Fly away, little jailbird

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

Russell picked out roughly $3,000 in merchandise and told Richardson that he wanted to pay by credit. Almost immediately, the warning signs started going up. Russell said he couldn't give his address because he'd just moved to town. He didn't have any identification, he said, because his wallet had been in his brand-new BMW 750, and the car had been stolen just the night before. Nor did he have any checks with his name on them.

Richardson says he began having reservations: "I'm from the streets, and I know that something ain't adding up."

Russell tried a new line: He dropped the name of Gallery Furniture owner Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale's brother-in-law. He also mentioned that his boss at Monsanto used to play golf with McIngvale himself.

"I also thought that was strange," says Richardson, "because Mac don't play golf."

On his credit application, Russell claimed to earn $10,000 a month. Amazingly, after a credit check, his credit request was approved, but only for a piddling $2,500, a number Richardson knew didn't fit with that salary. Since the furniture cost roughly $500 more than the credit would allow, Richardson told Russell that he'd have to pay the balance. But not only did Russell not have checks bearing his name, he had no cash.

"I thought that was strange too," says Richardson, "because a guy making $10,000 a month ought to have a pocketful of money."

Still, after Richardson conferred with his bosses, the store accepted Russell's check--one without his name printed on it--and put the balance of the cost on store credit. Before leaving the store, Russell said he would call later with the address of his new apartment.

The following week, he called with an address in Galveston, and Gallery delivered.

In the meantime, the Gulf Coast Task Force had somehow tracked Russell to Galveston. The detectives set up surveillance on his apartment, but again, Russell eluded them; he never returned to the spot.

Investigators searched the apartment, and finding Gallery Furniture's merchandise, informed the store that it could come reclaim its wares. After the merchandise was returned, Richardson resold the pieces, happily telling the buyers the shady history of the slightly used pieces.

Meanwhile, Russell stayed slightly ahead of the law. According to the task force, while investigators were looking for him in Galveston, he was actually back in Dallas. At an unspecified Dallas-area branch of NationsBank, Russell posed as a Virginia millionaire and attempted to negotiate a $75,000 loan.

But the bankers weren't as gullible as state prison and parole officials. NationsBank security officials confirm that bank personnel smelled a rat and immediately, secretly, contacted the FBI.

Russell apparently sensed that something had gone wrong. Before FBI agents arrived on the scene, he faked a heart attack and was taken by ambulance to a Dallas hospital. (Russell says it was Baylor Medical Center, but Baylor officials deny any knowledge of the incident.)

When the FBI agents arrived at the bank, they called hospital security, informing workers there that Russell was a wanted man and was not to be released. But the agents reached the hospital too late. According to Russell, "someone" telephoned the hospital to say that the FBI had made a big mistake, and that Russell was free to go.

On Palm Sunday, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Richard Dees answered the phone in his Miami office. On the other end of the line was TDCJ detective Terry Cobbs, asking for help apprehending Steven Russell. Over the weekend, Cobbs and the Gulf Coast Task Force had somehow gotten a lead that Russell might be in south Florida--one of his old stomping grounds.

Dees usually works on cases involving violent fugitives, such as serial killer Andrew Cunanan. But because Russell was a high-profile convict, Dees agreed to join the hunt.

On Tuesday, Dees received another call from Cobbs. The Texan said he'd homed in on Russell's location. Task-force members won't specify how they found Russell's address--they vaguely credit "investigative techniques"--but Russell offers his own theory: that the task force monitored the calls his lover, Morris, was making from the Dallas jail. Though Morris took the precaution of placing the calls through a third party, they could still be traced.

Cobbs directed Dees to an apartment complex in Sunrise, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. In separate unmarked cars, Dees and his partner drove to the Isles of Sawgrass Apartments, a cluster of new pink stucco structures close to the edge of the Everglades. Russell's one-bedroom apartment looked out onto a golf course.

As Dees pulled into the parking lot, he saw a man fitting Russell's description enter one of the apartments--and his partner quickly located Russell's car, which still bore Texas license plates. The officers settled in to wait.

When Russell once again left his apartment, Dees and his partner grabbed him. At first, Russell--wearing shorts and a tank top, and loyally sporting an Astros cap--claimed that his name was Edward Wolcott Jr., and even produced a Florida driver's license to prove it.

Dees, well aware of his quarry's deviousness, informed Russell that he was about to have resisting arrest added to the charges against him. Russell then asked for an attorney.

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