With three unsolved murders and a homicidal maniac running amok in the Seattle suburbs, local police were in no mood to take chances. So, when the call came into the precinct dispatcher on September12, 1990, that a night prowler was lurking in someone's backyard they pulled out all stops. Squads cordoned off the targeted area and criss-crossed its streets, beam lights flooding sidewalks and alleys. That is when they spotted a young black man nonchalantly strolling along a residential thoroughfare with no good reason for being there. He neither lived nor worked in this section of town, nor could he claim any friends here. When the police wired in to the Records Bureau for an ID on him, they learned that this George Walterfield Russell had quite a lengthy rap sheet, including burglary. They arrested him on a misdemeanor.
But, back at the station house, it didn't take the police long to begin wondering if this Russell's nocturnal activities suggested perhaps more than a misdemeanor. The woman who placed the call about a prowler on her premises that night was, it turned out, a personal friend of the recently murdered Andrea Levine and, like all the slain women, a regular patron of the late night bar scene. When given the name of the man they arrested, she said she knew of Russell, for he too was a constant customer of Papagayo's Cantina, the Keg Restaurant, the Maple Gardens and others.
Investigators wondered: Is this the man who killed Pohlreich, Beethe and Levine, nabbed in the process of stalking his next victim?
Simultaneous to Russell's September 12 arrest, a Seattle detective named Rick Burland had been investigating him on suspicion of possessing stolen merchandise from a home robbery in the Kirkland area. Because Russell, who was known by the Seattle police as a cat burglar and fence, had been suspected of breaking into other homes in the same vicinity of the murders, Burland now contacted various detectives in Bellevue working in the Homicide Department. He told them that Russell had recently been arrested on charges of impersonating a police officer. When frisked, arresting patrolmen found a handgun on his person. The gun, Burland said, had been traced by its serial number to a residence that had been recently robbed, not far from where Andrea Levine had lived.
From that point, everything started congealing until George Russell proved to be the elusive Yuppie Murderer of Bellevue.
Throughout the investigation of George Russell, a dark figure slowly emerged. What the police had on their hands was a young man in his thirties whose life had been one of dysfunction and deceit.
From one angle, Russell appeared to have lived a charming life. "He was a young black man from an educated middle-class family who grew up in the exclusive white neighborhood of Mercer Island, Washington, and socialized easily in the Seattle yuppie singles community," says Robert Keppel in Signature Killers. "Russell could almost be called the Six Degrees of Separation killer who recognized no racial distinction."
But, the role he played that of a jock sailing on high esteem was a façade. Born in 1958 in Florida, his parents separated when he was six months old. His mother Joyce, who had married only after she became pregnant with her son, was not about to let motherhood interfere with a previous goal of obtaining a college degree. One day her husband returned from his job with a funeral parlor to find tiny George home alone and a note on the kitchen table from his wife bidding him farewell. George Russell, Sr., panicking at the thought of single fatherhood, turned the boy over to relatives to raise. The child was shifted back and forth between Grandmother Russell and an array of aunts.
Joyce reappeared out of nowhere with a new husband, a dentist named Wonzel Mobley, when Russell was six years old; she took him with them, moving from city to city, eventually settling on Mercer Island, just east of Seattle. Family life remained somewhat normal for the boy until his early high school years when his mother once again pulled up stakes by herself. She left the dentist and, for a second time, her son. The boy was devastated, having been abandoned by his mother twice before he was sixteen.
For a while after her departure, the teenage Russell teetered on the brink. He eventually quit school, despite protests from his stepfather, to spend his days lingering with his friends on the beach. Nights were spent with these same pals breaking into houses within the upper-crust community, many of which belonged to neighbors, then selling all stolen merchandise at black market prices. In no time, this bunch built up quite an operation and reputation. The police got to know the boys well.
Russell caused his stepfather more headaches than the latter could handle. Many pre-dawns, Mobley was forced to roll out of bed to drive to the Mercer Island lockup to bail out his son who had been picked up for another infraction. It was always choose one breaking and entry, trespassing or vandalism, except for the time he had been pinched on suspicion of selling drugs. A night in jail here, a court appearance there, over and over again.
The breaking point came when Mobley remarried. His new wife was a white woman, only a dozen years Russell's senior, and the relationship at the start was rocky. Tiffs turned into rages until the stepmother presented Mobley with an ultimatum: One of us goes, me or the boy!
Russell, at 17 years old, found himself on the streets, this time for good, his life shattered one more time by a woman.
Tired of his past life, of being harassed by a stepmother and by the police, George Russell left Mercer Island, crossing the East Island Bridge over Lake Washington into Bellevue. There, he continued to run into trouble with the law, having never changed his burglarizing ways. But, he always seemed to be able to beat the rap. While the police would usually find him in the vicinity of a latest break-in, they found his pockets empty and his expression innocent. The best thing that could be said for George Russell is that although he was a thief, he proved to be a good one. He rarely worked, but continuously had cash.
Charming when he wanted to be, he had many friends, black and white, willing to give him free room and board. Sometimes opting for a park bench during temperate seasons, there was no end to the number of doors he could knock on for a roof when rain or ice was expected. For the entire time he drifted throughout Bellevue, fifteen years, he existed on the kindness of those he rarely knew and the unlocked windows of those he never knew at all.
After he turned 21, Russell became a familiar face in many of the gin mills and piano bars in Bellevue and its neighboring burghs, Kirkland, Redmond and Bothell. With the rise of the Reagan-era yuppies, some of these establishments changed their mode d'appeal to draw that younger, fast-income crowd. With this fresh generation came freer spending and later nights.
In these places Russell met some new people to whom he could play the chic and worldly playboy.
In these places Russell met women.
Bellevue detectives Marv Skeen and Dale Foote, heading up the Pohlreich and Beethe investigations, along with King County detective Larry Peterson who led the investigation on the Levine murder, had earlier formed an ad hoc task force. Now, with Russell in tow, the committee realized that much of the information it was getting back from its investigative team which was conducting interviews to hone in on a central suspect involved one name replayed through each report, that of George W. Russell.
People who knew Russell were now talking, airing strange tales about him. Friend Smitty McClain came forward telling how he had lent his pickup truck to Russell on the night that Mary Ann Pohlreich was killed. Russell had told him that he needed it to move some personal belongings, but when he returned the truck, Smitty noticed a foul odor and a series of unidentified stains on his front seat that he had to wash out. He hadn't considered anything suspicious until he learned the police were asking up and down the streets about George Russell.
Police removed the upholstery from McClain's truck to cut samples of what appeared to be blood stains from the inner padding. When tested, the stains proved to be blood matching Pohlreich's type.
One patron of Papagayo's Cantina remembered how Pohlreich had teased Russell on the dance floor the night of her murder, leading him on. She explained that it was the woman's style to tempt-then-turn-off. By all appearances, that is exactly what she had done to George Russell on Friday night, June 22.
A net began to close around George Russell.
Gretchen Coffin, a waitress at the Black Angus steakhouse, was a mutual acquaintance of George Russell and victim Carol Beethe. Fond of Beethe, she did not like Russell at all. According to Coffin, Russell used to dine at the Black Angus quite often, until she refused his offer for a date. After that, he would pop in only occasionally, throwing her angry stares. One night, Coffin recalled, he chanced in at the same time Beethe was eating and, while the two girlfriends conversed, Russell unabashedly glared at them. He looked very menacing. That incident took place right before Beethe died.
In the days following Russell's arrest, detectives located many people who not only remembered him as a strange character, but claimed he had made insulting and even threatening remarks about each of the murdered women prior to their deaths. He referred to them as whores and loudly chastised their promiscuity to anyone who listened.
But, evidence was not only verbal. Several members of the nightclub clique presented pieces of jewelry that they had bought at a discounted price from George Russell. Detectives were able to trace these items back to the victims. Detective Peterson even tracked down a ring that had been purchased by one club-goer and had made its way all the way to Florida.
The net was tightening.
At the time of his arrest, Russell was staying with three college girls who knew nothing of his activities. When their apartment was raided, they led the police to Russell's trappings, where they found in his knapsack clusters of hair that were scientifically identified as Randi Levine's.
Then came the final and most conclusive link. Results from an earlier DNA testing on first victim Mary Ann Pohlreich's body came back, connecting Russell to that murder through sperm analysis.
The net closed over George Russell. There was no way out.
In a resulting trial, the suspect was found guilty of killing all three people through gathered evidence and a pattern-murder profile presented by then Chief Criminal Investigator Robert Keppel. Says Keppel, "The killer's personal expression was etched on the bodies of Pohlreich, Beethe and Levine. When I analyzed the murders by type and frequency of injuries and other unique characteristics...I drew one conclusion: They were all committed by the same person."
Upon his conviction, George Russell was sent to Walla Walla Prison in the county of the same name. There he sits for life, alive only because the death penalty did not exist in Washington State at the time of his trial.