Cooped up alone in his Chinese hotel room, Darren Russell sat terrified. He was tough. He had suffered through plenty in the previous months and never said a thing. But now he was broke, sick and thousands of miles from home. So he surrendered to fear and reached for the phone. At 10:02 p.m. April 13, 2005, he dialed the international code for his father’s cell phone, but Mike Russell didn’t pick up. Voice shaking and rough, Darren left a message pleading for help. “I’m scared,” he said. “I want to get out of here. I’ve never been so scared in my life.” A world away in Calabasas, Maxine and Mike Russell were panicking because they hadn’t heard from their 35-year-old son. They had been getting daily updates from him, and now everything was going to hell. After months of fighting with his boss about what he thought were substandard conditions at the Decai school in Guangzhou, China, Darren had quit his job and threatened to go to the police. He had been kicked out of his apartment and shuttled to a hotel an hour away from the airport. Thieves stripped him of his college ring and $400. His mom wired $1,500 for a plane ticket home, but he couldn’t access the money. He didn’t have his passport or his laptop. She frantically worked the phones, contacting the State Department and trying to get her son home. Even from afar, they stayed in close contact. “We were inseparable,” she said. “There was never a day I didn’t speak with him. I knew if he didn’t call that he was hurt very badly.” On April 16, a State Department representative called instead. “I’m sorry to inform you,” a woman told her, “your son is dead.” Maxine Russell screamed. A new twist Authorities told the grieving mother that her son had been hit by a truck, that the force of the collision had split his skull and killed him. But something didn’t feel right to her. Her son was terrified of traffic in China and rarely ventured into the chaotic lanes without following a local. She began to wonder. He had no other broken bones, no lacerations that would indicate a truck had slammed into his body. It took three weeks to get his body home. The Russells buried him in May 2005 in Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills, wondering all the while if he had been murdered. And the official word on his death kept changing. When Maxine requested English copies of his medical records, they arrived – in Chinese. When she had them translated, they turned out to be for a woman suffering from depression. Seeking answers and closure, Maxine Russell again contacted the State Department, along with the Chinese government, Congress, the Senate, the FBI and anyone else she thought could help. In the ensuing two years, she sent more than 1,000 packets describing the mysterious circumstances of Darren’s death. Most got no response. But she didn’t give up. She had a replica made of her son’s stolen college ring and a necklace with the Chinese character for White Rabbit – the nickname his students gave him – that she wears in remembrance. She started three Web sites, JusticeForAmericans-inChina.com, WhiteRabbitsMom.org and TeachingInChina.net, to tell the story herself. She kept pressing Congress, but things moved slowly. No one seemed interested in investigating an old death officially ruled an accident. So in March, she had her son’s body exhumed and autopsied by Dr. David Posey, a La Ca ada-based pathologist. He found knuckle marks on Darren’s cheek and defensive wounds on his hand. “The injuries to your son have been analyzed, and there are no injuries to suggest Darren was struck by a truck or other type of motor vehicle,” Posey wrote in his report. “Based on all of the evidence reviewed and examined and the autopsy findings, the cause and manner of death are as follows: CAUSE OF DEATH: Blunt force trauma to head and brain. MANNER OF DEATH: Homicide.” Off to China Before he ended up cold and broken in a Guangzhou morgue, Darren had big plans. He grew up in Van Nuys and studied sociology at San Diego State University. He was good with kids, devoted to his family and worked hard. “He always had a feeling for the underdog,” his mom said. “He always cared about others.” As a child, he doted on his grandmother. When he saw children crying, he would crack them up with impressions of Donald Duck. Though shy at first, he was remembered as a loyal, giving friend. After college, he joined his dad in the family scrap metal business. But Darren wanted more. He tried acting. He considered going back to school for a master’s degree in social work, but he wanted to see the world. He picked China. So, for five months in 2004, he moved to Hebei Province and taught English. Everything went smoothly, and he decided to return a second time, receiving 23 job offers and signing with a school in Guangzhou called Decai. He left the day after Thanksgiving in high spirits and made his mom promise she would visit. But things went bad from the start. Not paradise Instead of the picturesque, two-story school shown on the Internet, he taught English classes seven days a week in a shabby, rented room. He had 1,200 students, grades 1 through 12. Everything seemed shady. Maxine Russell flew in to visit him in January 2005 and was shocked. The apartment the school had provided her son had no hot water. Grates kept the windows open at all times. When he woke up, frost dotted his blankets. His mom pushed him to ask for a better place, but he assured her everything would be fine. “I’m not here to live in a fancy apartment,” he laughed. “I’m here to teach.” And he was very good at that, recalled his mother, a 20-year teacher herself. He led the kids in songs, taught them how to dance. But the long hours and rigorous workload ground him down. He got sick, developing a terrible cough and bronchitis. He approached his supervisor, Luo Deyi, and asked to have his work week reduced to six days. He was denied. Again, his mother pleaded with him, telling him to quit and come home. He refused, saying he didn’t want to abandon the kids he had come to love. “The students are just innocent victims,” he told her. “I’m not going to let them down.” Ever since he had arrived, his mother said, Decai kept her son’s passport, preventing him from leaving. Each time he asked for its return, he got another excuse about why it was needed to get the proper work visa. Attempts to locate the school and Luo Deyi were unsuccessful. But in an interview last year with the Associated Press, Luo said Darren’s “teaching methods failed to meet the requirement of the school and fit the students.” She also claimed he had a drinking problem, which his mother denies. “It was very strange and irresponsible for them to blame us for their son’s death,” Luo told the AP. The breaking point By early April, Darren had enough. He was getting injections four times a week for his bronchitis, and he had nothing left to give. He confronted Luo, demanded his passport and threatened to report the school to authorities. When he quit, Luo ordered him out of his apartment immediately. He grabbed his belongings and made plans to fly to Hong Kong, renew his visa and find another job. When he tried to go to the airport, he was instead taken to the hotel where he would make that fateful call. It is unclear who took him there. For three days, he tried to arrange a way out, but nothing worked. He had no money. The hotel took his laptop as collateral. Police held onto his passport. The wire transfer from his parents wouldn’t go through. The Russells tried to get their son to the airport or the American Consulate, where they planned to fly in to rescue him. He called to plead for their help. Within hours, he was dead. The truth Now, Maxine Russell believes the autopsy results give her the ammunition she needs to force an investigation. “Before, it was the word of a grieving mother,” she said. “Now that I have the information, it’s a whole different case.” Her congressman, Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, agrees. He was one of the few who was receptive to her calls for an investigation, assigning a caseworker in 2005 and personally contacting State Department officials. With the added weight of the autopsy, Waxman now plans to bring the case before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, perhaps as a prelude to an investigation of human rights violations. “I believe Mrs. Russell deserves answers to her questions,” he said in a statement. “The preliminary report received by Mrs. Russell raises these questions anew, and I hope that the State Department and others will review this information carefully.” Neither the State Department press office nor the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles responded to interview requests. Waxman’s elevated interest encouraged Maxine Russell, who persistently has chased after answers for two years. She wants concrete information about her son’s death. A State Department warning about travel to China. For other prospective teachers to hear what happened to her son and to only work for accredited universities. Legal help to transform a campaign run from her living room into a large-scale effort. “But I will never sue. No amount of money will bring my son back,” she said. “I just want to get the truth out.” [email protected] (818) 713-3738160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!