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Massive manhunt in '49 had residents in a panic

Editor's note: Jerry Blizin was a Times reporter from 1948 to 1965. This is one in a series of columns about the biggest Pinellas County stories during that era.

Pinellas County's biggest manhunt took place 45 years ago, when 1,000 volunteers combed the woods of Palm Harbor in August 1949, seeking a killer named John Calvin "Rastus" Russell.

Russell was a muscular, handsome 25-year-old with a penchant for strangling kittens. He had been nicknamed Rastus ever since he had been placed in a mental facility at Gainesville at the age of 10. He was judged insane after an attempted robbery and sent to the state mental hospital in Chattahoochee but was subsequently released in 1941.

On the morning of Aug. 7, 1949, Rastus Russell showed up at the Crystal Beach home of Norman Y. Browne, a 75-year-old retiree. Noticing a "for sale" sign out front, Russell asked Browne if he could look at the property. Browne and his wife, Annie, let Russell in.

After a few minutes, Russell asked to use the bathroom and came back carrying two shotguns he had seen in Browne's home. He leveled one of the guns at Browne and demanded money. When he got none, Russell struck Browne on the head and forced the couple into the garage. Then he ransacked the house, searching fruitlessly for money.

At gunpoint, Russell marched the Brownes back into the house. He tied Mrs. Browne to the bed. Browne tried to fight back. Russell picked up a kitchen knife and stabbed Browne fatally. As he turned to attack Mrs. Browne, Russell heard the crunch of auto wheels on the shell driveway.

Up drove Miles Crum, owner of a Crystal Beach grocery, and his wife, Thelma, who was holding their 8-month-old baby, Judy. Just as the visiting Crum family got out of their car, Russell threw open the front door and fired a 12-gauge shotgun, critically wounding Miles Crum. Then he rushed down the steps and with a single blow from the shotgun butt, struck Mrs. Crum and the baby. The child was brain-damaged and died six years later.

Russell jumped into the family car and drove off. Later his landlord saw two shotguns in Russell's rented room. The landlord, Sam Crain, an employee of the old Pasco Packing House in Palm Harbor, told his boss, who called Sheriff Todd Tucker's office.

Tucker and Constable Walter Carey worked out a plan to capture Russell. They asked Crain to invite Russell to a family scalloping party on the Dunedin flats. The lawmen would signal the family to move away from Russell once he was in the water.

When Russell was waist deep, hidden lawmen ordered him to surrender, opening fire when he began swimming away. The suspect was hauled aboard a borrowed boat after he became exhausted. He was handcuffed and taken to the hospital where Mrs. Browne and the Crums identified him. "Get him out of here," wept Mrs. Browne, "he still has that same sneer on his face."

Russell was locked up in the old county jail behind the courthouse. But on the night of Aug. 27, 1949, he called to the new night jailer, saying he had a terrible headache and needed aspirin. When the jailer responded, Russell knocked him out with a metal bar wrapped in tape, then made his escape.

The news that the brutal Russell was loose sent Pinellas residents into a panic. People were already glued to their radios because of a hurricane alert, but Russell's escape was far more frightening. Violent crime was a rarity in those days when people left their front doors open at night and slept on the screen porch in hot August weather.

The next morning a posse of 1,000 men and boys assembled. The sheriff said it was the biggest force assembled since Pinellas became a county in 1912. The National Guard was also called out and a local pilot, Bobo Hayes, volunteered to do an aerial search.

County officials also decided to get some bloodhounds from Plant City. Officer Harry Frazier and his dogs, Flip and Flop, came over. Despite Frazier's claim that the dogs worked a slow track, reporters (including myself) couldn't stay with them.

On the third day of the manhunt, a Palm Harbor gas station/grocery owner reported that someone had broken into the store and taken all the pennies out of the cash drawer, as well as some loaves of bread, candy and soft drinks. An old car parked behind the store also was missing.

On the fourth day, Frank Edwards, a grove worker at Lake Thonotosassa, called the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to report a car stuck in the sand about a mile into the grove.

Hillsborough Deputy Sheriff Bob Spooner and Plant City officer Frazier responded. As Frazier took his dogs into the grove, he said a man armed with a knife leaped out. Frazier fired three times with his service revolver, while Spooner fired a shotgun.

The officers said Russell's last words were: "You fellows killed me and I'm glad you did." Beside the body, a small pocket knife was found.

Jerry Blizin is retired and lives in Tarpon Springs. Reporters Ralph Reed, Al Hackett, John Gardner and Bob Preston also covered the Russell case. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.