JOPLIN, Mo. —
Brooke Russell told her family she was going jogging the night of March 17.
When she’d been gone longer than usual, her parents set out in separate vehicles looking for her in their neighborhood on the near north side of Joplin.
The 16-year-old girl had run away from home a few days previously. Her father says she had been experiencing the emotional turmoil of love at a tender age. Kevin and Julissa Russell had their reasons to be concerned with their daughter not returning home on time.
Her mother was the first to catch sight of her at the steps to the tennis courts in Roanoke Park.
Seeing cigarettes, lighter, her daughter’s cellphone on the ground next to her. The gun, the shell casing, the blood.
Then running to the nearest house to summon help. Her husband and son arriving moments later, loading Brooke into the family’s SUV, heading to the hospital together in all the terror, heartbreak and awful anguish of the moment.
Dialing 911 as they went. Being directed by a dispatcher to an ambulance crew awaiting them at Third Street and Virginia Avenue, near a fire station and the Joplin Police Department.
Coming to a quick halt. Jumping out. The father, the son cradling the girl with the terrible head wound between them, carrying her toward the back of the ambulance and what the family must have sensed was their final hope of saving Brooke.
Seven months later, what happened at Third Street and Virginia Avenue remains a bitter bone of contention between the Russell family and the Joplin Police Department.
Certain facts are not in dispute:
• The father and brother carried Brooke hurriedly from the SUV to the back of the ambulance and laid her down on a gurney.
• Moments later, the girl fell to the pavement.
• Seconds after that, the first police officer on the scene, Cpl. Austin Wolf, used pepper spray on the son and the father, and they were arrested for peace disturbance.
• The girl was transported to Freeman Hospital West, where she died about two hours later while her father and brother were still in custody at the police station.
• The father and son eventually were released and escorted to the hospital’s emergency room, where the father punched a hole in a wall of a consultation room upon learning from his wife that Brooke had died.
• Kevin Russell, 44, and Brant Russell, 22, remain charged in Joplin Municipal Court with misdemeanor offenses of assault, obstruction and peace disturbance related to what transpired at the intersection. The hospital chose not to press any complaint with respect to the hole punched in the wall.
The father became outraged when he received the police reports on the incident in April and went on Facebook to complain bitterly about police treatment of him and his son.
In both his Facebook account and interviews with the Globe, he maintains that he and his son backed away after laying Brooke down on the gurney, expecting the EMTs to place her in the ambulance and take her to the hospital. Instead, a paramedic turned to him and asked what had happened, and Brooke fell to the street, he said.
“That’s when I screamed, ‘Do your f---ing job!’” Russell said.
He may have screamed this more than once because he believes they did not at first notice that his daughter had fallen, he said. He remembers a paramedic telling him to calm down. He acknowledged becoming aware of police officers arriving on the scene at that point and hearing one of them tell his son to calm down, which he thought unnecessary since Brant was not doing anything other than “standing next to me and crying.”
“I then saw my son go down because he was pepper sprayed,” he wrote in the Facebook account. “I heard someone tell me to calm down or they would pepper spray me, and then I saw the spray shoot out. I turned my head to the left and felt it land against the back of my head. The fumes made it hard to breathe. I turned around, still screaming to get my daughter to the hospital, and then another stream of pepper spray hit me right in the eyes.”
Cpl. Chuck Niess, the spokesman for the police department at the time of the incident, told the Globe that Wolf, the first officer on the scene, heard lots of yelling as he pulled up and got out of his patrol car. Wolf went to the ambulance and saw a man he would later learn was Brant Russell “running around screaming” and heard someone yelling for him to get back, Niess said. Wolf next heard Kevin Russell screaming and the supervisor of the METS ambulance crew telling him to get back.
“It appeared (to Wolf) that an EMT supervisor was pushing Kevin Russell back away from the stretcher,” Niess said.
The METS supervisor kept telling him to get back, but Russell kept closing in on him, Niess said. The girl fell to the street during the father’s confrontation with the supervisor, he said. Wolf reported that he then stepped between the supervisor and the father and began telling him and his son to get back, Niess said.
“He deployed his (pepper spray) because they continued to advance on him,” Niess said.
He said that Wolf’s supervisor, Sgt. David Lewis, the second officer on the scene, reported seeing one of the Russells moving aggressively toward Wolf while the EMTs were trying to attend to the girl. The officers did not know at the time what had happened to the girl or what connection the two men had with her, Niess said.
The father and son were taken to the city jail and treated for having been pepper sprayed. They were allowed to shower and were given other clothes. The clothes they had been wearing were kept as part of police procedure in a death investigation.
The Globe contacted Kevin Russell when he posted his account on Facebook in April and interviewed him. The interview was interrupted, and he subsequently developed reservations about his participation in a story at that time due to his and his son’s pending court cases.
Recently, however, he granted interviews to local and national media, reiterating his account of what happened at the intersection and berating the city for continuing to prosecute him and his son.
The police reports on the incident are not open records since the charges remain pending. Russell, who obtained them through his attorney as part of the discovery process in his court case, claims that they contain “outrageous lies.” Asked this past week if he would be willing to provide copies of those reports to the Globe, he declined, citing the advice of his attorney.
He said City Prosecutor Tricia Gold made an offer in June that if he would agree to plead guilty to the assault charge and attend anger-management classes, the city would be willing to drop the other two counts against him and all three counts that his son is facing. He said he turned the deal down because he is innocent of the charge.
“There were no verbal threats, and there was no physical touching,” Russell said during one of several telephone conversations on Friday.
Both the prosecutor and police declined this week to answer questions seeking further explanation of the charges, citing the pending nature of the court cases. Police Chief Lane Roberts said the officer’s use of pepper spray has been reviewed by an internal board of the police department just as every use-of-force incident is.
“We’ve done that and found no fault with the officer,” Roberts said.
Death probe records
Prior to the publication of this story, the Globe sought and obtained the records of the police investigation into the death of Brooke Russell.
Those records reveal that the mother picked up the .32-caliber handgun at the park and brought it with the family in the SUV on their way to meet the ambulance. Police later found it on the back seat of the vehicle where it had come to a stop at the intersection. The magazine clip was missing.
An officer who obtained consent to search the girl’s bedroom that night came across the teen’s journal in a laundry basket, noticed a book on reincarnation on her bed and discovered a box of .32-caliber bullets in her purse.
The next day, a detective went to see Kevin Russell about his gun’s missing magazine. The father had assumed it was in the gun that his wife picked up at the park. When he learned it wasn’t, he went and checked where he normally kept it hidden, separate from the weapon. The clip was still there. By then, police had already tested the gun and learned that it could be fired without the clip in it.
Lacking any eyewitnesses to the shooting, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy would determine the manner of death to be “probably suicide,” and the Jasper County coroner ruled it that.
A week after her death, Brooke’s mother came across a final note she had written. It was folded extremely small and left beneath some hair bows at the back of a drawer in her nightstand. The family turned the note over to police, and it was returned to them at the close of the investigation.
National Guard call
Kevin Russell says he resents a Joplin police detective’s telephone call to the Army National Guard, suggesting in the aftermath of an incident with police on March 17 that his son was mentally unfit to serve. Brant Russell had been scheduled to be deployed three days after his sister’s death. That deployment was averted when he accepted an honorable discharge.
But the father later learned from his son’s recruiter of the call made by a detective involved in the case.
Police Chief Lane Roberts said the detective actually meant to alert the Guard to the loss of his sister by suicide in the hope that he would receive appropriately sensitive treatment from his superiors. The chief said the message, while well-intentioned, apparently became garbled in transmission and obviously “didn’t work out very well.”