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Inmate Didn't Get Life, So He Chose Death at 92

July 11, 2002|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OROVILLE, Calif. — Around the Butte County jail, he was known as Pops, the 92-year-old gentleman in a baggy blue jumpsuit, old enough to be someone's great-grandfather.

For 426 days, guards and inmates made white-haired Coval Russell comfortable: To ease his pains, they gave him an extra mattress, or the first spot in chow line. Prisoners contributed their own precious TV rights so he could watch the evening news. Guards let him make outside calls to order ulcer pills.

In his months behind bars for stabbing and wounding his 70-year-old landlord--his first encounter with the criminal justice system--Russell found a jail community that oddly provided a respect he rarely saw on the outside.

That's why the lanky Oklahoma native petitioned the judge to let him stay in jail for good. "They took care of me, treated me like I was a human being," said Russell, who corrections officials believe may have been California's oldest county jail inmate. "And I showed them respect too."

A judge last month denied the appeal, saying jail was not the appropriate place for a man of Russell's age and health. In an interview with a Times reporter last week, a distraught Russell said his remaining options were to purposely violate his parole so he could return to jail, or maybe even take his own life.

On Wednesday, the World War II veteran jumped off a 40-foot bridge into the Feather River near here, a friend confirmed. While Butte County officials would not officially identify the body, Jim Pihl, a Chico private investigator who had befriended Russell, said officers called to confirm the death.

"Russ," as he also liked to be called, "was very honest right up to the end," said Pihl. "His exact words were that he was in 'an untenable situation.' He tried to warn people he would do this."

Since his jail release June 26, Russell, a lifelong bachelor who outlived relatives and close friends alike, had spent his days a drab Motel 6 in this rural gold country community, pondering his next move.

He said he had been denied assistance from the state's conservatorship program because, while his body was failing, his mind remained as sharp as in those Depression days when he prospected for gold in the hills east of Los Angeles.

Blind in one eye, suffering from prostate cancer and bearing a saucer-sized scar on his forehead from surgery for melanoma, the 140-pound Russell called retirement homes the real jail cells.

"My future holds nothing," he said. "At my age and my physical condition, it's like being dead while you're still alive."

Sprawled on his hotel bed, he added: "When a person reaches my age, I believe they should legally be allowed to commit suicide. I'd do it in a minute, if I could get somebody to help me."

Pihl, hired by Russell as part of the defense for his assault case but who later became his friend, said the old man called him Friday, first asking him to help secure some pain medication and then suggesting he needed help to commit suicide.

"He said he'd make it worth my while but I cut him off right there," said Pihl, whose own elderly father recently committed suicide after suffering from ill health.

Pihl recalled the first time he met Russell in the jail visiting room while investigating his assault case. "I was flabbergasted to see this old gentleman through the plexiglass. He was articulate and intelligent, but his body was failing him. Jail wasn't the place for him."

Russell himself never figured he'd see time behind bars. Born in Old Cornish, Okla., in 1910--during the administration of President William H. Taft--he spent 46 years in Los Angeles, working jobs from liquor store clerk to contractor before retiring to Butte County in 1976. Without family to look after him, the solitary Russell lived with various friends and strangers.

A nonsmoker who rarely drank, Russell relished the weekly gambling junkets to Reno he took for 22 years straight.

But then his luck gave out. In April 2001, in what Russell called "the biggest mistake of my life," he was arrested for stabbing his landlord, who survived without serious injuries, at their Paradise, Calif., home. Accounts of the incident differ, but Russell said the two scuffled after the landlord ordered him from the home for not keeping his room clean. In the ensuing brawl, Russell stabbed the man with a four-inch knife he kept in his sweater pocket.

Suddenly, Russell had a new identity: Butte County Jail inmate #110865. He lived with a rough cast of characters--many of them 70 years his junior. "It scared the heck out of me," said the longtime mystery novel fan. "The only thing I knew about jail I'd read in books."

At first, he was menaced by jail "tough guys," and began to carry three sharpened pencils in his breast pocket as protection.

Then came the unlikely: The jail rallied around Russell. Guards and some of the lockup's 490 inmates--men doing time for misdemeanors or awaiting trial for serious crimes, including murder--told the thugs to back off.

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