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News / Clark County News

Murder suspect once sentenced to life 3-strikes appeal freed

Man now held in death of Evergreen freshman

By ERIK ROBINSON, The Columbian
Published: November 6, 2005, 5:59am

The 45-year-old man suspected of suffocating a Vancouver teenager last week was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 but walked free after appealing his conviction under Washington’s three-strikes law.

Roy Wayne Russell is being held at the Clark County Jail on suspicion of first-degree murder in the death of 14-year-old Evergreen High School freshman Chelsea Harrison.

Police discovered Harrison’s body at 1 a.m. Wednesday in the basement bathroom of Russell’s rented duplex at 4010 Daniels St.

Seven years earlier, Russell was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole as the fourth person in Clark County sentenced under Washington’s voter-approved “three strikes” law.

Russell had been convicted of arson for setting a couch on fire in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Vancouver. Prosecutors said he set the blaze which did $50,000 in damage after confronting the woman at a local tavern and being ejected by bouncers.

Russell had two other serious, violent criminal convictions in his past: a 1979 robbery and a 1982 kidnapping, both in Arizona. Based on Washington’s three-strikes law, prosecutors believed Russell would never again walk free.

So did Russell’s former boss. Brad Anderson, who employed Russell as a vacuum cleaner salesman and testified against him in the 1998 arson trial, said he was walking through the Fred Meyer store on Chkalov Road a couple of years ago when Russell greeted him.

“I was shocked,” Anderson said. “To me, life without parole means life without parole. In my opinion, it was a mistake to ever let the guy go. He’s got a huge dark side that makes him do what he does.”

‘It’s an absolute’

The Vancouver arson was considered the third strike under Washington’s 1993 three-strikes law. Clark County Superior Court Judge Edwin Poyfair sentenced Russell on June 24, 1998.

“I have a difficult time saying life in prison without possibility of parole,” Poyfair said during the sentencing. “But the law’s been passed. It’s an absolute.”

Russell appealed.

On Jan. 19, 2001, the state Court of Appeals vacated the sentence.

In a decision written by now-retired Judge J. Dean Morgan, the appellate court ruled that Poyfair erred in equating Russell’s Class 4 felony conviction for kidnapping in Arizona to the crime of second-degree kidnapping in Washington.

The appellate court said second-degree kidnapping in Washington requires an “abduction,” which Washington law defines as hiding the victim or threatening deadly force.

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The court ruled that Russell’s Arizona crime was the equivalent of unlawful imprisonment in Washington a less-serious crime that does not qualify as a strike under Washington law.

Details of the Arizona kidnapping were unavailable Saturday, and the appellate court did not review the evidence from that 1982 case.

Even if it could have reviewed the evidence, Morgan wrote that it would be impossible to determine whether the trial court in Arizona would have convicted Russell of the equivalent of second-degree kidnapping in Washington.

“Based on the present record, Russell’s 1982 kidnap conviction has not been shown to be a strike,” Morgan wrote.

Russell was released from prison on June 19, 2001.

Landlord’s perspective

He was out free by the time he applied to rent a duplex apartment near Lincoln Elementary School last summer.

On Saturday, landlord Ron Thornsbury said he was unaware that Russell had ever been sentenced to life imprisonment. Thornsbury said that Russell had informed him about the arson conviction, which he confirmed with a standard rental background check, but the prospective tenant said nothing about his criminal history from Arizona.

“None of this came up when I did my background check,” Thornsbury said. “Only one thing came up, and it was an arson.”

Vancouver Police Chief Brian Martinek said Friday that Russell also has a criminal history in Utah.

Thornsbury said the other tenant in the duplex complained about parties, abusive language and loud music shortly after Russell moved in on July 1, but that he received no more complaints after warning Russell.

Thornsbury, who said he now intends to hire a property management company rather than managing his rentals himself, said he has talked to other neighbors who told him Russell regularly partied with young people.

“He always kept it just below the line of calling the cops,” Thornsbury said. “It was always a nuisance, but they could never say definitively that these were underaged people. They said they were 21 and that he was their uncle.”

The Columbian left a message for Russell at the Clark County Jail, but the call was not returned.

Family members of Harrison, meanwhile, held a service on Saturday afternoon at Evergreen Memorial Gardens. An intermediary declined to allow the family to be interviewed or to allow representatives of the news media to attend the service.