help you so desperately needed.”

Russell originally faced a charge of first-degree murder.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.