Eleven months have passed since the loss of her son; grieving mother still awaits autopsy report

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Karen Russell and Ian Budge at the crash location on Mulholland Highway near Las Virgenes Road. Photo by Samantha Bravo/TMT

Karen Russell hopes to bring awareness on lack of urgency in results on her sons cause of death 

On Sept. 24, 2022, Pepperdine University student Conner Michael Budge was returning to his dorm after hanging out with some friends, but that night, he never made it across Malibu Canyon. Just two days before entering a poetry contest, the 21-year-old was killed in a car accident on Mulholland Highway near Las Virgenes Road.

“He was super excited about graduating, had a job waiting for him and he actually told me the day before the crash that, ‘Mom everything is perfect,'” his mother, Karen Russell, said.

Conner was found in his car about 200 feet over the side of Mulholland Highway by the Malibu Search and Rescue Team. The Los Angeles County examiner-coroner confirmed it was Conner in the vehicle. 

Russell has been waiting since the incident occurred last year for her son’s autopsy report. She said she has been calling the coroner’s office and receiving nothing but a deadline.

“It’s been 11 months, and I’m standing here at a crash site, and I don’t have an autopsy. I do believe that there has been no foul play, but how do I know?” Russell said. “And when I called the coroner’s office, no one could tell me; there’s no reason.”

The Malibu Times contacted The Los Angeles County examiner-coroner on Friday, Aug. 11, and received a response on Monday, Aug. 14, about the autopsy results being available for purchase. 

Although the case status says it’s closed, according to his report, additional investigation is required. 

Russell said she had already purchased the report but has yet to receive it.

“We never got the results, and we purchased them almost a year ago,” Russell said. “I called them, and they said that it wasn’t ready yet, then they said it would be mailed to us on July 11, but that was over a month ago.”

Russell said she hopes she can shed some light on the lack of urgency in receiving autopsy results as a regular parent and how the system needs to change so that grieving parents don’t have to wait so long to find out more information.

Born on Feb. 8, 2001, Budge was remembered as a creative and inspiring friend and colleague who could brighten a room with his smile and sense of humor. 

The almost 22-year-old was a senior at Seaver College studying creative writing and was expected to graduate in April.

Russell said Conner and his brother Ian, 20, had an inseparable bond.

“He was very close to his brother, who was just going to the University of Pittsburgh — it was the first time they were ever separated,” Russell said. “Ian would visit him on campus all the time and when he came back from Pittsburgh.”

“I actually told them, ‘Guys, life is gonna be very, very different next year. You guys are going to be separated. Why don’t you take a car?'” she said. “Their dad and I both agreed, and they traveled for a whole month. They went cross country. Went to all the national parks, and museums, and I remember saying that ‘I don’t think you realize how different it was going to be.'”

Conner was excited about working at Geoffrey’s Malibu.

“Connor said, ‘Mom, I’m going to get a job at Geoffrey’s,’ he was pretty charismatic about it,” she said. “He was all dressed up in his suit, he was just so cute.”

The restaurant shared a post on social media in memorial of Conner. 

“Those we love don’t go away,” the post said. “They walk beside us every day. Unseen, unheard, but always near. Still loved, still missed and very dear. Keep smiling with the angels, Conner Budge.”

Russell said Pepperdine held a beautiful memorial for her son. His classmates and roommates said he always knew how to make people smile and laugh. 

“Conner was not only the best roommate I’ve ever had, but also one of my closest friends,” his roommate Matthew Hardville said. “He loved and truly cared for everyone, and I will never forget the time we spent together and his bubbly and gentle spirit.”

Russell is also a part of a new organization called Soul Mamas with Lori Carhart from Malibu, who lost her son Hayden one year ago. 

“Our plan is to empower families who have lost children through healthy retreats, workshops, and group grief counseling sessions, along with trying to build awareness on how our state and city departments can be more supportive through these types of tragic situations,” she said. 

Russell hopes to continue his creative shine by taking his poetry and having the artist interpret his poems into a book to raise funds for art/writing scholarships. 

“We have some known and new artists that are participating in honoring him and helping others too,” she said. “There are many families unfortunately that are losing young adults and children, going through the deepest hardest pain one could ever go through and on top of their pain they are not getting the support from the proper city departments.”

Russell continues to question the lack of urgency in receiving her son’s report. 

“I have lost a lot of people, but nothing prepared me for the death of my son,” she said. “We just want some closure and now 11 months later, my son is just a number and they can’t tell me why this is taking so long. For me, the only way that I’m going to get through this intense type of grief is to build awareness so that other parents don’t have to go through what I’m going through.” 

Last week, Russell and Ian Budge visited the crash site and retouched the cross with blue paint.

Russell was grateful that the city hasn’t removed his cross, but hopes to implement a sign in his honor and remind drivers to slow down.