Robert L. Russel, whose 20-year tenure as El Paso County’s district attorney launched the careers of powerful attorneys, charmed juries and pioneered new approaches to justice in the Pikes Peak Region, has died at the age of 82.
He was pronounced dead at 11:40 a.m. Wednesday at St. Francis Select Care in Colorado Springs.
The cause of death was lung disease, according to a son, Richard Russel of Colorado Springs. He had been hospitalized since late November.
Funeral arrangements, being handled by Shrine of Remembrance, are pending.
Russel, a Republican, served as the 4th Judicial District’s district attorney for El Paso and Teller counties from 1965 to 1985, and on sheer numbers alone, his tenure was unprecedented.
No other district attorney has served more than two terms. Russel served five.
While today’s D.A.s are administrators, Russel prosecuted cases himself — including, all too briefly, that of serial-killer Ted Bundy — and he won over jurors on his way to a 22-7 trial record on murder cases.
He billed himself as an aggressive proponent of the death penalty, and sent several killers there, though in each case higher courts overturned penalty in favor of life in prison.
Besides his tough-on-crime bona fides, Russel earned acclaim from defense attorneys for compassion and empathy, and his tough-but-forgiving ways launched the careers of some of Colorado’s most prominent attorneys, who were taught to make the jury “feel the victim’s pain.”
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers got his start under Russel — and so did judges, business leaders and three of the past five district attorneys.
“He mentored probably the majority of lawyers in Colorado Springs that passed through his office,” said Bill Kirkman, a veteran Colorado Springs attorney who was hired by Russel.
And with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a drink in his hand, he spent many long nights at the tavern — until the day that he stopped going to them.
Russel is survived by four sons and three daughters: Robert L. Russel Jr., an Air Force Academy graduate and computer engineer in Dayton, Ohio; Kathy Robertson, a social worker in Colorado Springs; Richard Russel, a former Navy submariner and computer scientist in Colorado Springs; Laura Russel of Colorado Springs, who helped care for her father in later years; John Russel, a Colorado Springs Utilities employee; Paula LeClerc, an information technology consultant in Colorado Springs; and Michael Russel of St. Louis, Mo., an Air Force Academy graduate and former C-17 pilot who flew in the Iraq War with the Air Force.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Gloria Gile Russel, in 2004.
Russel was born Dec. 27, 1929, in Kansas City, Mo., and adopted by the late Sadie and Harold Russel. He attended high school in Salina, Kan., where he was a varsity wrestler and football player and spent his free time playing trumpet in dance bands.
He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1951 with a degree in music, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army through the university’s ROTC program. He served for two years as a military police officer who was stationed stateside during the Korean War, Rich Russel said.
Russel later attended George Washington University law school in Washington, D.C., working as an elevator operator in the Senate building — where he met his soon-to-be wife, Gloria, who worked for a South Dakota senator.
After working as an attorney for the Department of Justice, Russel moved his family to Colorado Springs and for several years served as a part-time deputy in the D.A.’s office.
In those early days, Russel has said he showed up at every murder scene within a half-hour of the call.
“I was learning,” he told then Gazette-Telegraph in 1986. “I needed to know how the scene looked. I also wanted the police to know we were interested and to help them on the legal end. The district attorney’s office hadn’t had good relations with the police in those days, but I changed that.”
Russel’s accomplishments — and exploits — unfolded at a colorful time in the city’s history, when investigators worked sources at downtown watering holes while attorneys sketched-out pleas on bar napkins.
There was the turbulence of the Vietnam War, which brought more soldiers and more crime, as well as the rise of the drug culture.
And higher courts demanded sweeping changes in criminal law and procedure.
Against that backdrop, Russel is credited with modernizing the D.A.’s office the same way he went about mending relations with cops — by setting himself up as an example.
Russel inherited an office with one fulltime prosecutor — himself — and as the city grew he staffed it with up-and-coming attorneys who were chosen by character and promise rather than grades and pedigree.
Russel broke ground by creating the nation’s first juvenile diversion program to keep young offenders out of jail, and in 1966 he hired the first woman deputy district attorney. The deputy, Ellen Chestnutt, went on to head his welfare fraud and nonsupport unit, another product of Russel’s tenure. Russel also started an economic crimes division that operates today.
He emphasized ethics and professionalism — and he wasn’t shy about pushing them to get there.
“He kicked our butts and built us back up,” said Paul Ricks, a former Colorado Springs deputy police chief.
The courtroom was Russel’s home. Newspapers reporters highlighted his forceful storytelling and described how he would dart up to a defendant, point in his face and demand that the jury convict.
He aimed to establish guilt beyond any doubt, not reasonable doubt. He often succeeded.
“He would just kind of control the courtroom — and one of the reasons was that everyone there had worked for him,” said Dan Zook, who got his start under Russel and now serves as assistant district attorney under Dan May, another of Russel’s young hires.
Suthers, who served from 1988 to 1996, and Jeanne Smith, who served from 1997 to 2005, are the other students who took their teacher’s place. Other high-profile former recruits include Bill Hybl, the president of the El Pomar Foundation and former head of the United States Olympic Training Center.
Russel’s courtroom victories include the prosecution of the man who killed Karen Grammer, sister to actor Kelsey Grammer.
The case led to a lifelong association with Grammer, which wasn’t unusual for Russel. He was known to keep victims’ photos in his wallet.
“He made me appreciate that bad people shouldn’t get away with anything,” said Ruth Spencer, the victim in Russel’s first big jury trial in Colorado Springs.
Spencer, who was held hostage along with her baby, didn’t want to testify against the man who robbed her — until Russel assured her, “I’m going to go higher and you’re going to help me.”
Before one big trial, Russel rented room at a Fillmore Street motel and peppered an investigator with tough questions about his work until he was ready to defend it under cross-examination.
“I’m looking for a place to hide, and I’m thinking: How can he do this? Nobody knows this case better than I do because I lived it,” said retired Colorado Springs police detective Dick Reisler. “Mr. Russel was a prosecutorial genius.”
Russel drew national notice when he was appointed special prosecutor on the case of Ted Bundy, who was nabbed in the Aspen area during his cross-country killing spree and detained for a 1977 trial that was moved from Aspen to Colorado Springs.
Russel was denied his shot when the killer escaped a Glenwood Springs jail and fled to Chicago.
Bundy was later brought to justice in Florida — leaving Russel to curse him as the one who got away.
“I went through some phraseology that a family newspaper wouldn’t print,” Russel told a Gazette reporter in 2009.
Rather than judge his work by conviction rates and stiff sentences, Russel walked the line between tough and compassionate, many say.
“One of his philosophies was that his job was to protect people and not destroy people,” said John Gregory Walta, a powerful courtroom adversary who became head of the Colorado Public Defender’s Office and worked to overturn Russel’s death penalty convictions.
“He would say, ‘I think the kid’s a good kid and I’m not going to close the door on him,’” Walta said. “He did that a lot. It was not a politically smart thing to do.”
Reisler, the homicide detective, credits Russel for calling him off a hunt that could have led to charges against the wrong man.
The evidence felt right to Reisler, but Russel stood his ground.
“He was right. It was the wrong guy,” Reisler said.
Russel’s tenure wasn’t without critics, however, and he lost his two-decade hold on the office to Barney Iuppa, a Democrat in the state’s most conservative county. It would have been Russel’s sixth four-year term. Iuppa, who was defeated four years later by Suthers, is now an El Paso County District judge.
Newspaper accounts suggest Russel was weakened by budget woes and rapid turnover among his deputies. Insiders jockeyed for position to succeed him. Outside the courthouse, Russel’s hard-drinking ways were hard to ignore, though his defenders point out those were different times.
“I can’t think of one time he wasn’t top-notch in court,” said Walta, who said defense attorneys and prosecutors talked more openly under Russel than under any D.A. since.
Within a year or two of his defeat, Russel quit drinking and discreetly encouraged friends to follow in his footsteps.
After retiring in 1995, Russel stayed active in the legal community, did volunteer work and played trumpet in as many as five jazz and dance bands at one time.
On college game days, the proud Nebraska alumnus could be spotted driving around in a Cornhusker-red convertible, top down, a novelty corn-cob hat on his head.
He suited up when it came to parole hearings for the killers he put behind bars.
In 2010 Russel and friend Lou Smit, the late homicide investigator, went to Limon to fight a parole attempt by Freddie Glenn, whose 1975 crime spree in El Paso County included the fatal stabbing of Karen Grammer.
A Gazette reporter who covered the hearing called them “two tough old warriors” at the prison gates.
At a news conference afterward, Russel carted his oxygen tank to a makeshift podium, slipped off his air hose and launched into a “robust and vivid recall of the crimes” that made Glenn’s cowardice and cruelty come alive.
The word came back within hours: Parole denied.