Sgt. Russell leaves legacy as ’The Best’


Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Lee Russell, 35, of McKenzie was laid to rest Sunday at Mt. Olivet Cemetery after family and friends said farewell at Long Heights Baptist Church in McKenzie. He was a member of the THP Special Opts Aviation Unit. Russell was killed in east Tennessee on Tuesday, August 23, when his Bell 206 helicopter hit power lines in Marion County after he and his passenger, Marion County Sheriff’s Department Det. Matt Blansett, 40, were in search of a missing man outside of Chattanooga. After they were unable to locate the missing man, the pair returned to their original operation, searching for illicit marijuana plants. 

Russell served with the THP for 12 years. He began his law enforcement career as a reserve deputy for Henry County in 2007, while he was a student at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He completed an internship with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation before receiving his bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, and becoming a full-time Henry County Sheriff’s Deputy in 2008. The following year, he took to the air in a law enforcement capacity as a part-time pilot while serving on the 24th Judicial District Drug Task Force.

Sergeant Russell transitioned to the THP in 2010. After graduation from cadet school as part of THP Class 311, he was assigned to Hickman County before transferring to Dickson County in March 2012. Russell was selected as a THP pilot in May 2012 and was transferred to the Carroll County Airport so that the state would have a helicopter available in that portion of West Tennessee. He was promoted to sergeant on Nov. 12, 2017.

During his tenure with the THP, Russell received advanced flight training, focusing primarily on Airborne Law Enforcement techniques. He held an Airline Transport Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor Certificate and two Cessna Jet-type ratings. He gave presentations and instruction on the use of aircraft to THP Strike Teams, Trooper Cadet Schools, THP supervisors, Tennessee Park Rangers, TBI agents, local law enforcement agencies, and citizen organizations.

Sgt. Russell received multiple awards and recognitions during his career, including THP Lifesaver Awards, Governor’s Highway Safety Office Hero of the Year Award, and several letters of commendation for multiple lifesaving events and criminal apprehensions. 

“Maria and I are heartbroken by the tragic loss of Tennessee Highway Patrol Sergeant Lee Russell and Marion County Sheriff’s Dept. Detective Matt Blansett. Please join us in praying for the families in this time of unimaginable grief. We’re grateful to all officials who continue to respond,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee who spoke at the funeral as well as First Baptist Church pastor Dennis Trull and a chaplain. 

The governor said the news was “heartbreaking” and significant of what law enforcement and first responders do by “putting their lives on the line.” He added their sacrifice was the reality of what they do to help keep everyone safe and Tennessee was grieving for the families.

Russell was a 2005 graduate of McKenzie High School and 2008 graduate of UT Martin. He was born in Jackson April 19, 1987, to Steven and Cherry Murphy Russell. He followed in his dad’s footsteps. Steve Russell was a member of the Henry County Sheriff’s Department and was shot and nearly killed in the line of duty, according to former Henry County Sheriff Monte Belew. Later, Steve Russell joined the Tennessee Highway Patrol and was a lieutenant.

Russell earned many accolades during his career, including THP Lifesaver Awards, Governor’s Highway Safety Office Hero of the Year Award, and several letters of commendation for several lifesaving events and criminal apprehensions. 

He is survived by his parents; brother Travis Russell; wife Mandi Essary Russell; a son Connor Russell and daughter Tenley Russell. His in-laws are Ray and Trish Essary of Dresden. 

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