Photo credit: Maxine Russell
Photo credit: Maxine Russell
Photo credit: Maxine Russell
Like many other college graduates, Darren Russell wanted to make his mark in the world by making a difference. In November 2004, the day after Thanksgiving, Darren went to Guangzhou, China to teach English, seven days a week, to 1200 elementary and secondary school children. Though he had been warned not to go, Darren had a big heart and a tremendous amount of respect for the Chinese culture. He was excited about the prospect of new challenges and believed he could positively impact the lives of Chinese children.
After Darren began his new job, he discovered he was working in an unlicensed, illegal school. In addition, the owner of the school had seized his passport and held it illegally, never got him a work permit visa, and did not provide him a letter of intention. Though his mother, Maxine, who had been an inner city teacher in the U.S. for twenty years, urged him to leave, he felt the children needed him. "They are innocent victims," Darren told his mother. He quickly bonded with the children, and they pinned him with the Chinese name, Bai-Tu, that means "White Rabbit."
Darren worked constantly, and he became ill with bronchitis but continued to work in spite of his sickness. He finally decided to leave China, but the owner of the school refused to return his passport to him. Darren told her that he would notify the police and, reportedly, the owner became extremely angry. Darren was very ill at the time, and the owner of the school had him removed from his apartment and driven to a hotel of her choosing that was located two hours outside the city.
His passport was returned to him, and he had to pay, out of his own funds, for the hotel stay. During his first night there, he was robbed of his passport and laptop computer. By then, Darren just wanted to return home, and he called his parents to wire him money which became a complicated task.
At approximately 7:02 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, a call was received on Darren's father's cell phone with a voice mail message from Darren stating, "Please help me. I'm scared. I've never been so scared in my entire life." After hearing this disturbing message, Darren's parents immediately called the hotel and were told to call back later. Subsequently, Mr. and Mrs. Russell received a phone call from the U. S. State Department informing them that their son had been hit by a truck and killed on April 14, 2005. Darren had made the call to his father three hours prior to his death.
After paying ten thousand dollars to have Darren's body released from China, his family was able to have a burial in California. According to Mrs. Russell, she and her husband were told they had to write a letter - before their son's body would be released - stating they believed their son was in an accident and that they would not pursue an investigation and/or prosecution. Ms. Russell indicates she received little information about the details of her son's death, and the information she did receive was replete with inconsistencies and left many questions unanswered.
Darren was buried on May 6, 2005, in Mission Hills, California, without an autopsy. The Russell family is Jewish, and in the Jewish faith an autopsy is done only if there is a compelling reason. Not obtaining the valid answers she felt she needed regarding her son's death and the suspicious circumstances surrounding it, Ms. Russell had her son's body exhumed two years later and sought out a notable pathologist and expert witness in California, Dr. David Posey, to conduct an autopsy that was done on March 14, 2007. Dr. Posey determined the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head and brain, and the manner of death - homicide.
Ms. Russell and her family, like other survivors, want to know the truth about what actually happened to her son in China. "For over two years, I was told his death was a traffic accident by the Chinese Traffic Police, State Department, and U. S. Consulate. It took the exhumation and autopsy to prove everything I had stated for over almost two years was completely factual," says Ms. Russell. She spent more than $4,000.00 for letters she sent to every member of Congress, and she sent more than 2,000 packets to the media. She wrote to more than 200 universities and law schools and pro bono attorneys to get freedom of information requests granted.
"There is tremendous confusion as far as protocol with the State Department, U.S. consulates, and U. S. embassies. Congress must review the procedures in place for investigating the deaths of Americans abroad as well as when an American calls a U. S. consulate or U. S. embassy for help. There is no formal procedure for determining whether a case should be considered for criminal investigation, and it is unclear as to who makes the decisions related to those cases. In Darren's case, neither the F.B.I. or the Diplomatic Security Branch were involved in the investigative process, at any time, or even informed of the situation before any possible trail of evidence could be followed," says Ms. Russell.
As a result of her son's tragic death in China, Ms. Russell wants a number of things to occur. Her desire is to receive truthful answers from the investigation that she has been told is being done by the Supreme People's Protocuratorate in China. A U. S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation should answer all pertinent questions in order for the U. S. State Department, U. S. consulates, and U. S. embassies to clearly define protocols for cases involving emergencies and murder investigations that involve Americans.
Following the GAO investigation, Ms. Russell believes there should be testimony from others so people can be educated about the dangers of teaching in China. In addition, she feels there should be a travel warning that lists all previous statistics for deaths of Americans in China. Ms. Russell is also of the opinion that record keeping should be improved. "I was told that the U. S. Consulate in Guangzhou didn't even keep phone logs of emergency calls such as Darren's. I also want to have the other parents who had children murdered, supposed suicides, or pedestrian accidents to be able to contact one another. In that way, we could show patterns and share information. There already seems to be a pattern where the child has called the parents the day before they are murdered or committed suicide supposedly," says Ms. Russell.
Ms. Russell's wish is to also have Congressional hearings to develop a protocol for handling cases such as the one involving her son. "There is a lot of confusion," she admits and adds, "Let's work together on both sides." Her Congressman, Henry A. Waxman (D-California), has been responsive to her communication and requests. He has been proactively communicating with various parties regarding the need for obtaining answers concerning her son's death in China as well as the need for development of proper procedures related to notification, investigation, and follow-up.
The impact of Darren Russell's death, at age 35, on his parents, family members, friends, and students has been profound. The loss of her son and the lack of answers to suspicious circumstances surrounding his death augment the level and intensity of her unrelenting grief. Ms. Russell says, "My life has been forever changed. I have been working 20 hours a day with only four hours of sleep. But I am on a quest for justice. I have learned that the most important way to survive and continue is to find things to give myself purpose. Without that, the grief would be overwhelming. I have the same routine every night before I go to sleep. I pray to God for strength, justice, and for all my dear friends, family, and the military. I pray for Darren to be at peace in heaven. But then I stick out my outstretched arm and ask Darren to hold it. I tell him how much I miss him, and my life will never be the same."