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In the End, Fallen Veteran Does Have Allies

Postscript: A VFW post hopes to provide a military funeral for the 92-year-old who couldn't face life after jail.


SAN FRANCISCO — Efforts are underway to provide a military funeral for Coval Russell, the ailing 92-year-old veteran who took his life Wednesday after a Butte County judge dismissed his request to stay in jail, where he felt comfortable.

Russell, a bachelor with no surviving relatives, would normally be cremated and buried in a county cemetery. But some residents of Oroville, north of Sacramento, say they want to provide him a service with full military honors.

"A bunch of us guys have an honor guard--we all have uniforms and rifles and everything," said Earl Baker, club manager at the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in the small town. "Call me prejudiced, but an old veteran like this one needs to be buried with respect in the military way, not just be cremated and put in some potter's field."

Russell died Wednesday after jumping from a bridge into the Feather River. Witnesses say Russell--who had told others he would rather kill himself than go to a nursing home--had sat on the railing for nearly half an hour, peering down at the rocks below, before jumping. He had gone to jail in April 2001, convicted of assault after stabbing his landlord.

The morning he died, Russell, never before involved with the criminal justice system, mailed a letter to Jim Pihl, a Chico private investigator who had befriended him, saying he was sorry for stabbing and wounding his 70-year-old landlord last year during an argument. The incident in the nearby town of Paradise, where Russell had lived for 26 years, landed him in jail for 14 months, until he was ordered out on probation in June.

In the note, Russell described the pain he suffered from various physical ailments and worried about getting enough medication. Although he did not mention taking his life, he said probation was "in my case: a form of physical and mental torture. No thank you."

Pihl, who earlier in the week had refused Russell's plea to help him commit suicide, got the letter Thursday.

Butte County sheriff's deputies say Russell also left what they describe as a suicide note in the $41-a-night hotel room where he stayed after his jail release, but they would not discuss its contents.

During his 426 days behind bars, the scrappy Russell became known as Pops to the guards and inmates who looked out for him, giving him extra food, television time and medication for his prostate cancer, ulcers and blindness in one eye. Officials say he may have been California's oldest jail inmate.

But ruling that jail was no place for a man of Russell's age and health, a judge last month released the Oklahoma native. In an interview afterward, Russell wept when he talked of the friends he had met in jail and said his few options included violating probation to return to jail or taking his life.

In the days since the death, the Butte County Sheriff's Department has received numerous calls from people concerned over Russell's fate and the treatment of the elderly, said spokeswoman Cheryl Broom. "People in the community feel terrible about this," she said. "They want to do what's right."

Officials are investigating Russell's background to see if he qualifies for a military funeral. They say the county will not pay and that Russell himself would have had to possess the funds to cover such burial costs.

The VFW's Baker said Oroville has a veterans section in the local cemetery but that it is costly to be buried there. "It's up to the county, what they want to do," he said.

The county public guardian's office said the burial could take place as early as Tuesday, and Pihl said an effort was being made to coordinate with VFW officials.

Russell, who liked to be called Russ, lived in Los Angeles for nearly half a century. At age 32, he reportedly volunteered for Navy duty and served in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

Thomas Campbell, a 41-year-old Brentwood engineer, read an article about Russell in The Times and called Oroville officials to suggest the military burial. He said he was also going to contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide a gravestone.

"I've always taught my kids about remembering their grandparents--the grandfather and great-uncles who deserve their respect," he said. "This man deserves to be remembered."

Pihl, whose own father committed suicide, said Russell's case highlights society's need to better care for its elderly citizens.

"We need to do right by Russ," said Pihl, who is assisting in the burial effort. "It's a symbolic thing for all the Russes out there who haven't been able to get help."

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