Documentary filmmaker, writer, and former Santa Barbara Independent reporter Russ Spencer has been identified as the person struck and killed on Highway 101 early Saturday morning. How Spencer, who’d struggled with health issues and psychological demons over the years, came to be on the freeway by the Olive Mill overpass remains the subject of official inquiry, as is whether his death should be ruled a suicide or accidental death. Initially his death was reported as a hit-and-run; witnesses said that a car struck Spencer’s body, and the driver stopped, checked, and then drove on. That driver has since been identified, and it remains uncertain what, if any charges, will be filed.
As a filmmaker and writer, Spencer’s rare gift was his ability to convey a person’s essence by a describing gesture or fleeting moment. As a person, he was fragile, prickly, warm, and generous. His muse was the artistic process itself, which he explored by telling the stories of various artists. Spencer broke onto the journalistic scene in the 1980s, first writing for the now-defunct The Weekly before being lured away by the News & Review, for which he reported news. Spencer also wrote for the Independent, which emerged out of the fusion of those two papers. He would be the first writer to move from Santa Barbara’s world of weekly journalism to daily, writing about art and music for the Santa Barbara News-Press. But it was at Bison Films — the company he started — that Spencer carved out his uniquely intimate style.