Frederick Russell, who fled to Ireland to avoid charges that he killed three college students in a 2001 drunken driving wreck, was sentenced...

Share story

COLFAX, Whitman County — Frederick Russell, who fled to Ireland to avoid charges that he killed three college students in a 2001 drunken driving wreck, was sentenced to the maximum 14 years, three months in prison today by a judge who told him he deserved no leniency.

“You were grossly irresponsible,” Whitman County Superior Court Judge David Frazier said. “You are going to get the maximum sentence under the law. You deserve it. It’s as simple as that.”

A jury convicted Russell, 29, in November on three counts of vehicular homicide and three counts of vehicular assault. He was drunk, speeding and trying to pass in a no-passing zone on Highway 270 — the dangerous, winding road between Pullman and Moscow, Idaho — the night of June 4, 2001, when his vehicle crossed the centerline and smashed into a car containing six fellow Washington State University students.

Russell clutched a rosary and stammered often as he addressed his surviving victims and the relatives of those killed, telling them that during the years he spent on the run, he often attended a church where he lit candles for the victims.

“There aren’t enough words that could define who your children were, that could define what you’ve gone through,” he said. “I’m sorry — you’ve been waiting too long to hear that.”

Killed were Brandon Clements, 22, Stacy Morrow, 21, and Ryan Sorensen, 21. Three others were seriously injured.

Several family members and two of the surviving crash victims addressed the court first, airing their grief. John Wagner described the pain he continues to bear and pleaded with Russell for a simple apology.

“Just say you’re sorry,” Wagner said. “Accept responsibility and let us go on with our lives.”

Karen Overacker, Clements’ mother, said nothing prepared her for the horror of her son’s death, and described seeing his body on a cold metal table, his legs broken and his face reconstructed with wax and glue.

Russell’s flight added insult to their pain, several said.

“When it came time to stand up like a man … he chose to run,” Overacker said. “He chose to show himself as the coward he was raised to be.”

Russell suffered only minor injuries in the crash. He was charged with vehicular homicide and assault, but was released on a relatively low bond of $5,000 — outraging victims and families.

He failed to show up for a hearing on Oct. 26, 2001. According to police, he sold some baseball cards, gathered other assets and fled to Ireland.

Shortly after he jumped bail, several newspapers received a letter allegedly signed by the fugitive. It said he feared for his life and did not think he would receive a fair trial.

“I maintain my innocence. But my life has been repeatedly threatened, so I cannot stay,” the letter said.

In 2005, the U.S. Marshals Service placed Russell on its Most Wanted list, the only drunken-driving suspect to make it. A man in Ireland saw the picture and called authorities. Russell fought extradition but was returned to the U.S. in 2006.

According to police reports, Russell had been drinking in a Pullman bar, then got into his Chevy Blazer and drove toward Moscow, Idaho, eight miles to the east.

Russell came upon a slower vehicle and, even though he was in a no-passing zone, tried to pass at 90 mph, police said. Police believe that Russell’s vehicle struck a car heading in the opposite direction, then plowed into a Cadillac carrying the six WSU students, who were returning from a movie in Moscow.

At a hospital after the crash, Russell’s blood-alcohol level measured .12 percent, well above Washington state’s intoxication threshold of 0.08.

The judge ordered that once Russell is released, he will be subject to 18 to 36 months of community supervision, during which he will be required to have an alcohol-detection interlock device installed in his car. He declined to give Russell credit for time he served while awaiting extradition from Ireland.