Maxine Russell remembers her son, Darren, as a fun-loving, good-looking, big-hearted guy who enjoyed traveling and relished the adventure of teaching in other countries. At 35, Darren worked in the family scrap metal business before attending graduate school in order to teach, but he also dreamed of being a standup comedian, going so far as to have head shots made to pursue that career upon returning home from a teaching assignment in China.
But all those ambitions ended on April 14, 2005 — the day authorities in China say Darren was hit by a truck and killed. Darren’s mother doesn’t buy that story, having listened on the phone to Darren’s worsening fears and complaints of corruption at the school he was working for — including an ominous call home just hours before he died. And now a forensic pathologist tells Maxine that those suspicions are correct: Her son was not struck by a car, but brutally murdered.
Based on those findings, things that her son told her on the phone and information that she’s gathered since, Maxine is more convinced than ever that her son was beaten up and then had his skull cracked open soon after he raised questions about thefts and contractual violations that he said were occurring at the Decai English Language Training School in China’s Guangzhou Province, where Darren had been recruited to teach.
In the days prior to his death, Darren told his mom on the phone that among his specific problems was that tuition money being paid by students was being kept by a recruiter, rather than turned over to the school. Darren apparently became aware of the theft through a Chinese aide whose identity Maxine declined to reveal for fear of that person’s life. Darren also complained to his mom about the recruiter breaking her promise to get him a work permit.
In the four years since Darren’s death, Maxine has not only grieved but become even more resolved to find answers to questions that include: Who killed Darren? Why did the Chinese government lie to her about how her son died? And why has the US government largely blocked her efforts to learn the truth?
While Maxine lives in Calabasas, she made lasting ties in Pasadena during protests in the months of often contentious public debate concerning the China-backed float in the 2008 Rose Parade.
Memories are what drive Maxine to still seek answers from both the American and Chinese governments; memories that compelled Maxine and her husband, Mike, to spend more than $100,000 on their own investigation, which included four trips to China so Maxine could personally track down officials, documents, photographs, witnesses and friends of Darren. In fact, the substantial cost of these personal probes is why the Russells need to sell their home. But whatever it costs, Maxine said she wants to know the full story of what went so horribly wrong, soon after her son embarked on a trip seemingly filled with promise.
“As a mother, it is difficult enough to have a son murdered,” said Maxine. “But not to hold the person responsible accountable is like another murder all over again.”
Darren had been to China as a teacher once before in 2004, but left that stint early due to that school breaking its contractual promises to him regarding pay, housing and working conditions. On his last trip overseas, his mother said he was determined to finish his full one-year term, landing this time at the Decai School.
He handed his passport over to the owner so he could be issued a work permit within a month. But after five months, the work permit was never issued. The lack of a passport, meanwhile, left Darren trapped in a foreign nation.
After being worked beyond his contractual agreement, Darren told Maxine that he wanted to leave. The school’s owner arranged to have him shuttled from his campus room to the Cathay Hotel, which Maxine learned was owned by NORINCO, a state-owned defense contractor that was under widely reported trade sanctions imposed by the US government at the time of Darren’s death.
Within hours of checking in, Darren was robbed of his cash and valuables. Left penniless and without a passport, Maxine said that Darren managed to call her and arrange for two wire transfers. But without a passport, those transfers couldn’t be accessed.
Darren’s situation was not unusual. In August 2005, a few months after his death, Associated Press reported that while most English-language schools in China treated their foreign teachers decently, “complaints about bad experiences in fly-by-night operations were on the rise” at that time. Things were so bad that “the British Embassy in Beijing warned on its Web site about breaches of contracts, unpaid wages and broken promises.” The US Embassy, AP reported, said complaints had increased eightfold between 2004 and mid-2005.
Though foreign teachers in South Korea, Japan and other countries had run into similar problems, the number of allegations in China was much higher because “the rule of law is still not firmly in place,” a US Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity told the wire service.
Maxine said she contacted the US Embassy in Beijing, and that Darren had contacted the US Consulate in Guangzhou at least twice. But his calls were not answered.
As time ticked by, Darren called again approximately three hours before his death, leaving this message: “I am so scared. I want to get out of here. I have never been this scared in my life.”
In a call to his father a few hours before that, Darren said, “Hello Sunshine,” an expression Maxine said he never used. “Perhaps this was a code word to let us know he was in trouble,” she said.
Shortly after that second terror-filled call, Darren was dead. Chinese police later reported that he’d been struck by a truck, but that was just the beginning of a seemingly never-ending series of twists, half-truths and outright lies that Maxine has been wading through ever since.
‘He was murdered’
Maxine wanted to see the medical records kept in relation to the “accident” that killed her son. And at first, Chinese officials seemed to be cooperative. But what was sent to her by the US Consulate in Guangzhou were records for a woman born in 1982, admitted to a different hospital six days after Darren’s murder.
Also, the only witness to the alleged truck accident admitted he had terrible vision and couldn’t really describe what he had seen. Worst of all, a contact of Maxine’s, whom she described only as “a high-profile American traveler,” spoke with Chinese officials and was told that there was a “sealing mount” on the case — an official order removing the cause of death as murder and replacing it with a pedestrian traffic accident. Maxine said several people, including the “high-profile American,” told her that the Chinese government was offering “valuable sums of money to order a hit on Maxine Russell if she ever returned to China.”
Adding insult to injury, a US Consulate staffer tried to encourage the cremation of Darren’s body, stressing that it would cost only $600 for cremation, versus $10,000 or more to send Darren’s body home. Cremation would be a violation of the customs of his Jewish faith, and Maxine insisted on getting Darren’s body back, as much to bury him properly as to preserve evidence.
Due to financial constraints, an autopsy was not performed immediately after Darren’s remains arrived. But in March 2007, his body was exhumed and La Crescenta-based pathologist Dr. David Posey was hired. For unexplained reasons, Darren’s remains were over-embalmed by Chinese health workers, leaving his body remarkably well-preserved, Posey said during an interview at his neatly appointed hillside home. While explaining, Posey showed color photos of Darren’s remains, which revealed deep lacerations to the top of his skull, which could have been made by a hammer or an axe of some kind.
“It became really apparent almost from the beginning that he didn’t have injuries that were compatible with a truck accident. I would have expected some kind of impact injuries on Darren’s body where a vehicle would have hit, but there are none,” explained Posey. “There was no impact injury anywhere — the legs, chest, or trunk. The only injury is to his head, which in my opinion was lethal. Someone hit him with some blunt force instrument because there was a skull fracture and a subdural hematoma.
“My final opinion was he was murdered,” Posey said flatly. “Some blows could have come from martial arts, so maybe someone just beat him up and then they took a club and hit him. Among the injuries he did have were what appeared to be defensive wounds, which occurred when he held his hands up to protect himself. I just have a difficult time coming up with an accident that fits.”
The autopsy’s conclusions have only made Maxine more determined. During a visit to China in 2006 — one of four since Darren’s death — Maxine seemed to provoke authorities into making an unusual admission while they were showing her the photos of her son that she had requested.
“I asked the Chinese police, through a translator, why there was a fist mark on Darren’s left cheek,” she recalled. “They immediately got angry, put the photos back in a folder and took them away. Over a year later, the US Consulate sent photos, but only one from the batch the police were showing me arrived. The rest were staged photos with Darren’s shoes hurriedly put on. He is dead and the EKG monitor is off. Who is the masked nurse in the staged photos and why? And why are they missing the photos of the fist mark?”
Whose side are you on?
During the course of her investigations, Maxine learned a few things, one being that her government isn’t always on her side, or any other American’s, for that matter.
That became clear when she learned that despite the fact that the FBI normally handles mysterious deaths of Americans overseas, neither the US nor the Chinese government ever notified the FBI at the time of Darren’s death.
“I was the one that notified the FBI, through their director of victim assistance. It is unbelievable that it came from me and not from either government,” said Maxine. “The fact that they didn’t know is one of the things finally being investigated by the government’s General Accounting Office.”
Another lesson came when Maxine acquired a permit from the city to hold a public event and tried to enter the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles on April 11, 2007, to deliver a formal demand to have the Chinese government investigate Darren’s death. She was blocked by two LAPD anti-terrorism detectives and agents with the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Services Division.
“I was going to present my second formal complaint to the Chinese, and this one contained the autopsy results. I was intercepted and told I couldn’t enter the Chinese consulate — the front doors of which are always open for deliveries — because my entry would amount to ‘trespassing on foreign soil,’” said Maxine.
“This was to be a public event. I had the necessary permits. Why is our own government going to such efforts to obstruct my lawful activities, considering I had the necessary permits to be there in the first place?”
When asked for an explanation about the State Department’s interference in Maxine’s attempt to visit the consulate, press relations officer Andy Laine wrote in an email that the department’s Diplomatic Security Services Division was following “standard operating procedure.”
“Our agents contacted Chinese officials and inquired if they would be willing to meet with representatives of the protest should it come to that,” Laine wrote of the incident, at which Maxine was the only protester. “Chinese officials stated that they would not meet with any individuals, nor did they want any individuals on their premises. Our agents and representatives of the LAPD subsequently informed Ms. Russell that Chinese officials did not want her on consular premises.”
Sophie Richardson, advocacy director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch in Washington, DC, said the US shares an often confusing relationship with China’s communist regime. And those potentially volatile economic, diplomatic and military complications may be the reason why and how Darren died may never be known.
“I’m not an economist, but the extent to which the two economies of China and the US are now intertwined suggests to me that it’s a case of mutual suicide if things go too sour — the two cannot survive without the other,” said Richardson. “It’s a total no-brainer that China has to have human rights in order for its press to expose its bad issues, but so far there’s no signal that [President] Obama’s going to handle this any better than his predecessors.”
Charlie McAteer of the New York-based group Human Rights in China said bungled cover-ups of brutal killings in that country are nothing new — especially to people who live there. He points out disturbing similarities between Darren’s case and those of other recent Chinese prison detainees.
“There’s been very interesting developments lately of detainees dying in custody without charges,” says McAteer. “There have been 19 others revealed just in recent times — not directly related, but it shows the same things going on in China as perhaps this guy faced. And the cover-up is always pretty clumsy.”
The State Department gave Maxine a list of 85 Americans who died in China between Jan. 1, 2000, and Nov. 30, 2006, from “other than natural causes.” Seven are listed as “drug-related,” six as “homicides,” three people were said to have drowned and two were listed as “disaster” deaths. But 46 — 54 percent — are listed as “vehicular accident” or “other accident.” Another 21 Americans have no cause of death listed.
Never give up
One US official who has been somewhat helpful to Maxine is her congressman, Democrat Henry Waxman. Maxine is thankful that Waxman, a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, teamed with the committee’s then chief, Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton, to call for a worldwide investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO) into how our country’s 260 embassies and consulates around the world assist US citizens who are victims of crimes or accidents while overseas.
“This came directly out of the case of Mr. Russell. There are over a dozen important aspects of this which [Waxman] has asked the GAO to examine — to see how all phases of our consulates work when they are approached by endangered Americans abroad,” said Bruce Wolpe, Waxman’s senior adviser on the Committee on Energy and Commerce. “We expect a report from the GAO later in the year, probably in autumn. It’s very difficult for us to go over past stuff, and we’d rather focus on the future. It’s terrible Darren Russell has been lost, but we need to focus so that we don’t lose more Darren Russells.”
Despite the action in Washington, Maxine still wonders if she’ll ever know what really happened
to her son.
“Certainly it has taken all the funds we had to pursue justice in this case. But I don’t believe that’s why other parents of children murdered in China do not get involved to the extent that I am,” Maxine wrote in an email. “Some are so devastated by their losses that they can’t muster the strength it takes to pursue justice. Others don’t believe there can ever be justice when China is involved, because they own 80 percent of the bonds in the US. For many, their children’s bodies were cremated so there was no body to do an autopsy on, while still others fear for their safety.
“Darren had accomplished so much in his short life. The world needed to know that Darren wasn’t just a statistic — he was a teacher, son, friend, uncle, supporter of many causes and the underprivileged. It angers and saddens me that our own government can’t be honest about the statistics of non-natural causes of deaths of Americans in China. In the beginning, all I wanted was an apology from the State Department and the promise that this would never happen again to an American in China. Instead, I have had so many roadblocks put in my way. They probably thought that I would get tired of it all and go away. But that will never happen.”