BOISE -- The family of a man gunned down on a Garden City street last year says 30-year-old Paul Russell Jr. died the way he lived: trying to help someone else.
Russell was shot and killed Oct. 20, 2016 after he drove to the intersection of West 39th and and Stockton streets to pick up a friend who had gotten into a quarrel. He had just arrived when two men, 29-year-old Mykle Blumenshine and 34-year-old Lyle Croson, opened fire.
Defense attorneys say neither Croson nor Blumenshine were aiming for Russell. It didn't matter.
A bullet struck Russell in the head, and he dropped to the pavement, not breathing.
"He was my only son," the victim's father, Paul Russell Sr., said. "When he died, my name died, was murdered with him."
On Friday, both Blumenshine and Croson were sentenced to life in prison. Blumenshine will be eligible for parole after serving 18 years; Croson after 15 years.
Russell's family described him as a talented artist, hard worker and jokester who was so eager to help others he once came home from school barefoot, because he had given his brand-new shoes away to another child.
He joined the Navy one month after graduating high school and was stationed in Pearl Harbor, where he worked as a chef. Originally from Texas, Russell moved to Idaho in 2010, working in the oil industry and climbing the ranks to manager at a fast-food restaurant.
But Russell missed his parents, three sisters, and his own young son, his father said. Less than a week before he was killed, he told Russell Sr. he was ready to come home to San Antonio.
"It's senseless," Russell Sr. said.
Prosecutor Shelley Akamatsu said in court it was a pocket-dial that drew Russell to the spot where he died: Jarrett "Skitzo" Reed had accidentally called him while arguing with 27-year-old Elena Pena. Russell was worried for his friend, and drove to Meridian to look for him. As he was still driving, a second call from Reed routed Russell toward Garden City.
Pena made calls too, dialling Croson to come deal with the situation.
Croson is a member of the Severely Violent Criminals gang, a prison-born group affiliated with both the Surenos and the Aryan Knights. With Croson was Blumenshine, who had just gotten out of prison and "prospecting," or trying to join, SVC, according to Akamatsu.
Both men were on parole, but brought handguns to the intersection to confront Reed, Akamatsu said. The pair arrived at 39th and and Stockton just before Russell, and pointed the guns at Reed.
Reed, also a gang member, insulted Croson and lifted up his shirt to show a tire iron - essentially calling the gunmen's bluff - Boise Police Detective Brian Holland said. Holland said that under the code of the Severely Violent Criminals, such disrespect could not go unanswered.
Akamatsu said Russell and the two passengers in his car had just arrived when Croson and Blumenshine opened fire. The victim was still standing in the apex of the car doors when the bullet struck him.
One of the passengers called 911, as Croson, Blumenshine and Pena fled. Reed also left before police arrived, and later failed to show up to testify in court in the murder case, despite being subpoenaed.
Russell was rushed to the hospital, but his injuries were too grave and he died after being removed from life support. But even in death, his family said, he wasn't done giving: the victim was an organ donor, and his organs went on to save the lives of four other people.
Akamatsu said the crime was a gang-related shooting, even though Russell had no involvement in any gang.
"Russell Jr. was murdered because of the defendants' impulsivity, immaturity and screwed-up allegiance to themselves and their gang culture," she said. "Because of Croson and Blumenshine, Paul Russell Jr. is lost forever to his son. He's gone."
Both Croson and Blumenshine had long criminal histories, and had spent several stints in prison, at one point as cellmates.
Croson had been released from the Ada County Jail less than two months before the shooting, and was already wanted on another warrant by the time he pulled the trigger.
Blumenshine, who fired the shot that killed Russell, had been released from custody in September, the month before the murder.
Prosecutors say Blumenshine later told investigators he had purchased the gun he used to kill Russell from fellow parolee Marco Romero, who went on to shoot two Boise Police officers - paralyzing one of them - and kill a police dog just weeks after Russell's murder.
Akamatsu urged the judge to hand down long sentences for both defendants.
"Society needs the court to protect us from their impulsivity and their willingness to murder an innocent man," she said.
But the defense attorneys for Croson and Blumenshine argued the prosecutor's assertions were untrue and an attempt to sensationalize the case.
Brian Marx, Blumenshine's attorney, argued that there was zero evidence that his client was involved in the SVC gang, noting that unlike Croson, he did not have any tattoos related to the gang. Marx also argued that Blumenshine's confession about buying the gun from Romero was a lie, meant to deflect police attention from the fact he had stolen the gun during a burglary.
Croson's lawyer charged that Pena had lied about the shooting being a gang confrontation in an attempt to secure a favorable plea deal for herself. The attorney also argued that Croson had less culpability: he had fired his gun into the air at an angle - the bullet ultimately struck a building across Chinden Boulevard - with no apparent attempt to aim at Reed or anyone else.
In a statement before the sentencing, Croson told Russell's family he had never intended the victim's death.
"We didn't go there to hurt anyone, we went there to for the same reason he was there - to pick up a friend," he said, looking over at the victim's family seated in the first row of the gallery. "I went there to help my friend - yeah, I'm a criminal, yeah, I'm a gang member, but this situation had nothing to do with gangs."
Both defendants asked the judge for a chance to one day get out of prison to care for their young children - a baby boy for Croson and a girl for Blumenshine, both born after their fathers were arrested for Russell's murder.
Blumenshine said he regretted even pointing the gun at the other group.
"My reckless decision to aim in his direction was a mistake, and I will forever regret that," Blumenshine said.
Croson also expressed remorse for Russell's death.
"Your son is gone, and I can't bring him back," he said. "All I can do is give you my heartfelt apology, eternally, forever, for the rest of my days. There is not one day that will go by that I will not think of your son."
As he handed down the life sentences, Judge Steven Hippler said he hoped the defendants would someday realize the meaninglessness and destruction of the criminal lives they had led. The conflict the night Russell was shot should never have escalated to violence, he added.
"You could have just as easily collected Ms. Pena, got in the car and left. And that was the right answer," the judge said.
The victim's father said after the hearing that the defendants' prison sentences don't dull the pain his own family is still grappling with.
"They get to hug their kids still. They get to talk to them, they get to see them, they get to speak to them," Russell Sr. said. "Paul's son won't get the opportunity to see him. He won't get to see him grow up, graduate from high school."
Russell Sr., a minister, said that he is relying on his faith to cope with his son's death. Despite the devastation Croson and Blumenshine caused, he said, he hopes they are able to counsel others and find their own faith behind bars.
"I know that God don't make mistakes," he said. "Even in the sentencing, I have to know that God knows best and knows what's going to happen."
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