Smooth-talking Charles J. Russ was convicted Friday of the 1987 murder of his wife in what a prosecutor said was an attempt to collect $600,000 in insurance money to save a failing telemarketing business.
A Superior Court jury deliberated nearly three days but required only one ballot to convict Russ, 40, of first-degree murder and two counts each of forgery and grand theft, after a 10-week trial. Judge Michael D. Wellington will sentence the Leucadia businessman April 26.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark Pettine said Russ will receive life in prison without possibility of parole. Jurors found that Russ was motivated to kill Pamela Russ, a 33-year-old artist, by the special circumstance of financial gain--specifically, to collect life insurance money.
However, the district attorney’s office chose early in the case not to seek the death penalty, which is often sought in special-circumstances cases.
Russ, who appeared ready to cry when he was escorted into the courtroom by two burly marshals, stared straight ahead as the verdicts were announced. Later, when he was handcuffed and led from the courtroom, Russ looked briefly at Pettine and shook his head but said nothing.
Genevieve Gamble, Russ’ mother, cried, “No! No!” when her son’s murder conviction was announced and dashed out of the courtroom.
The forgery and grand theft convictions stem from Russ bilking his mother-in-law, Ginger Allen, out of $78,000. He never collected on $600,000 in life insurance policies that he had taken out on his wife, who never earned more than $10,000 a year as an artist.
Pamela Russ’ battered body was found on North Torrey Pines Road early in the morning on Feb. 1, 1987. Pettine said she had been beaten and run over with her own Mercedes-Benz, which was abandoned nearby.
Allen testified that Russ told her his wife had abruptly left their Leucadia home at midnight on the night of her death to get some photo negatives from her rented artist’s loft in San Diego. Prosecutor Pettine ridiculed Russ’ story and persuaded the jury that he was lying.
“His credibility was really not too high. . . . His entire story was a fraud. His entire life was a fraud,” said jury foreman William Howell, a biology teacher at Serra High School in Tierrasanta.
Friday’s convictions signaled the end of a sensational case that spanned almost 2 1/2 years and kept Russ on the run from the law for almost 24 months. He was arrested in Hollywood, Fla., in August, 1989, after the murder case was featured on the nationally televised “America’s Most Wanted” show.
Russ did not emerge as a suspect in his wife’s killing right away. Four months after Pamela Russ’ death, Charles Russ moved to Taos, N.M. He vanished three months later, after San Diego authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.
By all accounts, Charles and Pamela Russ had led an idyllic life among the rich and trendy in North County. Giving every indication of success, the young couple seemed to have it all. Both drove Mercedes-Benz cars, and they partied at chic nightspots on the North County coast. They traveled extensively, for business and pleasure, to Australia, Hawaii and the Far East.
Allen described her son-in-law then as charming, articulate and a financial genius. But, after Pamela Russ’ death, Charles Russ’ financial empire crumbled overnight, and stories about his other disastrous business ventures began to emerge.
Beginning in 1975, Russ was involved in various businesses that folded in New Mexico, San Diego and Montana, leaving a trail of thousands of dollars in bad debts and lawsuits. An ex-business partner in New Mexico told The Times that Russ “was quite a talker” and one who could “charm the socks right off you.”
A longtime friend, whose parents loaned Russ $33,000 for a business to sell decorated T-shirts and cotton dresses, said he “came across as very personable and sincere.”
“That’s how he was able to get money from people,” said the friend.
The jury that convicted Russ heard testimony about these and other schemes, and prosecutors had little trouble persuading jurors that Russ was a con artist.
“He was hard to believe,” said jury foreman Howell. “Everyone who came in contact with him became a victim. There were just too many victims in his life to believe anything he told people.”
Although much of the prosecution’s evidence was circumstantial, Howell said the facts in the case were “simply too overwhelming” and pointed toward Russ’ guilt.
A sobbing Ginger Allen called the conviction an end to her “nightmare.” Speaking with reporters outside the courtroom, Allen said that justice was done.
“I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time,” she said. “This nightmare has finally been settled. . . . I feel that my baby can rest in peace now. Maybe I can close the doors now.”
Mark Allen, Pamela Russ’ brother, said that Russ “was a trusted and loved member of this family, until he did what he did.”