PAULS VALLEY — When Jamie Lynn Russell died after being arrested at a Pauls Valley hospital where she went for treatment, she left behind a son, now 10 years old.
An estranged husband who had little contact with Jamie Russell, was in jail at the time of her death and who signed court documents saying he is engaged to another woman, is seeking to gain control of her estate.
If successful, Bruce W. Russell, who is not the boy's father, would control any medical malpractice lawsuit resulting from Jamie Russell's death, including making decisions on who to sue, whether to settle and for how much. The court's ruling could affect the amount of money the boy, James Wyatt Fisher, receives from any such settlement.
A 1910 Oklahoma law gives spouses first right to the estate of a deceased mate. Unlike some states, Oklahoma makes no exceptions for cases that involve estranged spouses.
The possibility that Bruce Russell may stand to gain from Jamie Russell's death angers some of her friends.
“If this cannot be prevented, if this is a cut-and-dried case, then I'm a little outraged at the process,'' said Grant Kemper Kimberlin, 56, a longtime neighbor of Jamie Russell in rural Garvin County. “He's not at all involved in her life and, boom, she's dead and the next thing you know he finds out ... and he smells money is all I can see. The reality is the man is engaged, fathered a child, is totally irresponsible and has no ability to control money.”
Bruce Russell, 37, declined to comment.
“Unless I talk to my attorney first, I ain't answering no questions from no reporters,” he said.
His attorney did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The Russells wed in June 2010, about two months after Kimberlin said they began dating.
“It was just too quick,'' said Kimberlin, who attended the wedding and whose cousin served as the minister. “Nobody approved of this. It was out of character for her.”
Jamie Russell, 33, worked as a union pipe fitter and was a doting mother, Kimberlin said. Her new husband worked intermittently as a welder.
In 2009, Bruce Russell pleaded no contest to drunken driving in Garvin County and received a $500 fine and one-year jail sentence that was suspended. A judge issued an arrest warrant this week after Russell failed to make payment on the fine.
Kimberlin said twice after the Russells married, Jamie Russell sought Kimberlin's help after Bruce Russell drunkenly walked away from the couple's home. Both times, they found him passed out, once in a roadside ditch and once in nearby woods, Kimberlin said.
“He was just so unpredictable,'' Kimberlin said. “She was clearly the bread winner of that family, and there wasn't a lot bread going around.”
Kimberlin said the relationship lasted only a few months.
“She came over one day and said, ‘That's it. It's over. Bruce is out of here. I'm tired of his instability,'” Kimberlin said.
Cause of death
On the afternoon of Jan. 2, Jamie Russell arrived by ambulance at Pauls Valley General Hospital complaining of stomach pain. According to a police report, Russell was uncooperative with the staff and still complaining of pain when the hospital discharged her about 7:30 p.m.
A police officer helping gather Russell's things found two bottles of prescription pills that did not belong to her.
A doctor declared Russell fit for incarceration. The officer arrested her on narcotics possession charges and took her to the Garvin County jail, where she was found unresponsive in a holding cell two hours later. About 11 p.m., an ambulance carried her back to the hospital where she was pronounced dead soon after arrival.
The state medical examiner ruled the cause of death was a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, a condition in which an embryo implants outside the womb. While fairly routine and easily diagnosable, the condition always is fatal for the baby, but the death of the mother usually is preventable.
Hospital officials have said they cannot comment on the details of Russell's treatment but that they would investigate the case.
State officials also are investigating.
Jamie Russell's sister, Stefanie Fisher, is seeking court approval to represent her sister's estate on behalf of the son and has hired a lawyer to pursue a malpractice claim.
Fisher declined to comment through her lawyer.
In a statement last month, the lawyer, Heather Mitchell, said implications that Jamie Russell was a drug abuser were inaccurate and that a drug screen administered when Russell entered the hospital detected no drugs in her system.
Mitchell said the narcotics discovered by police belonged to an elderly aunt, with whom Russell lived and served as caretaker. Mitchell declined to comment for this story.
After Russell's death, Sheriff Larry Rhodes called the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to look into the incident.
The bureau turned over its report to the Garvin County district attorney's office Feb. 21.
First Assistant District Attorney Mark Gibson said Thursday in a telephone interview he'd yet to review the file to determine whether charges should be filed in the case.
Asked why he'd yet to do so given that the case involved the death of a woman in police custody, Gibson responded, “I don't answer to you. Bye,” and hung up.
At the time of Jamie Russell's death, Bruce Russell sat in the Cleveland County jail.
Police arrested him Dec. 8, after a car wreck, and he faces several charges including felonies for drunken driving and having three children in the vehicle.
On Dec. 10, Russell requested he be released on a personal recognizance bond. On the application, he identified himself as single.
On Dec. 21, Russell submitted another application, this time seeking a court-appointed attorney. He again identified himself as single.
Under “spouse's name,” he wrote, “Kristin Knight,” indicated that she was his fiance and that they lived together in Norman, along with three children, including a 2-month-old baby that bears his last name.
While still in jail on charges for which he swore he could not afford an attorney, another attorney representing Bruce Russell filed the paperwork in Garvin County seeking control of Jamie's Russell's estate.
Bruce Russell was released from jail Jan. 18. Thursday, he waived a preliminary hearing in the latest drunken-driving case, and a judge ordered an April 24 trial.
A court hearing to determine who gains control of the Jamie Russell's estate has yet to be scheduled.