Marine Corps Murder: The Sensational Trial of Robert Russell



When Shirley Gibbs Russell, a Marine Corps captain, disappeared from Quantico Marine Base in March of 1989, suspicion immediately fell upon her husband, Robert. A native of Mahanoy City, Robert Russell thought he knew of the perfect way to dispose of a dead body-- by throwing it into an abandoned mineshaft in Schuylkill County. A step-by-step "recipe for murder" found on a computer disk in his home led to his conviction; yet, in spite of a massive search by the FBI and the U.S. military-- and years of national media coverage culminating in a made-for-TV movie-- the body of Shirley Gibbs Russell has never been found.

On March 4, 1989, Shirley Gibbs Russell vanished from her married officers' quarters in Quantico, Virginia. Those who knew the Russells immediately suspected foul play; Robert, who had been angry ever since his dishonorable discharge from the United States Marine Corps a few months earlier, had transformed into a raging, abusive alcoholic. During his frequent moments of intoxication he bragged to his friends about his extramarital affairs, while in his sober moments he was drowned by his own insecurities, which led to him planting surveillance devices in his wife's car and keeping a close eye on her every move.

The fact that the ill-fated marriage was interracial only added fuel to the fire. According to witnesses at Robert's trial, he often used racial slurs against his wife, and once confided to a friend that he often worried what his Marine buddies would think when they found out he had "married a n----r."


Shirley Gibbs Russell



The Trouble Begins


It was 1986 when Robert and Shirley first met at Parris Island in South Carolina. At the time, Robert was a Marine captain with 400 men under his command. He was also married. Whether or not Shirley knew this at the time is unclear, but the two started dating and, by 1988, they were married. Just a few months later, the newlyweds were separated.

"On several occasions there had been violence," recalled Robert Brooks, a psychologist who had counseled Shirley Gibbs at the time. "I advised her to make safety a priority and have a safe haven from the beginning." This advice was also offered by members of Gibbs' family. Dorthea Sogren, Shirley's younger sister, implored her to get as far away from Robert as she could. And that's exactly what she was in the process of doing the last time she was seen alive.

On the day of her sister's disappearance, Dorthea was supposed to help Shirley pack her belongings and leave the apartment while Robert was away. Divorce papers had already been drawn up, and Shirley was planning on presenting them to Robert when he came home. But the plan fell apart when Dorthea was called into work. The events which transpired next are still shrouded in mystery.

Shirley Gibbs Russell was reported missing on March 7 after failing to report to Marine Corps Combat Development Command, where she was assigned as adjutant with the support battalion. Any time a Marine fails to report for work within 48 hours, it is assumed that he or she is AWOL. However, since Shirley was known for her promptness and strong work ethic, her absence was regarded as suspicious. After the Naval Investigative Service failed to locate Shirley, the matter was turned over to special agent Wayne Gilbert of the Philadelphia FBI office.



A Request for Dynamite



On May 8, 1989, Jane and Barry Zimmerman had just returned from Pottsville to their 52-acre cattle farm when they were shocked to discover dozens of FBI agents skulking around their property, while black helicopters hovered over the farm at a low altitude. Barry's heart plummeted; his thoughts turned at once to his brother, Richard, who was an Army helicopter pilot in Nebraska and was known for being something of a prankster. He wondered what sort of trouble Richard had managed to get himself into. The feds occupied the property for over a week, using everything from bloodhounds and metal detectors to infrared cameras to find a 29-year-old black woman from South Carolina. Only after the search moved on did the Zimmermans realize that they had been looking for the missing wife of a disgraced ex-Marine from Mahanoy City.

The intensive air and ground search, which scoured more than 2,000 acres between Mahanoy City and Saint Clair, involved eight helicopters and more than one hundred agents, and was described as a "high priority assignment" by Thomas Kimmel, assistant special agent in charge of the Philadelphia FBI division. A second search took place in August, this time focusing on a mine stripping area west of the Burma Road near the German Protestant Cemetery in Mahanoy Township.

"New information was developed that led to an intensive search in a specific area," explained John Kuntz, an FBI spokesperson. This search, which began on Monday, August 28, drew upon the resources of multiple local law enforcement agencies and included the State Police K-9 Unit. As the week dragged on, several amateur sleuths and treasure hunters joined the search, including a group of metal detector enthusiasts from Lancaster County. A great deal of excitement was aroused when it was revealed that police officers from Mahanoy City had found part of a blue velour sweatshirt on a coal bank; Shirley had been wearing a blue sweatsuit when she was last seen on March 4. The item was turned over to the FBI for analysis, but proved not to be a match.




Meanwhile, as agents diligently searched for evidence of Shirley Gibbs, her husband was hiding out at the Mill Street home of his parents in Saint Clair. Only later would it be revealed why the FBI had chosen to focus their search on this particular remote section of Schuylkill County.

Three months earlier, late on a cold February night, a phone rang at the home of Ronald Russell in the borough of Jim Thorpe. On the other end of the line was his brother, Robert, who was calling from Virginia to make an unusual request. According to Ronald, his brother asked him for dynamite. When Ronald asked why, Robert answered, "to blow her up." This strange request only began to make sense a month later, when Ronald was visited by a federal investigator. "He told me my brother was going through a sickness," said Ronald, "and that we should be concerned for our family back home." Last anyone had heard, Robert was living with friends in Virginia, but it was now clear that the FBI had managed to track Robert Russell to Saint Clair-- and soon they would be making their move.





A Recipe For Murder


While federal prosecutors were already planning their case again Robert, the ex-Marine continued to pretend that he was as baffled as anyone over his wife's disappearance. "I find out what's going on via the newspaper and TV just like anybody else," he told the Pottsville Republican in late August of 1989, just as the second search was getting under way. He said that he was giving state and federal authorities his full cooperation, and voiced his opinion that Shirley was still alive. "Just like other couples, we've had our ups and downs, but I love her dearly," he said, adding that he had voluntarily submitted to a polygraph examination.

However, he seemed puzzled as to why the feds had spent weeks questioning his relatives and searching for Shirley's remains in the vicinity of Burma Road, between Saint Clair and Mahanoy City. "Do I have to be guilty until I'm proven innocent?" he asked. "We're not low-lifes. We are a respected family, and my record speaks for itself." During the interview, he was not asked about his 1988 dishonorable discharge, and little did Robert or newspaper reporters know at the time that the FBI had already found what they believed to be the smoking gun in their case-- a computer disk in Quantico containing step-by-step instructions on how to commit the perfect murder.

Although no trace of Shirley Gibbs could be found, the feds moved in for the kill in February of 1991. By this time, Robert had procured a position as a counselor at Graterford State Correctional Institution in Montgomery County. On the morning of February 8, the FBI arrested Russell while he was at work; one day earlier, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, had indicted him with the murder of his missing wife. He was transported to the Allentown U.S. Eastern District Court. After the hearing, he was taken to a detention cell in Philadelphia to await extradition to Virginia for a formal arraignment. He was released into the custody of his parents in Saint Clair after posting $50,000 bail.

While getting a grand jury indictment is not exceedingly difficult, getting a conviction is typically a different matter. "It's a unique case for the government because we have no body," said FBI spokesperson Linda Vizi. "Through the indictment and ongoing investigation, we hope to eventually recover a body."

With no body and no murder weapon, the only thing the prosecution had to work with was a motive-- and a damning computer document which Robert had written. However, since grand jury testimony is not a matter of public record, the media had no idea until the murder trial that this key piece of evidence had been in the FBI's possession for two years.

The first time this information was divulged to the public was after Russell's discovery hearing in March. The prosecution revealed that a 26-step "how-to" list for murder was found at Quantico by Marine sergeants who were cleaning out Russell's office in February of 1988, the day after he was relieved from duty.

Attorneys for the accused vigorously attempted to have this computer file stricken from the prosecution's list of evidence on the grounds that it had been obtained illegally. Furthermore, they argued that it had no bearing on the case, since it had been created prior to Gibbs' disappearance. "This list they refer to was 14 or 15 months old before Shirley disappeared," said Frederick Fanelli, the Pottsville attorney who was heading up Russell's defense team. In spite of these protestations, the list was entered into evidence and the trial was scheduled to begin on Tuesday, April 23.






The Feds Play Dirty


Russell's attorneys immediately filed a defense motion, claiming the federal government refused to disclose evidence that could help the disgraced Marine's case. Fanelli cited eight incidences in which federal prosecutors in the case had failed to provide the defense with notes, documents and witness statements that could potentially establish an alibi. The motion was dismissed.

Jury selection began a few days later, and when testimony got under way before U.S. District Court Justice James C. Cacheris the prosecution presented an opening argument contended that Robert Russell shot Shirley Gibbs in the back of the head with a .25 caliber handgun while she was standing in a storage shed connected to their Quantico apartment. After the deed was done, the killer allegedly drove the victim's station wagon to Pennsylvania and dumped the remains somewhere between Saint Clair and Mahanoy City.

On May 3, the third day of jury deliberations, Russell's defense team again filed a motion seeking a mistrial, after learning that five FBI agents had secretly raided their client's house in Mahanoy City the previous day. Once again, Judge Cacheris dismissed the motion.

"I don't think it's unusual," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Leiser, who was the lead prosecutor, to reporters when asked about the behavior of the FBI. Frederick Fanelli felt otherwise.

"Yesterday's search demonstrates how weak the government's case is," declared the defense attorney.

Despite a case built wholly on circumstantial evidence (which may or may not have been obtained illegally), and in spite of there being no direct evidence that Shirley Gibbs had even been killed in the first place (investigators found none of Shirley's hair or blood inside the station wagon, and the supposed murder weapon was never located), Robert P. Russell was convicted of first-degree murder. The verdict was so shocking, wrote one newspaper reporter, that it "stunned the courtroom into silence".

For the first time in American history, a first-degree murder conviction had been handed down in federal court despite not having a body. "We're baffled," was all Fanelli could say, as authorities led his client out of the courthouse in handcuffs.

The evidence which led the jury to its verdict hinged largely on testimony given by Russell's first wife, Pam McPhail, who testified that she often went on walks with Robert through the woods during their marriage. "He said there were bog holes at the bottom of mineshafts," she said. "He told me that if he ever wanted to get rid of me, nobody would ever find me there."

But the most convincing piece of evidence was the computer document, which Russell's attorneys claimed was an outline for a murder-mystery novel Robert and Shirley had been working on together. The jury, which had not been sequestered during the six-day trial despite massive publicity, was not convinced.

While public opinion was strongly against Russell, there were plenty of people who were critical of the federal government's handling of the case. From a legal standpoint, it seemed that, without a body, there could be no conviction. During the trial, the prosecution scoffed at this idea.

"It doesn't really matter," said lead prosecutor Lawrence Leiser. "It's really not relevant."

Robert's mother, of course, wholeheartedly disagreed. "Do you realize this precedent, if it's allowed to stay on the books, means that if enough people say you did something, you will be found guilty in a court of law? This frightens me," said Patricia Russell. "I think the jury was intimidated by the FBI and the military presence."

Despite a plea for leniency, which included dozens of letters from prominent residents of Schuylkill County vouching for the "good character" of the former Marine captain, Russell was handed a life sentence without parole by Judge Cacheris (Cacheris, who was nominated by President Reagan to the U.S. District Court in 1981, would later become a judge for the highly-controversial FISA court; he retired in 2018). Cacheris did, however, grant Russell's request to serve his sentence in a Pennsylvania prison; he was transferred from the Alexandria city lock-up to the federal prison in Lewisburg.



Dead or Alive?


One of the more curious aspects of the infamous 1991 murder trial are the numerous witnesses for the defense who testified that they had seen Shirley Gibbs with their own eyes after the murder was said to have taken place. One such witness, Corporal Daniel Carraway, said that he saw Shirley talking on the telephone at the Bachelor Officers' Quarters between 4 p.m. and 4:30 on March 4, 1989, while a clerk at Rutter's Convenience Store in York positively identified Gibbs from photos, and said that she visited the store frequently to purchase lottery tickets.

Caroline Baum, who lived on the base with her husband, said she saw Shirley walking along the road on March 6. "I had a very eerie feeling and I wanted to go back and pick her up," said Baum. By the time she turned the car around, she saw the woman getting into vehicle with a man who wasn't Robert Russell.

If Shirley Gibbs Russell had managed to run off with another man or disappear from the grid, as some have speculated, maintaining her privacy would've been virtually impossible in the days and weeks after the murder trial. Before Robert Russell was even sentenced, dozens of nationally-syndicated television shows and tabloids turned the case into ratings fodder. The case was featured on the May 15, 1991, episode of A Current Affair, and was also made into a made-for-TV movie for the USA Network, starring Jasmine Guy (of A Different World fame) as the victim, and Nick Searcy (who would later star big screen hits like The Shape of Water and Moneyball) as Robert Russell. In 2000, the story was featured on the Discovery Channel's FBI Files.

"It was sensational as all heck," said defense attorney Frederick Fanelli of the media coverage.

In May of 1991, Fanelli presented stunning new evidence to the 4th District Court of Appeals in Richmond suggesting that Shirley Gibbs was still alive-- a postcard from the Caribbean that was allegedly signed by the victim. Bolstering this claim was the fact that Shirley's passport and driver's license were never located after her disappearance.

The postcard, which had been mailed to an anonymous FBI agent, bore a postmark from July of 1991. Lead prosecutor Lawrence Leiser laughed at the absurdity of Fanelli's claim. "In the whole world of people... she chose to send a postcard to a special agent she hasn't met in her whole life?" scoffed Leiser. But Fanelli wasn't finished; he also produced a statement from a woman in Nesquehoning who claimed that she'd seen Shirley Gibbs jogging in Lansford shortly after the murder was supposed to have taken place.

While this new evidence should've provided the court with reasonable doubt about Russell's guilt, a panel of judges from the 4th District Court of Appeals refused to hear the case. Surprisingly, the vote to reject Russell's appeal was unanimous.

The same court also rejected an appeal in 2014, while the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court rejected Russell's 2016 appeal. In August of 2018, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones not only rejected another appeal by Russell, now 58 years of age, but ordered the case closed permanently and refused to issue a certificate of appealability.

Robert Russell, now 62, is presently serving his life sentence at the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in Lycoming County and, barring some sort of miracle, will most likely die inside its walls. To date, he has filed 35 motions, petitions and appeals related to his conviction, the most recent of which was dismissed on May 10, 2019.

As for Lawrence Leiser, the lead prosecutor who managed to secure a first-degree murder conviction without proof of a murder having been committed, he was suspended by the Justice Department in 1995 on charges of prosecutorial misconduct; during a high-profile 1993 trial of a cult deprogrammer named Galen Kelly, Leiser 
intentionally withheld evidence that the defendant could 
have used to prove his innocence. These charges, interestingly enough, are identical to the accusations made by Russell's attorney in 1991.   

No corpse. No murder weapon. No witnesses to the alleged crime, not even blood or DNA in the car that allegedly carried Shirley Gibbs from a Marine base in Virginia to a mineshaft in Schuylkill County. It was circumstantial evidence--and a prosecutor with a track record of playing dirty-- which led to the improbable conviction of Robert Peter Russell. But is he really guilty of the crime? Perhaps some day he will break his silence, or perhaps the fate of Shirley Gibbs will remain a mystery.

Comments

  1. Fascinating case - I wonder if there had been a different prosecutor, would the jury have returned a guilty plea?

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    1. It is fascinating... I'm 99% convinced Russell killed her and dumped the body somewhere, but from a purely legal point of view, he should have been acquitted.

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  2. I believe he did kill her. Based on the remarks he made about her to his friends. And the comment his first wife made @his trial. She was smart a Captain in the Marines and he was mad because she had filed for divorce. So sorry for her family, and their loss.

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