Biddeford woman details childhood abuse allegations against family friend

Jan. 24—For the last six years, Julia Russell has practiced Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a martial art and combat sport.

People assume she picked it up as a form of self-protection, she said, but really it's helped her trust others decades after she says she was sexually abused.

Russell, 36, is suing Philip Chenevert, a former Maine resident and family friend, accusing him of sexually abusing her as a young girl more than 30 years ago.

She spent hours testifying Tuesday, describing in often explicit details the way she alleges Chenevert touched her, sometimes while her parents were in the other room.

Chenevert, now 73, was a close friend of Russell's parents, and someone they trusted to spend time with their daughters throughout the 1990s. Russell is suing him for one civil count of assault and battery and a second count of inflicting emotional distress. Because it is a federal trial, the jury would determine how much, if any damages, she is owed if it agrees that Chenevert committed the abuse and that it's had an impact on Russell's well-being.

Two women who learned of Russell's case after she shared her story with the Press Herald in July 2021 are expected to testify this week about their own experiences with Chenevert.

Under oath Monday, Chenevert denied all allegations of sexual abuse and said he couldn't recall any instance when he had been left alone with Russell, or with any others who have made allegations against him.

No criminal charges have been filed in the case.

ESTABLISHING A TIME FRAME

Russell said Tuesday that she could only estimate when the alleged abuse happened because she was too young to remember specific dates. Russell said she knew it must have happened before 1994 because that's when she remembers watching a "stranger danger" video in school about child predators.

"I remember seeing that video in a classroom with other kids, and I remember sitting there silently thinking, 'I wish I'd seen that before.' Because this had already happened to me," Russell testified. "Except it wasn't a stranger."

Chenevert's attorney, Gene Libby, has cautioned jurors about the accuracy of memories in this decades-old case.

"You would agree with me that it's very hard to remember things in the past?" Libby asked Russell.

"It depends if they were traumatic or not," Russell said.

Chenevert met Russell's father when they were teenagers in Biddeford Pool in the late 1960s. The two reconnected as young adults when they started living in the same area year-round. Chenevert was at the Russell home weekly, Russell said, for family dinners and holiday celebrations.

Russell said Chenevert nurtured a lot of her "tomboyish" interests.

"He had fast boats, he had fast cars," she said.

He even had a miniature bike that Russell rode when she visited Chenevert's home, although he disputed Monday that the child-sized bike was for Russell alone. Rather, Chenevert said, he bought the bike for himself because he had bad feet and needed help moving around the auto body shops he owned and worked at in Arundel.

Russell described four specific allegations of sexual abuse on the stand Tuesday, although she said there were many more throughout that estimated two-year span.

Much of it happened in her family's computer room after dinner, while her mom was in the kitchen washing dishes and her father was upstairs in their bedroom. She told jurors that Chenevert forced her to lay down on the carpet and described vivid memories of the abuse.

She said Chenevert also abused her at least once on a "greasy" couch in his work office, and at least once on one of his boats.

He asked her to keep the abuse a secret between them, a man in his 40s and a roughly 6-year-old girl. Russell said Chenevert promised to stop whenever she wanted to — all she had to do was ask.

"He falsely gave me this idea that I was opting into it, that I was choosing it," Russell said.

'I HAVE CARRIED THAT EVERY DAY'

Chenevert's defense claimed, in part, that he couldn't have abused Russell at that time because he had erectile dysfunction related to artery and heart conditions. Russell said Tuesday that an erection would've been "unnecessary" for the abuse she suffered.

When it did stop, Russell and Chenevert remained close throughout her adolescence and into her early 20s — something his attorney points to as evidence the abuse didn't occur. When she moved away for college in Philadelphia and Maryland, Russell said she had more distance and time to reconcile what Chenevert did to her.

But even with that space, the effects of the alleged abuse began to manifest in other ways. Russell told jurors that she has a history of bad relationships that exacerbated her issues with self-esteem and self-loathing.

She kept it all hidden until she told a friend about it around 2019, and then confronted Chenevert in a text telling him to stay away from her family out of fear that he was around her young niece. Russell began therapy the next year to help manage a different relationship, but knew she would have to address the abuse, Russell said. Today she meets with a therapist twice a week.

That therapist, Megan Marsh, testified Tuesday under a subpoena from Chenevert's attorneys. Marsh has not diagnosed her with any mental health disorder, which Libby, Chenevert's attorney, has called attention to several times. The therapist, however, said she doesn't think of that as proof there was never any abuse.

"There are lots of ways to suffer without a diagnosis," she said. "I don't see it as necessary to seeing that Julia has really suffered."

Today, Russell is engaged to a woman she's been with for two years. Her family is aware of the abuse allegations, and her parents have never questioned her, she told jurors Tuesday.

But there are still times when she'll remember what happened and "feel like I'm sucked out of my body."

"Not only did he steal my innocence from me, and make it difficult for me to understand healthy relationships or establish healthy relationships," Russell said. "He also gave me the burden of his guilt and his shame. And I have carried that every day throughout my life."