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Originally from Missouri's boot heel, Russell's family moved to Huntsville in the early 1950s, when his father took a teaching job at Sam Houston State University. The elder Russell also created a side business in his garage called Educational Filmstrip Network, producing and distributing educational films to schools across the country. In the late 1980s, the company went video, changed its name to Educational Video Network, and business exploded. If in high school you ever saw a video about the French Revolution or the dangers of driving drunk, chances are it was one of Russell's. Recent titles include "Dying for a Smoke" and "Ecstasy: When the Party's Over."
The company's success allowed the family to buy much of the property in the Russells' neighborhood, creating an area of Huntsville called Russellville, where many of EVN's employees live for little or no rent. Russell spent the 1990s sinking about $3 million into 2,800 acres of woodlands sprawling through San Jacinto and Walker counties. Some of this property fronts Lake Livingston, extremely valuable land that Russell has protected from development with 99-year conservation easements. Steve Loy, Russell's friend and wildlife manager, calls the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral a tax burden, not a cash cow.
One surefire way to make yourself noticed in Huntsville is to create your own weird-sounding religion that holds its meetings in the woods at night. Then, dispatch artisans to hand-build a marble replica of the pyramid of Cestius and tell everyone it's going to be your father's tomb. After that, make sure you launch about 250 rant-filled .org Web sites with names like adamwasblack and jesus hateschristians. To top it off, erect a big blue billboard on FM 980 and mark it with a crucifix, a Star of David and a Muslim crescent. If that doesn't piss off enough people, start sticking bodies straight into the dirt.
That last one got the attention of SHECO, which was surprised to find out that what it thought would be a slam-dunk power line addition turned into a battle over so-called hallowed ground.
What's worse, some of the co-op's alternative routes involve running part of the nine-mile line through a nearly 200-year-old cemetery (where folks are buried the old-fashioned way). Now, critics of the different routes are weighing in on the battle before the Texas Public Utility Commission.
Russell says he's fighting an evil corporation that doesn't respect religion or the dead. The co-op's Austin attorney, Mark Davis, says he pretty much has a headache.
Davis accuses Russell of creating the cemetery out of spite and sticking the inaugural corpse in a spot only he can easily identify. The grave's makeshift marker appears to be a weathervane, but if the marker is ever knocked over or obscured by debris, the grave's GPS coordinates are listed on ethicianfamilycemetery.org.
According to Russell's online grave directory ("Who's Who in the Cemetery"), the first man laid to rest in the Ethician Family Cemetery is Rick Gallagher, a 40-year-old "food service worker." Per cemetery guidelines, Gallagher was posthumously anointed as an Ethician. Russell says he checks the grave every day to make sure Gallagher's corpse hasn't been mauled or dragged away by coyotes.
Driver's license information for Gallagher, listed on Publicdata.com, shows his last known address as a Conroe apartment. But as far as Davis is concerned, Gallagher was a homeless man from Houston whom Russell saw as the perfect anonymous soul to hold up the power line. Davis is not impressed with the cemetery, or with the Universal Ethician Church.
"He's invited me to come down there and make me a deacon in his church and lather me up with some oil, and I've managed to avoid that so far," Davis says from Austin.
What he hasn't managed to avoid is a daily influx of FedExed manifestos demanding the co-op to provide information on such subjects as "THE NEGATIVE IMAGE OF TEXAS AS A BACKWARD 'REDNECK' STATE THAT REFLECTS POORLY ON ITS BEAUTY AND CHARACTER [and] THE NEGATIVE IMAGE THAT WOULD LIKEWISE BE REFLECTED UPON SHECO AS BEING BACKWARD AND INSENSITIVE TO PRESENT AND FUTURE GENERATIONS OF NOT ONLY THEIR OWN CUSTOMERS BUT OF PRESENT AND FUTURE GENERATIONS OF TEXANS AND ALL AMERICANS AS WELL."
Then, to really make his point, Russell will invoke the Almighty.
"SHECO IS HEREBY COMMANDED BY THE BOARD OF THE ETHICIAN FAMILY CEMETERY AND THE UNIVERSAL ETHICIAN CHURCH TO CEASE AND DESIST FROM ALL CURRENT AND FUTURE ATTEMPTS TO DESECRATE GOD'S HOLY GROUND."
Chief among Russell's concerns are the sanctity of his land's longleaf pines, rare red-cockaded woodpeckers and ten pages' worth of plant names. And, of course, the dead guy.
Chief among SHECO's concerns are improving reliability and shortening the outage time to its 50,000 customers in ten counties.
"There's no mystery to this at all," Davis says. "The cooperative doesn't like going out and spending this kind of money on a project unless there's really a need for it and unless the customers are really going to see some benefit from it."
But thanks to Russell's cemetery gauntlet, Davis says, the cost of the PUC battle will trickle down to the customers. And the allegations don't stop, he says. One of the latest is Russell's contention that SHECO's power line will threaten homeland security.