“Inconceivable.” “Incomprehensible.” Expert after expert in this new documentary struggles to put into words the fate that befell Lin Russell and her two young daughters.
One horrible afternoon in July 1996, Lin, 45, and six-year-old daughter Megan were found bludgeoned to death in the heart of the Kent countryside. Josie, then nine, suffered severe head injuries in a brutal hammer attack.
It’s a crime that continues to appal and fascinate – so much so that Sky has dedicated an entire three-part documentary to it.
Titled The Russell Murders: Who Killed Lin & Megan?, the documentary takes us through the lead-up to their murders in exhaustive detail. In happier times, archive footage shows Lin with Megan shortly before their deaths, being interviewed for a TV news report.
A religious sect had set up close to their home at Granary Cottage, Nonington and Lin was interviewed on the school run. She is casually dressed in a brown cardigan and stands protectively over Megan, clutching the same red lunchbox that was later found blood-splattered at the crime scene in Chillenden.
“They’re very friendly, very keen to help,” she says, with a big grin. “Always pleasant, always greet you. I think they’re great, they’re great.”
What Lin (who had moved there a year earlier with husband Shaun) says is so utterly bland the clip probably never made it to air until after the murders. But over these few moments, she gives us a sense of just how out of character the killings were in a village where previously a few druids was its biggest concern.
Setting the scene, contemporary drone footage sweeps across the beautiful corn yellow fields of Chillenden. Insects feed on maize as wind gently blows blades of grass. Generally, this is one of the safest places in England to bring up children. And so what happened as Lin, walking home along a track after picking up the sisters from a swimming gala, left neighbours so shocked they could barely speak to the first news crews to arrive.
One of the first police officers on the scene that day, Richard Leivers, retraces his steps. “There was blood from the top of their heads, and blood down their faces and on their clothes,” he tells us. “Their lives were over.”
“As I shone the light on Josie, I saw her shoulder twitch just slightly... she was alive. I swooped her up in my arms and we walked down the path with her. She was screaming. She was bleeding out on my arm.” Josie miraculously survived – and became the police’s only eyewitness. There was no forensic or DNA evidence that could help police with tracking down the murderer.
As the investigation unfolds, we get a sense of just how unusual this attack, and the subsequent police operation, was. No murder weapon was found, but a year into the stalled homicide investigation, a BBC Crimewatch appeal turned up the name of local drug addict Michael Stone. Veteran Sun crime reporter Mike Sullivan offers, for want of a better phrase, that Stone “fitted the bill”.
But was Stone actually fitted up? He lived five miles from Chillenden. A unsavoury character, with a violent temper and troubled childhood, Stone had once carried out a hammer attack and was even a suspect in the 1976 knife murder of a special constable in a churchyard. He was “a byword for evil”, we’re told – and yet Stone continually professed his innocence.
“I never did this,” we hear the aging voice of Stone, now 63, speaking on the phone from HMP Frankland to his lawyer Mark McDonald. “It wasn’t me. I wasn’t there.” In fact, Stone has spent 26 years pleading his innocence, but the door to almost every legal challenge has slammed shut. After two trials and an appeal, his legal team are preparing one more attempt at getting the guilty verdict and 25-year sentence overturned. They have their work cut out: in June, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, an independent investigator of potential miscarriages of justice, concluded there is “no real possibility” the Court of Appeal would quash Stone’s convictions.
Where does that leave us? Over three hours long, Who Killed Lin & Megan? explores and re-examines the murders, but doesn’t actually answer that question. Episode two focuses on the gripping courtroom drama of Stone’s 1998 trial, while part three is about his subsequent appeal bids.
Filmmaker Tom Peppiatt does well to convey the fear felt locally, aided by interviews given at the time and recollections of those who have never spoken about the crime since. That said, there isn’t quite enough material to fill three episodes, so by 120 minutes in, you’re wanting things to speed up.
Noticeably absent are Shaun and Josie, now an artist living in Wales, any current Kent senior police officers, or any Crown Prosecution Service lawyers. At first this omission seems jarring, but then it suddenly dawns: if Stone is innocent, and there are many in this film thinking he might be, what will make him and his family extremely happy can only bring further indescribable pain to the Russell family.
Episode one of The Russell Murders: Who Killed Lin and Megan? is streaming on NOW; with new episodes airing weekly on Sky Documentaries