Election Section

Oroville mourns old inmate who jumped from bridge

By Jim Wasserman The Associated Press
Saturday July 13, 2002

Inmate had pleaded with judge to let him stay in jail 


OROVILLE — In this tree-lined old mining town still called the “City of Gold” nothing has attracted so much outside attention as the apparent suicide of a 92-year-old man who only wanted to stay in its county jail. 

Coval Russell, released June 26 from the Butte County Jail against his wishes, is dead. On a brutally hot morning Wednesday, he leaped, or possibly fell, head first from the green steel Table Mountain Bridge onto big river rocks 40 feet below. 

Now, because he may have been California’s oldest jail inmate, the spotlight has turned to this working-class seat of Butte County, a farming and timber region 65 miles north of Sacramento. 

From atop what locals call “the old green bridge” in this town of 12,600 people, Russell would have seen the deep green hues of the Feather River, its tree-lined shores, the placid water and the fish hatchery to his right. What the elderly man whom jail inmates called “Pops” saw before dying was far prettier than one mile away where he spent more than a year for stabbing his 70-year-old landlord with a pocket knife last year. 

It was his first time in jail, in a lifetime free of any criminal history, says Russell’s attorney, Grady Davis. During his stay, he was one of 47,000 inmates over 55 years old in the local jails, state and federal prisons of the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Among the 157,000 inmates inside the California state prison system at the end of 2001, only 487 were more than 70 years old, the Department of Corrections reported in April. 

It was a story more like the movies than real life. After Russell got accustomed to the single-story facility at the edge of town, with its razor wire above a chain-link fence, he gave Davis instructions of the like he’d never heard of in 20 years of lawyering. 

“Really, his objective was ’to keep me in jail’ for as long as I could,” Davis says. “His instructions were to continue the case as long as you can. He wanted to stay in jail as long as he could.” 

“He pretty much considered our jail his home,” says Butte County Sheriff Scott Mackenzie. While Mackenzie didn’t know his best-known inmate, he repeats the stories of department jailers who did. And they liked the old guy as much as Russell’s fellow inmates did. 

Some inmates are just likable, says Mackenzie, a former county jail commander. “This old guy had those attributes and everybody in the jail loved him.” 

While physically infirm, Russell’s mind was “sharp as a tack,” say his attorney and the sheriff. Russell became a grandfather figure to younger inmates, Mackenzie says, while Davis adds that Russell “was in a place where he would have people listen to him, talk to him and share some camaraderie.” 

But as most things pass one day at a time, Russell’s jail time was up at 426 days. He was placed on probation and shown the door. Because he had up to $20,000 in his bank account, and wasn’t mentally incapacitated, the county couldn’t tell him where to go or what to do. So Russell moved into a Motel 6 near the Montgomery Street exit off Route 70. And there, where rooms go for $37.99 a night plus tax, he talked to a Los Angeles Times reporter last week about ending his life. 

“It just kind of shocked me that it happened,” says Elizabeth Ellis, walking across the bridge Friday from which Russell fell 48 hours earlier. “He must have been depressed.” She recalls another elderly man who jumped from the bridge years ago and died, too. 

At a little diner near the bridge called The Boss, where a half-pound burger, fries and drink sell for $5.89, shift leader Tabitha Barkey says, “A young boy came in and said there’s a dead body down there.” 

A son of the diner’s owner went to the bridge to see for himself, then called 911. A crowd gathered. The paramedics came. It wasn’t pretty. 

But it was over. A bachelor all his life, Russell had outlived his family and friends. He was blind in one eye. He had prostate cancer and back problems and couldn’t walk far. Those who knew him say he had little left on the “outside” of a county jail that became his last home. 

Because no one saw him fall, most of the town must speculate. People in this town of mining murals on downtown walls, with its old boarded-up Montgomery Ward store and the big white “O” painted onto the table-flat butte outside of town, didn’t know the man. It was something that happened. They’d read about it in the paper and it was, as one resident says, “too bad.” 

“We don’t know if it was an accident or a suicide. I suspect it was a suicide,” Mackenzie says. The department line is that Russell took a taxi to the bridge. 

So far, there is no word of a funeral. The sheriff says a San Franciscan called after reading about Russell’s death, offering to pay funeral expenses. Truth is, Davis says, money wasn’t the problem. Russell had it. What he lacked after leaving jail was a home.