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Sister's plea five years after Mark was violently murdered in his home



Every year on January 17 Julie Ann Stewart would post a message on Facebook to her brother, wishing him a happy birthday.

Mark Russell had been living rough on Sydney's streets around Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross for the better part of three decades.

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

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

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"My father was abusive, and my mother couldn't look after us because she had epilepsy – it was just a whole horror story," Stewart said.

Stewart and Russell were taken to the St Saviour's Children's Home in Goulburn, in the New South Wales Southern Tablelands, when they were six and four years old respectively.

The rambling, historic mansion appeared frighteningly huge to her and her terrified brother, Stewart remembers.

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

"I just remember sitting there waiting for our mum to come and visit us, but she never came.

"We didn't see her again until I was 15."

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

Stewart and Russell would go on to spend a few years in the home and then the rest of their childhoods 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 always did," Stewart said.

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

But as they grew up, Stewart and Russell would go on to lead increasingly divergent lives.

"I went on to finish year 12 and then I got a job after I left 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 years old, he had a falling out with his foster family and took off for Sydney, where he soon fell in with the wrong crowd, Stewart said.

Although he returned to his foster family a few times, it was the beginning of Russell sleeping rough.

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

Stewart said she was always trying to seek her brother out, but he lived "in his own world" and they only caught up a few, rare times over the years. 

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

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Julie Ann Stewart says she is still trying to find answers to her brother's brutal murder.

Another time, Russell arranged a catch up when he had planned a trip up the coast, meeting Stewart and two of her children.

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

At the beginning of 2018, Stewart met up with Russell's son, Shayne, and the pair decided they would try their best to track him down.

Stewart said she visited Sydney in January of that year, but didn't get a chance to check all of her brother's favourite haunts.

"We hadn't found him yet, but we were so close," she said.

It was just weeks later that Stewart received the worst possible news.

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

"As soon as I saw the photo I knew it was Mark," Stewart said.

Mark Russell had just recently moved into a bedsit in Surry Hills where he was stabbed to death.

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 wounds on his hands.

Stewart said she was left stunned and heartbroken by her brother's brutal and untimely end. 

"After everything the two of us have been through in our lives, it was just horrific. You just couldn't believe someone could have that much bad luck in their life," she said.

Police said Russell had only recently moved into the bedsit, after decades of mostly living rough.

Witnesses told police a group of people were inside Stewart's unit the night before his body was found, and arguing or yelling was heard at about 10pm. 

There were also reports that more visitors were inside the unit during the day, but it was not clear if they were the same people who were there later in the evening.

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

Noticing 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 almost five years ago.

A coronial inquiry 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 bedsit had been "used constantly by numerous persons".

Deputy State Coroner Derek Lee ruled Russell had died of wounds inflicted by an unknown person and referred the case to the unsolved homicide unit. 

A day before the coronial finding, police announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Russell's murderer.

"I just burst into tears when they said we're going to offer a million-dollar reward," Stewart said.

"I couldn't believe it, I was so humbled and grateful.

"It showed how they (the police) value everyone. Mark was a homeless person and we were nobodies. I didn't think we were worthy of that million-dollar reward."

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

"We thought surely something will come of it, it's a million dollars. But there was nothing," she said.

Stewart said detectives told her they received less than a handful of calls after the reward was posted.

Homicide Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Danny Doherty, said the reward remained in place and the police investigation was still open.

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

As it nears the five-year anniversary of her brother's murder, Stewart said Russell's family and friends remained desperate for a breakthrough.

"Someone has got to know something, or have seen something," Stewart said. 

"It's the not knowing that's the worst, and thinking about the person who did it and got away with it."

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