‘A little piece of Mum that’s still here’: Josie Russell with her mother Lin’s beloved Welsh cob Rosie, who is now 26
Josie Russell was just five years old when she met Rosie. She recalls how excited she and her younger sister Megan were when their mother Lin brought home the pretty Welsh cob with the long blonde mane and tail.
Today, Rosie, a little greyer around the muzzle, is still a vital part of Josie’s life – a poignant link with an idyllic childhood that, just four years later, was savagely ripped apart.
It was on a sunny July day in 1996, that Lin, Josie and Megan were the victims of a frenzied attack as they walked along a quiet country lane in Kent, on their way back from a school swimming gala in the village of Chillenden.
They were blindfolded, tied to a tree with strips of Josie’s towel, and bludgeoned with a hammer in a pitiless crime that appalled Britain.
Lin, 45, and Megan, who was just six, died at the scene, alongside their pet dog, Lucy. Police and paramedics assumed Josie was dead, too – until a faint pulse was found. She’d sustained catastrophic head injuries but she somehow survived.
After Josie’s discharge from hospital, her father Shaun Russell, a botanist, took her back to the secluded Nantlle valley in North Wales where the family had once lived, and where they could focus on dealing with their grief and her recovery.
Her rehabilitation was a long, slow process – it was a year before she could speak again – but Josie stunned doctors with her progress and her academic achievements.
Now, aged 30, and bearing a striking resemblance to her mother Lin – the same dark hair, perhaps a little less unruly, dark eyes and beaming smile – she’s a successful textile artist who has just announced her engagement to her boyfriend of 12 years, Iwan Griffith.
A family torn apart: Josie, above, with mother Lin and younger sister Megan on the day Mrs Russell brought Rosie the pony home
He actually proposed last December, but it is only now that Josie feels ready to share her happiness and plans for a family of her own.
‘It was on Christmas morning, Iwan gave me chocolates and said “Sorry, I didn’t get you much”,’ she says laughing.
‘Then he produced the ring – a diamond solitaire – and said: “Happy Christmas”.
‘He did offer to get down on one knee and propose but I told him he didn’t have to. It was a wonderful moment because Iwan is not only a wonderful man, he’s my best friend.’
The couple met in a pub in Caernarfon on December 31, 2005, while Josie was at university. Their romance was sparked by their love of the dramatic Welsh landscape. ‘We aren’t a lovey-dovey couple but there is love and mutual respect,’ Josie says.
‘I think we are both quite strong-willed which sometimes makes for conflict, but apart from that we get on well.
Shaun Russell is pictured with his wife Lin, Josie, 6, and Megan, 4, in the conservatory of the Welsh home where Josie now lives
According to Shaun Russell, 65, Rosie (pictured) was also key to Josie’s recovery, a tangible reminder that in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy she had not lost quite everything
‘We’re happiest when we’re walking on the beach together or in the mountains biking.’ Iwan, a 31-year-old fire alarm engineer, grew up on a farm and was blissfully ignorant of Josie’s past – a factor which had huge appeal for her.
‘It meant things were just nice and normal from the start,’ she says.
‘He asked about my mum once and I just told him she had died. Later his parents told him the full story but we never talk about the past. It’s better for me to just get on with the present.’
The day that changed Josie’s life forever
Killer: Michael Stone
Josie Russell was walking home from a swimming gala with her mother and sister in the quiet village of Chillenden, Kent, on July 9, 1996, when they were attacked by a man with a hammer.
Her mother, Lin Russell, 45, and sister, Megan, six, died as a result of Michael Stone’s brutal attack, but nine-year-old Josie survived, despite suffering life-changing head injuries.
Eight hours after the attack, searchers found the bodies of Lin and Megan Russell, and barely-alive Josie, who had been tied to a tree.
A police manhunt was launched, and heroin addict Stone was arrested 12 months after the attack. Stone, who has psychiatric issues, was found guilty of killing Mrs Russell and Megan, and was given three life sentences in 1998. A retrial was ordered in 2001 because some testimony had been discredited, but Stone was found guilty again.
In 2011, a lawyer acting for Stone claimed there was ‘compelling evidence’ linking Milly Dowler’s killer Levi Bellfield to the Russell case. Paul Bacon said: ‘Bellfield is 6ft 1in and it was said by Josie that the person was a bit taller than her dad. Her dad was 6ft. Michael Stone is 5ft 7in.’
Josie says that as her friends have settled down and started having children, it’s ‘inevitable that my thoughts have turned to whether we should too’.
Dr Lin Russell, a geologist with a passion for the countryside, animals and her family, is never far from Josie’s thoughts – but perhaps even more so now.
‘Before now I’ve never really been interested in babies, but I’m getting to know my friends’ children and enjoy being with them,’ she says.
‘I only had my Mum for nine years. She was strict but loving. She did so much stuff with us.
‘We made puppets, paper lanterns and doll’s house furniture. I’ve still got the peg bag she stitched by hand.
‘She wasn’t the sort of mum who sat us down in front of the TV while she did something else.’ For Josie those treasured memories are rooted in the home she shares with Iwan – the same home, in the foothills of Snowdonia, where she and Megan had lived with their parents.
In 2011, using money from a trust fund and compensation for her injuries, Josie was able to buy back the house which the couple have lovingly renovated. Her studio is the bedroom that Lin decorated for her when she was a little girl.
‘I think my mother was a good role model – not too much TV, very hands-on,’ Josie says.
‘I want to be the kind of mum who has lots of tea parties.’ A constant reminder of her mother is Rosie, Lin’s beloved pony, who lives in the paddock behind the house with another horse, Folly.
According to Shaun Russell, 65, Rosie was also key to Josie’s recovery, a tangible reminder that in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy she had not lost quite everything.
‘She’s 26 now. I can’t bear to think of Rosie not being here one day,’ Josie says.
Now, aged 30, Josie is a successful textile artist who has just announced her engagement to her boyfriend of 12 years, Iwan Griffith (pictured together)
It was on a sunny July day in 1996, that sisters Josie and Megan (pictured together) were the victims of a frenzied attack as they walked along a quiet country lane in Kent with mother Lin
‘She was my mother’s and now she’s mine. She’s a little piece of mum that’s still here.
‘We’ve been through a lot together and she knows me so well.’ There is no doubt in Josie’s mind that the right man, Michael Stone, is behind bars for the murder of her mother and sister, and she is angry about the way in which the family’s wounds were reopened earlier this year when the BBC screened a controversial documentary called The Chillenden Murders.
It invited a panel of independent criminal experts to re-examine evidence which convicted Stone and suggested ‘questions’ remained over his conviction.
‘It didn’t seem to prove anything,’ she said. ‘We just want to get on with our lives. We don’t want it to come back again.’
There is no doubt in Josie’s mind that the right man, Michael Stone (pictured), is behind bars
While she long ago came to terms with the public’s interest in her story and how she has been able to carve out life on her own terms, Josie’s focus is very much on the future and the ‘big world out there’ that she and Iwan will explore.
And, of course, there is her career with her distinctive artwork that conjures up intricate compositions of local landscapes and animals which sell for upwards of £250.
She exhibits regularly and has commissions stretching well into next year.
‘It’s a job which I love,’ she says. ‘And I’m very lucky because it means I can work from home and stay close to my animals.’
She has, she reveals, also started work on her autobiography in the hope of one day ‘figuring it all out’.
‘There is one thing I’m sure of. I don’t want to be known as Josie the victim or Josie the survivor. I’m just Josie.’
For more information, go to josierussell.com