Fly away, little jailbird

Reports of Steven Russell's death were greatly exaggerated, but they were enough to spring him from a Texas prison

Apparently, neither a Dr. Richard Kones nor a Medical Diagnostic Center exists in Philadelphia. But the letter convinced a federal prosecutor that Russell was not long for this world, and the bank-fraud case was not pursued. Instead, Russell was extradited to Harris County, where he pleaded guilty to the 1992 insurance-fraud charge and was sentenced to three years in prison.

While awaiting transfer to a state prison, Russell fell in love with inmate Phillip Morris, a petty thief in jail for stealing a rental car. After their release from prison in late 1995, Russell and Morris set up house together near the Johnson Space Center, and Russell set out to provide his lover with the finer things in life. He and Morris each drove a Mercedes Benz; Russell bought new suits, had his teeth capped, and had plastic surgery on his eyes. Using a fictional resume, he landed a job as chief financial officer of a large medical management company. His salary was $90,000--not bad for someone without a high school diploma and only three months out of the joint. But apparently, it wasn't enough.

Russell and Morris bought a patio home in Clear Lake and eagerly began furnishing and remodeling it. They bought top-of-the-line watches--one Cartier and two Rolexes. They bought jet skis; they bought savings bonds. Still not satisfied, they began scouting for houses in ritzy River Oaks and Southampton.

Five months after Russell started his job, he and Morris were charged with embezzling $800,000 from Russell's employer. Morris was released from jail after friends posted his $50,000 bond. But Russell's was set much higher: $900,000.

Authorities believe that Russell, claiming to be District Judge Charles Hearn, called the Harris County District Clerk's Office and ordered his own bond lowered to $45,000. Russell then wrote a hot check for that amount and talked a rookie bail bondsman into accepting it. Once again, he was on the run.

He and Morris planned to rendezvous in Florida, at the Fort Lauderdale bus station. But before the fugitive lovers could be reunited, Russell was arrested in West Palm Beach. After only a week of freedom, he was once again extradited to Harris County.

In September 1996, three months after his return to Texas, Russell pleaded guilty to the embezzlement charge--all the while claiming that Morris was not involved--and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. He was shipped to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Estelle Unit in Huntsville, a maximum-security prison. Three months later, Russell broke open a green felt-tip pen, dropped the cartridge into a bucket of water, and dyed his prison uniform green. The formerly white V-neck top and drawstring pants then bore a strong resemblance to surgical scrubs.

On Friday, December 13, Russell donned that uniform and, posing as a doctor, walked past prison guards and out of the Estelle Unit. He hitchhiked to a restaurant, then took a cab to Hermann Hospital in Houston. Claiming he had to go inside the hospital to get money, Russell left the cabbie waiting for the fare.

Ten days later, Russell and Morris were arrested at a motel in Biloxi, Mississippi, after a lover's quarrel. During their stay at the motel, Morris had gone into a rage after spotting Russell ducking into an adult bookstore. Furious and feeling ignored, Morris locked the motel-room door. When Russell returned, Morris refused to let him in and instead called the front desk to report that someone was trying to break into his room.

Morris and Russell were arrested and returned to Texas. Undaunted, Russell immediately began laying the groundwork for his boldest con ever.

After his Mississippi interlude, Russell was assigned to the Stiles Unit, a relatively new prison near Beaumont. Under normal circumstances, Russell would spend at least 11 years behind bars before he'd be eligible for parole. But only nine months after his return to prison, he was once again flirting with freedom.

Embarrassed prison officials have been less than forthcoming about the details of Russell's most recent escape. But Texas parole board chairman Victor Rodrigues told the Associated Press that Russell was almost released last October, months before he actually got out, when the state parole officials briefly approved his first request for a special-needs parole, a little-known variety of parole given to critically and terminally ill inmates.

According to Rodrigues, Russell originally was granted a special needs parole on October 29 because it was somehow determined that he couldn't walk. On November 21, the parole was withdrawn when prison officials realized that Russell was faking.

But just two months later, prison and parole officials inexplicably overlooked Russell's history as an escape artist. In January, Russell apparently produced a letter that was purportedly written by a doctor. That letter--just like the one he'd used to avoid federal prosecution in Philadelphia--stated that Russell was dying of AIDS. On January 16, his request for a special-needs parole was approved.

TDCJ contracts with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to provide health care for inmates. According to prison officials, it was UTMB's Dr. Mohammed Amir who was responsible for treating Russell at the Stiles Unit. Citing medical confidentiality laws, UTMB officials refuse to shed light on the Russell investigation other than to say their own internal investigation shows that UTMB personnel "did nothing wrong."

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