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Candlelight vigil honors officer

Family, friends remember Russell for caring nature

Blair-Bedford Central Labor Council president Bob Kutz has his candle lit by Dee Strittmatter of Altoona during a vigil on Sunday for slain Blair County Corrections Officer Rhonda Russell near the Central Court building, as family and friends hold balloons spelling her name. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

After a candlelight vigil for slain Blair County corrections officer Rhonda Russell on Sunday, her fiance, Donny LaGesse, also a corrections officer, searched his memory for a story to tell about the woman he loved and lived with.

Finally, LaGesse told one that began with Russell, but ended without her:

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, Russell, who died Nov. 17 in a struggle after an inmate took her gun, had arranged for both of them to work a double shift Thanksgiving Day, so they could host her father and three sons at the Russell-LaGesse cabin in the woods near Portage for a Thanksgiving Saturday feast.

That dinner took place without her — but “she was there,” said LaGesse.

He did the cooking, this time without Russell’s help, and they set a place for her and talked about her for three or four hours — LaGesse, her father, Ron Russell, and sons Justin, 27; Ricky, 23, and Aric, 20.

Family and friends release balloons spelling the first name of slain Blair County Corrections Officer Rhonda Russell during a candlelight vigil near the Central Court building on Sunday. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

The couple met at work, at Blair County Prison, 16 years ago, and moved in together 12 years ago, LaGesse said.

She made sure he took his medicine, she drove down to pick him up if he worked a double shift, for fear he’d fall asleep coming home, and recently, checked on him five times during a night when he was restless with heartburn.

They always went to bed together holding hands, LaGesse said.

She loved their three cats — two of whom were rescue animals, he said.

They took walks on their property on the weekends.

Family and friends of slain Blair County Corrections Officer Rhonda Russell gathered for a candlelight vigil near the Central Court building on Sunday. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with himself now, he said.

Balloon tribute

At the vigil, six silver helium balloon letters spelled out RHONDA.

Family members and friends, each holding a letter, lined up for a picture.

Someone noticed that the letter line was backwards, so the participants rearranged themselves.

Then someone noticed the N was facing backwards.

So the N holder turned it around.

People were smiling about the confusion.

Then everyone let the balloons go.

They drifted up into a gray sky, heading north.

And as they spread apart, like debris from an explosion, the letters no longer spelled RHONDA — although the individual ones remained distinct for a long time, whenever the breeze turned them to face the onlookers, who were standing in the parking lot of Central Court, where Russell had died.

Finally, the balloons turned into specks, like distant birds, and the onlookers turned their attention to one another.

Running late

Her friends and fellow COs were eager to talk about Russell, and couldn’t wait to mention her main foible: tardiness.

“She was always late,” said Jaime Focht, longtime family friend. “Tell her 3 o’clock, and she would show up at 3:30.”

Her friends would tease her about being late to her own funeral, said CO Susie Desch, who was reminded of the irony — that Russell was actually coming to her funeral far too early.

Russell habitually woke up early, but still ran late for work, her friends said.

It was a matter of grooming.

“She had to be beautiful,” said CO Shannon Booker. “Her hair had to be perfect.”

LaGesse was usually in the car waiting while she finished up, he said.

Christmas money

Russell started working at the prison for Christmas money, said CO Beth Salomie.

A year later, with Russell still employed, Salomie asked her about that Christmas money.

“She made a career,” Salomie said.

At work, Russell tended to be quiet, to just “take stuff in” — until it was time to react, said CO Robin Collins.

If an inmate would “get out of hand,” she would “take charge,” Collins said. “She didn’t put up with anything,” Collins stated.

Russell could sense when things weren’t right, and she was good at “shakedowns” — cell searches for contraband, Collins said.

“She knew what to look for,” Collins said. “She took the bull by the horns.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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