“When a judge sits on the bench and says ‘Life in prison without the possibility of parole,’ that should be a pretty steadfast decision and should never come up again,” Chelsea’s grandmother, Sylvia Johnson, said in a phone interview last week.
“I don’t care if he’s been a good boy in jail or what he’s done. We are quite upset about it,” she said. “The crime that he committed, murdering my granddaughter, turned our whole family upside down. … Your life is never the same, and you try to move on and not have it on your mind too much, but it’s always there.”
Attorney Jim Senescu, who prosecuted the case and has since gone into private practice, is advocating for Chelsea’s family in concert with the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“Everyone is kind of up in arms over this, and having to relive telling all of these different people about what’s happening has been horribly frustrating,” he said in an interview last week. “I don’t blame the parties involved. I blame the state Legislature — to pass a law like this that lets something like this happen.”
Arson, kidnapping, robbery
According to Columbian archives, Russell was sentenced in 1998 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He had been convicted of arson for setting a couch on fire in his former girlfriend’s apartment in Vancouver. Prosecutors said he set the blaze, which resulted in $50,000 worth of damage, after confronting the woman at a local tavern and being ejected by bouncers.
“I hope that the public hears about this. I really want attention to be drawn to this egregious miscarriage of law and justice,” he added.
The presiding juror in Russell’s murder case said she thinks the life sentence without the possibility of parole is the correct sentence.
“I don’t think the lawmakers understand the repercussion that’s happening with this law,” Barbara Sheldon Hilkey said in a phone interview last week. “This man murdered a 14-year-old. We wanted him to be held accountable for the crimes that we agreed he had committed.
“Life is life. He took a life,” she said. “You go to a parent and say, ‘Hey, this man murdered your daughter, but he gets to roam the streets again and your daughter doesn’t.’ I don’t think that’s fair. I think he needs to be held accountable for life.”
Chelsea Harrison Act
In 2008, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the Chelsea Harrison Act, sponsored by Benton, which plugged the loophole in the three-strikes law that allowed Russell to be freed the first time.
“I know I hurt a lot of people over the years with the crimes I committed. But the taking of Chelsea Harrison’s life is my most heinous crime of all, and it haunts me to this very day,” he wrote. “I destroyed her family and mine in the process. How can I possibly atone for this — it’s not possible. … If I could trade my life to bring Chelsea back I would in a heartbeat. I truly mean this. I feel so much remorse and shame sometimes it’s unbearable.”
In the affidavit, he pondered whether physical abuse he said he suffered at the hands of his father contributed to him growing up “angry, violent and emotionless.” He went on to describe what he said has been a transformation while in prison that’s allowed him to experience emotions, such as kindness, mercy, compassion and empathy.
Russell described graduating from a number of betterment programs and classes over the years, going on to facilitate one until 2019. He’s assisted other incarcerated individuals in creating job application materials and has coached them on job interview skills.
“As difficult as the prison experience can be, I know for an absolute fact that anyone’s prison experience can be transformed from a ‘Palace of Pain’ into a ‘House of Healing,’ it’s just up to each individual to decide how they will use their time in prison, in a negative or positive way. … I am in no way the scum bag I was when I committed this horrible crime. I will never commit any future crimes whatsoever.”
Russell wants to be free again, he said, to build a life for himself and his family.
“I have been questioning myself. Do I really deserve another chance? … I know nothing will ever erase my past, if I was one of Chelsea’s family members I would never want the person who took her life to ever get out of prison,” he wrote. “I do not wish to be remembered by my family or this court for only my past crimes, but rather the positive changes I have made in my life and the person I am today.”
But Chelsea’s family and those who helped bring Russell to justice say they don’t buy it.
Johnson said Russell is a habitual criminal, and she still remembers Superior Court Judge John Wulle telling Russell, “You are the poster boy for the three-strike act.”
“I hope he isn’t put back on the street, and if so, I hope they have sense enough to have him on probation or parole,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe a legislature would even consider the possibility of someone like him being set free again.”
Retired Vancouver police Detective Scott Smith, the lead detective in the murder case, said his first impression of Russell was that “he’s a very gifted con man.”
He said he finds it interesting that Russell is admitting guilt now that he has an opportunity to be released.
“He’s beaten a third strike again — a robbery, a kidnapping, an arson and now a murder,” Smith said in a phone interview last week.
“The question should be: Do the legislators think of the consequences of their actions on the victims? They’re looking at fairness and equity, but we are forgetting our victims,” Smith said. “We have a 14-year-old girl whose life was ended, and a man who may get out in 21 years.
“She didn’t get a chance to make it to 21.”