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Woman's death in custody stirs battle over estate

BY PHILLIP O'CONNOR Published: March 8, 2013

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.

Brief marriage

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.

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