George Russell, Jr. Trial: 1991

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George Russell, Jr. Trial: 1991

Defendant: George Walterfield Russell, Jr.
Crimes Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Miriam Schwartz, Brad Hampton
Chief Prosecutors: Rebecca Roe, Jeffrey Baird
Judge: Patricia Aitken
Place: Seattle, Washington
Date of Trial: September 13-October 18, 1991
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life in prison without parole

SIGNIFICANCE: Winning a conviction in Washington State's first serial-murder trial ultimately depended on convincing jurors that the degrading pose of all three murder victims constituted the unique "signature" of a single sociopathic killer.

Folks around wealthy Mercer Island, Washington, just couldn't dislike good old George. Sure, he'd crash your pad, "borrow" your car for days on end, relieve you of a few treasured items. But then he'd turn around and cook you a gourmet dinner, treat your friends to a round of drinks, and give you earnest, religion-tinged advice. All this was done with a big smile, a hug, and silky smooth assurances that "it's cool, hon."

Petty Thief Turned Murderer

George Russell, Jr., was a charming reprobate. But by the time he was 31, his Jekyll-Hyde existence would evolve from a lying, petty thief to a sadistic serial killer. This slender, smart, and sure guy would become a woman-hating murderer seeking sexual satisfaction by degrading and abusing themdead or alive.

Since moving to the wealthy Seattle suburb as a child, one of only a handful of African Americans on the island, Russell had brushes with the law: stealing from high school lockers, marijuana use, truancy. But he ingratiated himself with police by running errands for them, working as an informant, listening to cops' personal problems. The local police station became Russell's second home; the police his substitute family. Eventually, Russell's escalating crime, pathological lying, and in-your-face toying with the law destroyed that bond.

Troubled Youth

Abandonment was the story of George Russell's life. His college-bound mother left him with a negligent grandmother in Florida when he was six months old. She later remarried. With her dentist husband, she moved to Mercer Island when Russell was in junior high school. His mother and stepfather doted on their own new daughter, but Russell was barely tolerated. Although his gregarious nature earned him many friends at school, he couldn't move beyond shallow popularity to real acceptance among the fickle, indulged white teens of Mercer Island.

As the sense of isolation grew, Russell's crimes became more frequent and serious. At night, he donned dark clothes, usually "borrowed" from pals, and boldly invaded homes as families slept inside. He stole cash, jewelry, and personal mementos. He often stood next to the bed of sleeping women, gazing silently at them. Investigators theorized that the nocturnal burglar plaguing the area gained perverse sexual gratification from his exploits.

From early youth through adolescence, Russell was a one-man crime wave in suburban Seattle. He was incarcerated 24 times, mostly for minor offenses. His intimate knowledge of police procedure and the six-mile-long island helped him allude arrest and avoid conviction for most of his crimes. In a real pinch, he could manipulate people into lying for him, especially the younger, adoring crowd to which he gravitated.

In his 20s, Russell became an affable fixture in the rollicking nightclubs of Bellevue, just east of Mercer Island. He couldn't hold a legitimate job, he carried all his possessionsincluding a collection of pornographic magazinesin a duffel bag and paper sacks, and his daytime home was the apartment of his latest unsuspecting "best friend." He said he worked as an undercover cop at night. Most who befriended him thought George Russell was a wonderful guy. Those who knew him better thought he showed little emotion, no guilt, and growing hostility toward women. They said he was obsessed with sex. Charming George would hit on anybody.

A Serial Murderer on Mercer Island

When three murdered Bellevue nightclub habitues turned up within two months in the summer of 1990, some, including an ex-girlfriend whom he had beaten after his move to Bellevue, quickly suspected Russell.

The first victim was Mary Ann Pohlreich. Her obviously posed, nude body was found beside a McDonald's restaurant dumpster. Her left foot was crossed over her right ankle, her hands lay over her stomach, clutching a fir cone, as if she were lying in a coffin. An autopsy showed she had been brutally beaten, choked and kicked so hard that her liver had split against her spinal column. She had been raped after her death, a victim of a "sadistic necrophile."

Seven weeks later, the ex-husband of Carol Marie Bleethe found her battered body in the bed of her East Bellevue home. This time the killer showed thought, imagination, and improvisation. Bleethe, mother of two young daughters who were at home when she was murdered, had been struck repeatedly in the head with a weapon. It had sliced her ear and left 13 distinctive Y shapes on her body. She had been bitten and kicked with such ferocity that two broken ribs penetrated the chest cavity. Her head was bound in a plastic drycleaning bag.

Although she had been "blitzed" in her sleep, her body lay nude except for red high heels. The killer had positioned her on her king-sized bed so that her crotch faced the bedroom door. He had inserted a Savage. 22 long rifle that Bleethe kept under the bed five and a half inches into her vagina. Her favorite diamond ring was missing. Friends later testified that Russell cut pictures of the first two victimswhom he called "skanky sluts"from the newspaper, taped them to the wall, and bragged that police would not find their killer.

The third body, that of Andrea "Randi" Levine, turned up on September 3, 1990. She too had been "blitzed" in her sleep. The killer had savagely beaten her with an aluminum baseball bat, spraying the room with blood. Her spreadlegged body was stabbed and covered from scalp to the bottom of her feet with 231 small knife wounds, some in patterns. They appeared to have been inflicted after death in an uncommon necrophilic perversion known as "picquerism." A plastic vibrator had been stuffed into her mouth. She held a copy of More Joy of Sex under her left arm. Her brains leaked out onto the bed.

The killer had wiped down the bat and taken every knife from the house. Police theorized he had used a kitchen knife to violate his victim, then taken them so that the real weapon used in the picquerism couldn't be identified. The victim's favorite amethyst ring was missing.

Authorities Zero in on Russell

Investigators called on an expert in sexualized crime who said that the murders were the work of one man. Although the expert said the serial killer would be a young, white male, police zeroed in on Russell, who grew up in a white, upper middle class neighborhood and "acted white." The challenge of the investigation and of the subsequent trial was connecting Russell to all three victims.

Semen found in Mary Ann Pohlreich matched Russell's blood type. Hair found on all three bodies proved to be "Negroid." Eventually, Russell was tied to missing rings from the bodies of Carol Bleethe and Randi Levine. Small blood stains in a truck Russell borrowed on the night Pohlreich died matched her blood type. Police arrested Russell on January 10, 1991.

During Russell's trial, the prosecution succeeded in admitting into evidence the controversial DNA tests for the hairs, semen, and blood stains. But winning a conviction rested on moving beyond circumstantial evidence and convincing jurors that the degrading pose of all three bodies constituted the unique "signature" of a single sociopathic killer.

Both the prosecution and defense brought experts in sexual homicide and behavioral profiling to the stand. John Douglas, the famous FBI behaviorist, testified that he found a common denominator in the way the victims were "penetrated vaginally, anally or orally with some type of device, foreign object." He also said the close timeframe of the murders pointed to one perpetrator.

Russell Vorpagel, a respected 20-year FBI veteran now private investigator, disagreed. He claimed there were too many differences in the way the women were killed, degraded, and posed to have been the work of one person. He said Pohireich's body was posed peacefully, Bleethe's body was not raped; a woman could have been the killer. He said the odd stab wounds on Levine's body separated her murder from the others.

Russell's lawyers emphasized the possibility that the wrong man was accused. They hinted that ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends were responsible, not the friendly guy at the defense table.

Russell, smartly dressed in a navy sports coat, gray slacks, white shirt, and tie, appeared alternately bored and bemused. He did not take the stand.

After 22 hours of deliberation, the jury returned verdicts of guilty of the first-degree murder of Pohlreich and aggravated first-degree murder in the cases of Bleeth and Levine. Judge Patricia Aitken sentenced Russell to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Jurors later told reporters that there'd been little disagreement that Russell was the lone killer. They just took a long time to discuss the bizarre facts.

B. J. Welborn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Olson, Jack. Charmer: A Ladies Man and His Victims. New York: Avon Books, 1994.

Transcript: City Confidential: Sunny Days, Deadly Nights on Mercer Island. A&E Home Video.

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George Russell, Jr. Trial: 1991

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George Russell, Jr. Trial: 1991