Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Feb. 1, 2023

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Chelsea’s Secrets

 Grieving family and friends grapple with the killing of a 14-year-old Clark County girl, found dead in a middle-aged felon's home where kids went to drink

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Chelsea Harrison
Chelsea Harrison Photo Gallery

By most ways of measuring such things, Chelsea Marie Harrison wasn’t a bad kid.

She sang in the school choir, loved horses and called home when she was going to be late. She liked Gummi worms, Johnny Depp, roses and jalapeño peppers. And she offered friends a sympathetic shoulder during tough times.

But like a lot of 14-year-olds, Chelsea Harrison had secrets.

She’d recently started drinking, sometimes heavily. She’d started smoking, sometimes heavily. And she’d become sexually active, sometimes indiscriminately.

By October, Chelsea and some new friends were hanging out at the home of Roy Russell, a 45-year-old convicted felon. They’d go there to drink. A lot. On the night of Nov. 1, she went to Russell’s Daniels Street house in Vancouver, and over the course of the evening she put away what one friend figured were 12 beers and a few shots of hard liquor.

And sometime that night she was killed.

Not long after midnight, police responding to a 911 call found Chelsea’s body in the shower near Russell’s basement bedroom. She was naked, her right eye blackened from a bruise.

For friends

Here are a few ways teenagers can keep an eye out for one another.
Know what changes mean. Changes aren't always bad. Growth, expanded horizons and all that kind of stuff are usually good things, part of growing up. But new friends, new parties and new habits could signal changes in a bad direction.
Know who's out there. You don't have to be a super spy to know whether the new crowd your pal has been hanging with is up to no good.
Keep aware. You know more than you think you do. Teenagers usually know what's happening in the lives of friends before anyone else, before teachers, administrators or parents.
Don't be afraid to say something. If you know someone who's getting in a bad way, a cautionary word from a trusted friend may be enough to be get her or him thinking.
Look out for each other. It's a scary world out there and we all need someone to watch our back.
For parents
Here are few ways parents can keep an eye out for their teens.
Talk honestly about substance abuse. Explain the difference between responsible and excessive alcohol use. Don't lie. Be informed. Keep communications open.
Set a good example. Kids who see excessive drinking, deception or dishonesty at home will think it's all right to do the same.
Know who your kids hang out with. Who are they? Do you know their parents? Do they allow kids to drink at home?
Look for behavior changes. Are they breaking curfew? Have homework habits changed? All may be fine, but such changes may be symptoms of larger issues.
Know what influences them. Their games, their books, their music will give you clues.

— Prepared with the help of Clay Mosher, associate professor of sociology at WSU Vancouver.

Russell, the man who welcomed teenagers into his home, has been charged with her murder.

Sometimes teens take risks, said Clay Mosher, associate professor of sociology at Washington State University Vancouver. They drive fast, drink, smoke and find other ways to test the boundary between adolescence and adulthood.

Most pass through these years with minor emotional or physical scars. Others fall victim to car crashes, unwanted pregnancies or drug addiction. A very few become victims of homicide. Chelsea was one of those few.

The killing of the Evergreen High School freshman raised troubling issues for teens and their parents, issues like secret drinking, the dangers lurking in homes of men who buy kids booze and the importance of looking out for each other. Chelsea was left alone at Russell’s house; whether she was unlucky or unwise doesn’t really matter because no one was there to watch her back.

“I feel bad,” said Holly Wittrock, a 16-year-old friend who declined an invitation to the party that night. “Maybe I could have been there to help. Maybe she wouldn’t have died.”

They trusted her

Prosecutors have charged Roy Wayne Russell, who sold vacuum cleaners over the phone, with second-degree murder, second-degree felony murder and first-degree manslaughter. But exactly what happened that night remains murky. Most police records and autopsy results will remain secret until his trial, scheduled to start Jan. 3.

Investigators say Chelsea was left alone with Russell when the other kids left and he killed her in his basement. Russell said he left her alone at his house and someone else killed her. Maybe, he said, it was the two kids in a green car he’d seen her talking with outside as he left to run errands after the party.

Chelsea’s death stunned her family: her mother, Stephanie Johnson; her grandmother, Sylvia Johnson; her 10-year-old brother, Christopher; and her three grown siblings in Southern California. But what made it all worse has been trying to reconcile Chelsea’s very grown-up activities with the very different picture of the girl they affectionately called “Chelly.”

Compounding their grief was the publicity and the knowledge that people wondered what kind of parents would let a 14-year-old girl stay out so late, and on a school night to boot.

In short, they trusted her. And she lied.

“At 14, you’re supposed to start giving your kids a little more freedom and a lot more trust to know a good person from a bad person,” said Dawn Bruns, whose daughter Alanna Lawrence, 15, was a friend of Chelsea’s. “You have to feel they’ve been raised well enough to not go through this.”

WSU’s Mosher agreed. At some point, you have to trust that a teenager has a good head on her or his shoulders and will make wise decisions.

“People test the limits,” he said. “You take risks, and kids in that experimental level, most of them turn out to be fairly well-adjusted.”

Singing and horses

Chelsea was born in Huntington Beach, Calif., and lived there and in Anaheim until moving to Vancouver in 2002 after her parents’ marriage broke up.

Her mother, Stephanie Johnson, was following her own mother, Sylvia Johnson, who’d moved to Vancouver in 2001 after a promotion at work. Stephanie Johnson wanted a better place to raise Chelsea and Christopher, and wanted her kids to be close to their grandma.

“I thought it would be a better place to raise my kids,” she said. “And I got them out of some not-so-great schools.”

Stephanie and the two kids rented a brown house with a fenced-in yard along Northeast 152nd Avenue, about two miles from grandma’s.

Chelsea’s half-brother, Josh Lajoie, a firefighter, was planning to move here from Southern California, too. He was going to take the Vancouver Fire Department test but canceled after Chelsea was killed.

After the move north, Chelsea continued to pursue her two great loves: singing and horses.

In California, she had a horse named Cognac and competed in barrel racing. She won hundreds of ribbons, so many that she had to take down all but the blue ones from her wall.

Last Christmas Eve, her grandmother went to Green Mountain Stables and bought Chelsea a horse named Lilly for Christmas. She wrapped up a horse blanket and Lilly’s nameplate so she’d have something to unwrap on Christmas morning. They later went to the stable so Chelsea could meet Lilly.

At first, Chelsea came often to ride, recalled Bob Stacey, owner of Green Mountain Stables. But her visits grew less frequent as winter turned to spring and she brought friends who seemed more interested in hanging around and smoking cigarettes than in riding. The family soon sold the horse back to the stable.

“Lilly wasn’t the right horse,” Sylvia Johnson said. They planned to buy another horse and get her back into competitive riding this summer, she said.

Chelsea also loved to sing. She’d tried out for soloist in the choir at Pacific Middle School. Her mother and her friends remember how she’d sing around the house. She had a nice voice, they said. She liked rhythm and blues, hip-hop and a little rap. She liked Christina Aguilera, especially her song “Beautiful.” She liked “Candle in the Wind” and “Stairway to Heaven” so much that she put a Led Zeppelin poster up in her room.

The family played all three songs at her funeral last month.

A good friend

Chelsea did well academically in her first years in Vancouver but slid more recently. Math was never her specialty. She was supposed to start special tutoring in math the week after she died.

Teachers liked her, though, said Roland Brosius, principal at Pacific Middle School, where she was a student until this fall, when she started her freshman year at Evergreen High School.

“She seemed to adapt well to our environment,” he said. “She wasn’t one of the rebellious types who caused problems.”

Friend Alanna Lawrence remembers how they’d hang out in the mornings and at lunch at Evergreen High. Some days Chelsea brought drawings and paintings and some days they’d talk about music.

“She helped people out,” Alanna remembered. “One friend came to school depressed and crying because of some family circumstances. Chelsea helped her and spent time with her. She made her happy. She’d put all her troubles aside just to make someone happy.”

Holly Wittrock remembers Chelsea’s cool bedroom, with the Led Zeppelin poster, her big bed and the leopard print day bed. They’d chill out, watch TV and talk on the phone.

Growing up too fast

But darker impulses emerged, too. In the past year, her blonde, curly hair became black and straight, and the cute smiles sometimes turned deadly serious, like many teenagers’. She started drinking and smoking “Marbs,” as she called her Marlboros.

She also became sexually active, and one friend thought she was indiscriminate in her choice of partners. Another friend, Marquie Casteel, 15, told police that Chelsea talked openly about her sexual activities, particularly a practice that involved choking and hair-pulling.

“She was trying to grow up too fast,” Holly said.

But Chelsea’s family remained unaware of many of these new activities. They knew of her smoking, her grandmother said, and they didn’t like it.

“We’d get all over her for that,” Sylvia Johnson said. “But I guess you could do worse things in life.”

The changes they wrote off to adolescence and the effects of the move from California.

“She was mature beyond her years,” her grandmother said. “She really was.”

One day, Chelsea showed up wearing a T-shirt inside out, tags on the outside. What are you doing? her grandmother asked. Just being a teenager, she said.

Her family didn’t know about the drinking, and they hadn’t met or even heard of most of the kids they later found out were with Chelsea at Russell’s house on the night of Nov. 1.

Telephone lies

That night, Stephanie Johnson, Chelsea’s mother, was in California trying to resolve lingering child-custody issues with Chelsea’s father, Russell Harrison. So Chelsea and her younger brother, Christopher, stayed with their grandmother.

Before going to school that day, a Tuesday, Chelsea said she had a sore throat. Her grandmother told her to go home after school, feed the cats and clean the litter box. Her great uncle, Jim Johnson, would pick her up at home and take her to her grandmother’s. But when he arrived after school, Chelsea wasn’t there.

Right around then, Chelsea and some of her new school friends were cruising around looking for something to do, according to a police report. They soon wound up at Russell’s Daniels Street duplex.

Sylvia Johnson was worried about her granddaughter. It wasn’t like Chelsea to shirk her family duties.

“She always checked in,” her mother said.

So Sylvia Johnson got on the phone. She called Chelsea’s house. Maybe she stayed after school and was running late. Not there. She called one of her friends. Hadn’t seen her. Her worry increased. She called the house again. And then again and again. No luck.

Finally, at 7 p.m., Chelsea called. She was at the home of another friend, she said. They were working on a science project and she’d be home by 9:30 p.m.

Her grandmother was relieved but angry.

“I said, ‘I’ll come pick you up. I’m not happy with you,'” she told her.

But Chelsea was insistent. She said they had work to do. She’d be home by 9:30 p.m.

There was no science project. Chelsea was still at Russell’s house. Not long after placing that call, witnesses later told police, Chelsea was sitting and talking with Russell at his kitchen table.

Other kids were sitting in the living room and most of them seemed drunk, the police were later told.

When 9:30 p.m. came and went, her grandmother grew increasingly worried. She called the number that had popped up on the caller ID at Chelsea’s 7 p.m. call. All she got was voice mail. Later, she learned it was Kyle Smith’s phone. He was one of the teenagers at the party. But she called it again. And again. And again.

“I was getting frantic,” she said.

Meanwhile, at Russell’s house, Russell and the kids were in the kitchen playing a drinking card game, where a person had to take a drink in response to the turn of the cards.

Kaytriona Freeman, 15, later told police that Russell sat next to Chelsea and they were “flirty and touchy,” and at one point Russell wiped grease from Chelsea’s chin with a napkin.

At 10:45 p.m., Sylvia Johnson drove the two miles to her daughter’s house. Maybe Chelsea had gone home. But no one was was there. So she drove home and fretted, wondering if she should call the police.

Sometime before midnight, all the other teens except Chelsea had left Russell’s house. Russell said a green car was in the driveway. Other witnesses told police the two were there alone.

At midnight, her grandmother drove back to Chelsea’s house. The windows were dark. No one there. Chelsea must have decided to stay with a friend, she told herself, fearing the worst but still hoping for the best. It was unlike her, yes, but they’d have a talk in the morning.

At 12:44 a.m. Nov. 2, Roy Russell called 911 to report finding a body in his basement shower.

In the morning, Sylvia Johnson called the school. Chelsea hadn’t shown up for first period. She learned the truth a few moments later when a Vancouver police detective came by and asked her to identify photos of Chelsea’s body.

The day was spent trying to absorb what had happened and the secrets Chelsea had kept from them. She called California and finally reached Chelsea’s mother and the rest of the family.

‘A new normal’

The family’s had a difficult road since then. Chelsea’s mother has found it hard to go back to her home. There are too many memories. Chelsea’s brother, 10-year-old Christopher, is back at school, and her grandmother is back at work. She’s a sales manager for a data processing company.

“There’s nothing normal anymore,” Sylvia Johnson said. “We have to find a new normal.”

For Thanksgiving, the family traveled to Southern California to see other family members. It helped, Sylvia Johnson said. She consoled herself in the kitchen.

“Everybody stay out of my way,” she told them. “I’ll cook dinner.”

And there’s been a strong response from the public.

Students at Evergreen High ostracized Kaytriona Freeman, known as KT, because she was one of the kids who left Chelsea alone at Russell’s house that night, said Dawn Bruns, Alanna Lawrence’s mother. Freeman could not be reached for comment.

Other kids suggested flooding the judicial system with postcards with Chelsea’s picture, message saying, in essence, “It could have been me.”

At the funeral, Chelsea’s mother insisted on an open casket. She wanted to leave Chelsea’s friends with a searing memory of what happened.

“I wanted those kids to remember this,” Stephanie Johnson said. “They need to take care of each other. Don’t leave your friends behind.”