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Court overturns opening of criminal records

A state appeals court has ordered that the criminal records of a Miami man who founded a missing children's charity should remain sealed.

The 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach ruled last week that an Orlando judge made a mistake last year when he ordered three arrest records unsealed. The companies that publish the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald joined with the Orange County State Attorney's Office in suing to have the records unsealed.

The records involved the arrests in 1975 and 1977 of John Lewis Russell III, who founded the Bureau of Missing Children. The bureau was a non-profit, charitable corporation set up to help find missing children. It has been described as little more than a boiler-room operation. The newspapers' cases against Russell have become a battle over the interpretation of Florida's confusing sealing and expunction laws.

The Times has reported that Russell was arrested in Orlando for carrying a concealed weapon, passing a worthless check and grand larceny. Russell, a former private investigator, also has three sealed records in Tampa, despite a state law intended to keep anyone but first offenders from having criminal records sealed.

The newspapers also have sued to unseal the Tampa records, but the Hillsborough case is on hold until the Orlando case is resolved.

The appeals court ruled that the newspapers and the prosecutors failed to show "good cause" that Russell's Orlando records should be unsealed. The court suggested that good cause would include evidence that Russell perjured himself to have the cases sealed or that the hidden cases concealed judicial wrongdoing.

Pat Anderson, a St. Petersburg attorney representing the Times and the Herald, said she will ask the Orlando judge to allow her to present evidence that Russell acted improperly in asking for three separate arrest records to be sealed.

Richard S. Blunt, a Tampa attorney representing Russell, was not available for comment Tuesday afternoon.

The case began in 1989 when the Herald reported that Russell had persuaded two judges in Hillsborough to seal records of three Tampa arrests: a 1979 charge of carrying a concealed weapon, a 1981 charge of grand theft and a 1984 charge of possession of cocaine.

The Times and Herald sued to have those records unsealed. Last year, the Times reported Russell's Orlando arrests.

Russell is no longer connected with the Bureau for Missing Children. He could not be found for comment. Despite his record of six arrests, Russell can legally claim he has no criminal record.