In the days, weeks and months prior to her death Monday morning on the tracks just north of the San Antonio station in Mountain View, Heather Russell had been systematically and brutally beaten, friends and colleagues said.
Police say Russell, 29, sat on the tracks at about 11:30 a.m. Monday and was struck and killed by a southbound train. But those who knew the cheerful, pretty brunette insist there is more to her death than a suicide, and they don't want police to close the case.
"They need to look into this. She was being beaten and not just once -- all the time," said Steve Shaunnessy, a longtime friend and colleague at Rasputin Music and DVDs in Mountain View, where Russell worked and managed the book section. "We worked together for seven years. The Heather I've known all these years doesn't go walking in front of trains. I'm afraid that in a week or 10 days the police will write off this case as just a suicide."
Russell was described by colleagues as universally respected at Rasputin and previously as a supervisor at Borders Books on University Avenue in Palo Alto. She was the kind of person who always came to work on time, didn't call in sick or complain about her job, colleagues said.
"She was someone who showed up. She worked her a-- off. She never seemed depressed. She was fun to be around; she was bubbly," Shaunnessy said.
Ursula Dorward, a former colleague, worked with Russell at Borders, and Russell followed her to Rasputin, where the two helped start up the store.
"Heather was an amazing person to work with. She was a bookseller who really loved books. She always went above and beyond and never let her coworkers down. She was always someone I could rely on -- I can't possibly say enough to communicate how confident I always was in her ability to get things done," Dorward said by e-mail.
Russell was friendly and social, and made friends with many of her coworkers, according to Dorward.
"She had her ups and downs, like we all do, and over the years I did see her go through rough times, but she always seemed so determined, if that makes sense. It didn't seem like she was going to let things get the better of her. Heather was a fighter. I guess that's what made it so unbelievable to hear," she said.
Dorward added that in 2008, Russell may have had financial problems due to increased rents in her apartment complex.
"This was last year, and I don't know what happened after that, whether the financial situation improved or got worse," she said.
Evan Kennedy, a coworker who met Russell more than two years ago when both came to Rasputin, recalled that Russell was an avid reader and a fan of comic books.
"I remember being very jealous of her having first crack at the comics that came into the store. I think I remember her saying her favorite series was Sandman. She loved classic rock, hip hop and punk rock, going to bars and to the movies with friends. She could always be counted on to bring that extra silly flair to a group outing, she was always very sharp and had a good sense of humor.
"The whole store and all the rest of my friends will miss the hell out of her, we all loved her dearly and it's gonna be very, very tough getting used to not seeing her anymore," he said.
Dorward emphasized her concern that stories about some aspects of Russell's life could be misconstrued.
"I do hope you will create a fair portrait. It's hard to see people pass judgment on someone you know," she wrote in an e-mail.
That concern, colleagues said, stems from an abusive relationship Russell became involved in. A few months ago, Russell began showing up at work with black eyes and other evidence of physical abuse, they said. She maintained her cheerful exterior and made excuses for her injuries, claiming at times to have fallen down after a night of heavy drinking, Shaunnessy said.
Colleagues didn't pry and Russell remained secretive about her private life. But her father, Tim Russell, said from his home in Thousand Oaks that Heather had discussed her life in greater detail with a sister and brothers, calling frequently and talking for 30 minutes at a time, he said.
During a few of those conversations, she hinted of abuse in the relationship and that her boyfriend had hit her, he said. He was not aware of abuse in any of her other relationships. She was in a prior relationship that lasted five years but ended amicably when the couple grew apart, he said.
The oldest of 10 siblings, she moved to Palo Alto about 10 years ago, living with an aunt and uncle after she graduated from Thousand Oaks High School. Russell was invited by the couple to be a nanny for their children. They have since moved away from the area, he said.
Police have had numerous contacts with Russell's latest boyfriend, according to Agent Dan Ryan, Palo Alto Police Department spokesman. The boyfriend frequents Lytton Plaza, a downtown hangout, and sometimes during police encounters, Russell was with him, Ryan said. She always seemed jumpy, he said.
Russell wasn't in frequent trouble with the law. Last year, in a publicized misdemeanor arrest, police picked her up at 3 a.m. in the Baylands preserve with another male friend. She was in possession of a small amount of marijuana and charged with being under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms, a hallucinogen, Ryan said. Friends said she went to court but the issue was resolved.
Friends said she remained secretive about her current boyfriend. Shaunnessy, who often saw Russell on the bus, said Russell never introduced him. When she was alone, Russell greeted Shaunnessy in her usual bubbly, talkative manner. But when the boyfriend was with her, Russell did not engage in conversation. She barely acknowledged Shaunnessy, he said. The boyfriend could not be located for comment.
In the months prior to her death, as soon as she got off work, Russell rushed off to downtown. Shaunnessy said he couldn't understand why it was imperative. More and more, she was drinking with her boyfriend and others in parking lots and other outside spaces, he said.
A week ago, Russell showed up at work with a huge gash in her head that required 23 stitches, according to Shaunnessy. Colleagues were alarmed.
"I told her, 'Whatever battle you're fighting, sweetheart, you're not going to win,'" Shaunnessy said.
Then three days before her death, for the first time last Friday, Russell did not show up for work. And she could not be reached by phone. On Friday and over the weekend, she could not be reached and her voice mail was turned off, Shaunnessy said.
Colleagues called her family, finding a phone number on her cell phone left in her room. They advised her parents to file a missing person's report, but by the time her parents began to figure out what to do, they learned she was dead, Tim Russell said.
Heather's parents, Tim and Sue, said the family has many questions about what happened in the last days of her life.
"This situation has obviously been an incredible shock to our whole family. We didn't see any of this coming. Heather was missing for four days. Heather was a very strong, stubborn, sensitive, and caring person. She loved to be in contact with her nine younger brothers and sisters. This is not the type of person that was our Heather," Sue Russell wrote by e-mail.
Shaunnessy agreed. He said the nature and frequency of her injuries leave him with many concerns.
"The question that keeps nagging me is: Where the hell was she for three days? ... Don't let these cops blow this off. Somebody knows something. There was more going on than someone just decided to off themselves," he said.
Victor Lopez, a detective with the San Mateo County Sheriff's transit bureau, which handles Caltrain incidents, said investigators are looking into all possibilities.
"We will investigate to the fullest," he said.
A June 5 memorial art show and auction for Russell will be held at The Jungle, 542 High Street in Palo Alto, at 6 p.m. Russell's friends will auction their art and donate the proceeds to a battered women's shelter, according to Evan Kennedy.