THE RUSSELL MURDERS; Josie's battle to win back her life

The Victim's Courage

Louise Jury
Friday 23 October 1998 23:02 BST

THE RARE courage of Josie Russell has burnt brightly throughout the past two traumatic years. It is not an overstatement to say she has undergone a journey that only the bravest survive.

Left for dead, her skull crushed in three places and suffering from hypothermia, Josie had suffered the unthinkable horror of hearing her mother, Lin, and six-year-old sister, Megan, brutally bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

Now the survivor of the Chillenden murders lives in an old miner's cottage in Wales, a place where she spent her first few years, and where she and her father returned within months of the terrible attack.

The wild landscape contrasts sharply with the gentle countryside of Kent where the Russells moved in 1995 when Shaun, an environmental scientist, secured a lecturer's post at the university in Canterbury.

But for Josie the Nantlle Valley has been a place of peace. "It's quite detached from the normal world," says one who has been there.

In Wales, Josie has her ponies and her hamster, Harry, who lives in a giant home. She gets bored and angry in her own company and likes her friends to stay for the weekend or to go to them in return.

Like any other 11-year-old girl, she is now on the cusp of childhood and the approaching teen years, happy to play tea parties in the garden with mud pies and mock tea made from fallen leaves, but also dancing to the Barbie song, having her ears pierced and donning designer fashions.

But she cannot escape the past. Once a month, she goes to the slate graves of her mother and sister to remember them. They are being planted with flowers - bluebells, snowdrops, roses - for every season.

At Christmas, she will return to hospital for a check-up on the titanium plate, which was fitted in her skull earlier this year. Without it, a fall or blow to the head could have killed her.

Yet slowly, she has attempted to rebuild her life, cocooned by her father who, understandably, fears for her safety.

In the wake of the murders, there were worries the killer would come back for her. So despite Josie's protestations, Shaun Russell collects her from school, sometimes by car, occasionally on the tandem that well- wishers bought the pair, but which now embarrasses Josie who finds it "uncool".

Gradually, over the months, part of the process of recovery has been a series of interviews with police officers Pauline Smith and Ed Tingley. They have virtually lived with the family, forming a bond which will probably never be severed.

Dora Black, the eminent child psychiatrist who has worked with Josie as she has with many children whose parents met violent deaths, considers their work most useful.

Constable Smith said Josie was like anyone who had been through a trauma - she needed counselling. She wanted to tell someone about it, but the vicious beating the little girl endured had damaged the part of the brain which controls speech. When she regained consciousness, she spoke like a two-year-old. Only the simplest nos or noises of affirmation were possible.

"She was really relieved that we had found a way that she could communicate to us what had happened," said PC Smith, 51, who has two grow-up sons.

The means were models of the route home from school, the path she, Lin and Megan were following when they encountered their attacker. With toy cars, models of the three Russells and even miniature lunchbags and swimming kit, the grim story emerged.

It was Josie who first indicated she might be able to help the police murder inquiry. No one had, at first, thought to ask her. When she was found in the early hours of 10 July two years ago, brain tissue was protruding from behind her ear and it was feared she might not live.

Shaun Russell was coming to terms with the news that all his family had been killed when he learnt that one daughter, no one knew which, was alive. She had been rushed first to the Kent and Canterbury Hospital and then on to King's College Hospital, London. Amazingly, Josie not only survived, but by 20 August, she was out of hospital.

But the scars, emotional and physical, remain. She is annoyed about being held back at school, and is itching to move on from her Welsh-speaking primary to secondary school.

For the time-being that is impossible. Whereas geography and history were her favourite subjects before, now the language barrier makes them difficult and it is art that she loves. Her maths is quite good, but extra tuition is being provided to help her relearn reading and writing.

Her school is investigating whether a special computer which speaks back might help.

The determination which helped her recover is applied throughout her life. If she wants to do something, she will. If she does not, she will not. Though easily frightened in the early days when the detectives tried to gain her confidence with visits to the Tower of London or London Zoo, she is now eager for independence. Now that her hair has grown back, she has even ditched her trademark floppy hats, a protection against the ugly scars of the attack.

She knows the trial has been taking place, because her father and the police thought it impossible to hide it from her. PC Smith spent the court case with the family in Wales.

Her purpose was to explain what was happening to Josie - "to tell her that this could be the man who hurt her and that a court was a place for telling what had happened".

But with reporters again turning up on the family doorstep, Detective Chief Inspector Dave Stevens says the trial has put her progress back.

Last week, PC Smith collected Josie from school one day and a radio news bulletin gave details of proceedings in court. The policewoman took the opportunity to chat. "Do you miss Lin?" she asked. (Josie called her mother by her name) "Oh yes," Josie replied. "And Megan?" "Oh yes." The little girl added sadly: "They never mention Lucy." The family dog died in the attack too.

Josie wants to forget, but she will not forgive. "Long time ago now, long time ago," she says dismissively of the attack that destroyed her family.

But she has strong feelings about what should happen to her attacker. "She uses aggressive moves about what she would like to do to him, shaking fists, that sort of thing," says DC Tingley, 44, who has three children and a fourth due next year. PC Smith added: "On the same journey I asked her what she thought should happen to the man. She thought and then said: 'I think in America they have an electric chair'. I don't know where she got that from. That's all she would say."

Yet most of the time now, the efforts are directed away from the past. "You try to normalise things as much as you possibly can," PC Smith said. "There are certain things that I find now very difficult - I hate to watch the children's hospital programme. It brings back being there in intensive care," she said.

Her voice cracks as she speaks with emotion of the little girl with whom she has spent so much time.

She thinks there will always be interest in Josie. "As she reaches her 18th birthday, gets a boyfriend, gets married, there will always be that interest. Whether Josie realises that I don't know."

Last night, PC Smith said: "Now we can feel safe, now that this man has been found guilty and is never going to be out on the streets again to worry Josie or anybody." She was sure, she said, that the conviction would help Josie's recovery.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in