Law enforcement officers recall highway tragedy
The seven-mile drive between Moscow and Pullman has become considerably safer since a 2007 project widened it from a hazardous two-lane highway to the wide, five-lane commute drivers know today.
A sign along the highway serves as reminder that this wasn’t always the case.
“Please don’t drink and drive,” the sign reads. “In memory of Brandon Clements, Ryan Sorensen and Stacy Morrow.”
The three Washington State University students were on their way home after watching “Shrek” in a Moscow theater in 2001 when former WSU student Frederick Russell collided with their vehicle head on as he attempted to pass another vehicle. Russell’s Chevy Blazer then lost control and hit a second vehicle.
In a matter of seconds, the three students were dead on impact, three more were critically injured and one had sustained minor injuries. Russell walked away largely unharmed. His blood-alcohol content was .12. The legal limit is .08.
Last week, nearly 15 years later, Russell walked out of prison after serving nine years of his 14-year sentence.
“It was a major case,” Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said. “Not only were three young lives lost and another person was facing serious criminal charges, but most people who live here travel on that road on a regular basis. That really rocks everyone.”
Russell faced three counts of vehicular manslaughter and three counts of vehicular assault, when, just three days before one of his hearings after being released on $5,000 bail, he disappeared.
Reports indicated Russell received multiple death threats, and his family feared for his safety. In 2005, his whereabouts still unknown, Russell was placed on the U.S. Marshal Service’s Most Wanted List.
An Irish man recognized Russell’s photo and made the call. Russell had escaped through Canada to Ireland, where he started a new life. He worked as a security guard in a boutique. He had a girlfriend who cried on his shoulder after the ruling of his 2007 extradition trial.
Retired U.S. Marshal Michael Kline said the impression he got from Russell on the 10-hour flight back to the U.S. from Ireland was that he was just a typical 20-something-year-old.
“He had obviously gone through his own form of trauma, even if it was self-inflicted,” Kline said. “He was worried about his future, and what his life was going to bring. He was remorseful, but I don’t know if he was ever totally convinced that he’d done something wrong.”
More than anything, Kline said Russell just seemed kind of lost.
Kline said Russell’s early release wasn’t a surprise. Sentences are often reduced by one-third for good behavior, and in addition to that, time was taken off Russell’s sentence due to the time he spent in Irish and Washington jails during the extradition process.
Pullman Police Operations Commander Chris Tennant, who was on the force at the time of the accident, though not one of the first responders that night, said at the end of the day justice had been served.
“Society has determined he has paid his dues, and I will abide by that assumption,” Tennant said.
Myers agreed, but also argued that it’s not that simple.
“The system isn’t necessarily broken or unjust,” Myers said. “But now (Russell) gets to move on with his life, and even though it was 15 years ago, I can assure you that to the friends and families of those victims, it’s like it was yesterday and it will be that way for their entire life. That’s the injustice.”