Sister’s plea after $1m police reward yields no answers to Mark Russell’s murder

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Every year on January 17, Julie Ann Stewart posted a message on Facebook to his brother wishing him a happy birthday.

Mark Russell had been roughing it on the streets of Sydney around Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross for almost three decades.

He had only two Facebook friends and very sporadic access to the internet, but, with no other way to contact him, Stewart fervently hoped he would see her attempt to contact her.

Growing up together as wards of the state, the siblings had once meant everything to each other.

Julie Ann Stewart and her brother Mark Russell grew up together in foster care in Wagga Wagga.
Julie Ann Stewart and her brother Mark Russell grew up together in foster care in Wagga Wagga. (Supplied: Julie Ann Stewart)

“My dad was abusive and my mom couldn’t take care of us because she had epilepsy – it was just a horror story,” Stewart said.

Stewart and Russell were taken to St Saviour’s Children’s Home in Goulburn, in the southern tablelands of New South Wales, when they were six and four years old respectively.

The historic, rambling mansion seemed creepy to him and his terrified brother, Stewart recalled.

“It was a pretty awful place, like something out of Flowers in the Attic, it was so big,” she said.

“I just remember waiting for our mother to come visit us, but she never came.

“We didn’t see her again until I was 15.”

Siblings Julie Ann Stewart and Mark Russell became wards of the state as young children.
Siblings Julie Ann Stewart and Mark Russell became wards of the state as young children. (Supplied: Julie Ann Stewart)

Stewart and Russell then spent a few years at home and then the rest of their childhood in foster care, but they were always placed together.

“For that to happen when you’re really young, you look out for each other, which we’ve always done,” Stewart said.

Stewart said his brother was friendly and kind. His love of football earned him the nickname “Sharky Mark” in a nod to his favorite team, the Cronulla Sharks.

But as they grew up, Stewart and Russell led increasingly divergent lives.

“I continued until the end of the 12th grade, then I found a job after leaving school,” she said.

Stewart ended up working for the Commonwealth Bank. She married and had five children in Port Macquarie, where she still lives.

Meanwhile, when Mark was 17, he argued with his foster family and left for Sydney, where he soon found himself with the wrong crowd, Stewart said.

Although he returned to his foster home a few times, this was the start of Russell Street.

With their shared traumatic upbringing, Stewart is only too aware of how little it would have taken to nudge her down the same path.

“I could have easily ended up on the streets too, but I ended up getting a job, getting married and having kids,” she said.

Stewart said she always tried to look for her brother, but he lived “in his own world” and they only caught up with him a few times over the years.

Once she was able to find him in Kings Cross after physically searching the streets.

Julie Ann Stewart says she is still trying to find answers to her brother's brutal murder.
Julie Ann Stewart says she is still trying to find answers to her brother’s brutal murder. (Supplied: Julie Ann Stewart)

Another time, Russell arranged a catch-up as he planned a trip to the coast, meeting Stewart and two of his children.

Russell himself had two children – a son and a daughter – from short-lived relationships, but both of his children grew up having little contact with him.

In early 2018, Stewart met Russell’s son, Shayne, and the couple decided they would do their best to find him.

Stewart said she had visited Sydney in January that year, but had not had the opportunity to check out all of her brother’s favorite haunts.

“We hadn’t found it yet, but we were so close,” she said.

It wasn’t until weeks later that Stewart received the worst possible news.

A foster cousin sent Stewart a Facebook post from NSW Police, detailing the gruesome murder of an unidentified man at a studio in Clisdell Street, Surry Hills on February 24, 2018.

“As soon as I saw the picture I knew it was Mark,” Stewart said.

Mark Russell had just moved into a studio apartment in Surry Hills where he was stabbed to death.
Mark Russell had just moved into a studio apartment in Surry Hills where he was stabbed to death. (New South Wales Police)

It was a violent murder. Russell had been stabbed seven times in the neck and five times in the chest. He also had 12 defensive hand injuries.

Stewart said she was stunned and heartbroken by her brother’s abrupt and untimely end.

“After everything we both went through in our lives, it was just awful. You just couldn’t believe someone could have that much bad luck in their life,” she said.

Police say Russell only recently moved into the studio, after decades of living primarily on the streets.

Witnesses told police a group of people were inside Stewart’s unit the night before his body was found and that arguing or shouting was heard around 10 p.m.

It was also reported that more visitors were inside the unit during the day, but it was unclear if these were the same people who were there later in the evening.

Friendly and social by nature, Russell often left his door open, inviting a trail of visitors.

Noticing that his door was unusually closed the next morning, a concerned friend climbed through his window and discovered Russell’s body.

Julie Ann Stewart carries a photo of her late brother Mark Russell, who was murdered nearly five years ago.
Julie Ann Stewart carries a photo of her late brother Mark Russell, who was murdered almost five years ago. (Georgina Mitchell)

A coroner’s inquest in October 2020 heard evidence from police that their investigation had been hampered by a lack of reliable witnesses. There were also forensic challenges, as Russell’s studio had been “constantly used by many people”.

Deputy State Coroner Derek Lee ruled that Russell died of injuries inflicted by an unknown person and referred the case to the Unsolved Homicide Unit.

A day before the coroner’s discovery, police announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Russell’s killer.

“I burst into tears when they said we were going to give a million dollar reward,” Stewart said.

“I couldn’t believe it, I was so humbled and grateful.

“It showed how much they (the police) appreciate everyone. Mark was homeless and we were nobody. I didn’t think we deserved this million dollar award.”

Stewart’s hopes of finding answers were bolstered by the reward, but then came disappointment.

“We probably thought something would come out of it, it’s a million dollars. But there was nothing,” she said.

Stewart said detectives told him they received less than a handful of calls after the award was released.

Homicide Squad Commander Detective Superintendent Danny Doherty said the reward remains in place and the police investigation is still open.

“As investigations continue, anyone who may have information that could help provide much-needed answers to Mark’s family is urged to contact police,” Doherty said in a statement.

As the fifth anniversary of his brother’s murder approaches, Stewart said Russell’s family and friends remain desperate for a breakthrough.

“Somebody must know something or have seen something,” Stewart said.

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“It’s not knowing it’s the worst, and thinking about the person who did it and got away with it.”

Sister’s plea after $1m police reward yields no answers to Mark Russell’s murder

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