Fly away, little jailbird

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

But according to the prison system's special prosecutor, who is charged with investigating felonies committed by inmates, neither the terminal diagnosis nor the authenticity of the letter was ever verified by UTMB. In fact, he says, the doctor didn't do much besides take Russell's word.

"We've found out that he never was actually tested for AIDS in the prison system," says Lathan Boone, the TDCJ special prosecutor. "They apparently relied on his representation."

As did the parole board--and Boone. In January, Russell was still under indictment for his 1996 escape from prison and was scheduled for trial sometime this year. In order for Russell to be eligible for a special-needs parole, the special prosecutor's office had to first dismiss the 1996 escape charge. The case should have piqued his office's curiosity, Boone admits. "But we didn't think it made much sense to go ahead and prosecute a man who was dying."

On January 16, a three-member parole panel approved the release of Russell, who supposedly had only a couple of weeks to live. In early February, Russell was transferred from the Stiles Unit and placed in the care of Restful Acres Care Center, a nursing home in Kenedy, a small town 60 miles southeast of San Antonio. Within six weeks, he was a free man.

According to parole records, the nursing home's medical director, Dr. Gerry DeSequera, received a call from someone who identified himself as Dr. Adan Rios, a well-known Houston AIDS specialist. "Dr. Rios" convinced DeSequera that Russell was terminally ill and was scheduled for experimental HIV treatment in Houston.

Apparently, no one at the nursing home or the Seguin parole office, to which Russell was assigned, called to check the story with the real Dr. Rios. Russell received permission to travel to Houston for two weeks of experimental treatment. According to records, family members would take him to Houston.

At the Stiles Unit, Russell had struck up a friendship with inmate James Wehagen, a San Antonio man serving time for burglary. Earlier that year, Wehagen had written to his family, informing them that Russell might soon be in the San Antonio area for medical treatment and asking them to help him. In March, Russell called Wehagen's stepfather, Don Dobbins, and asked for a ride from the nursing home to a used car lot in Kenedy. Dobbins didn't hesitate.

He picked Russell up on Friday, March 13. Russell said that he'd bought a used car, which he was going to drive to Houston to receive medical treatment.

A short time later, says Dobbins, he heard that Russell had died.

In late March, an investigator from the U.S. Marshals Service shoved a flier in Sgt. Jim Duffin's face. Duffin, of the Harris County Sheriff's Office, is part of the Gulf Coast Violent Offenders Task Force. The group specializes in tracking fugitives.

The flier showed the photo of a man purporting to be Gene Lewis, a San Antonio attorney. The man had applied for an identification card from the marshals office--but whoever he was, he wasn't the real Gene Lewis.

Duffin looked at the photo, but it didn't ring any bells. The marshal posted the flier on the squad room's bulletin board, hoping someone might recognize the mystery man.

About an hour later, Terry Cobbs, TDCJ's representative to the task force, identified the photo. "This is Steven Russell, and he's in jail," said Cobbs. "I put him in jail for 45 years. This is impossible."

But deep down, Cobbs knew better; unlike most of TDCJ, he remembered how Russell operated and knew that he must be up to something. Cobbs logged onto his computer and discovered that after receiving a special-needs parole, Russell had been placed in a nursing home.

Cobbs immediately called Russell's parole officer in Seguin to warn him that Russell was a master of manipulation.

But, says Duffin, he was too late. "The parole officer says, 'Oh, yeah? Well, I just got a phone call saying that Russell is dead.'"

Once again, Cobbs knew better. He next tried to find inmate Phillip Morris, Russell's boyfriend, sentenced to serve 25 years in prison for his part in the embezzlement. Russell, it turned out, had remained touchingly true.

Pretending to be Gene Lewis, Russell had acted as Morris' attorney and arranged to have him transferred from a prison in Huntsville to the Dallas County Jail; supposedly, Morris was to testify during a criminal trial in Dallas.

Jail records show that in the first weeks of March, Russell-cum-"Lewis" had already dared to visit Morris three times in jail; Russell says he and Morris "had some good laughs."

Naturally, the Gulf Coast Task Force staked out the jail. But somehow--Russell won't say how--their prey got wind of them. The visits stopped.

Russell rented an apartment in Galveston. In late March, he walked into the showroom of Houston's Gallery Furniture clad in a T-shirt, shorts, and loafers with no socks. He conspicuously flashed a gold Rolex. Salesman Chili Richardson, smelling a sale, made small talk. Russell introduced himself using an alias and told Richardson that he'd just moved to Houston from Florida, that he was "president of Monsanto," and that he needed furniture for his new apartment.

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