Fly away, little jailbird

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

"This was a masterpiece, wasn't it?" Steven Russell says with a laugh, on the phone from a Florida jail.

He is referring to his latest escape. A fast-talking pathological liar, Russell recently pulled off his fourth illegal exit from a Texas prison or jail. This spring, for the second time in just over a year, he basically walked out the front door of a prison to freedom--more than 40 years ahead of schedule.

Russell's plans have always shown style; he specializes in nonviolent brazenness. Once, he masqueraded as a prison workman and was waved out of jail; another time, he dyed his prison whites green, presented himself as a doctor, and convinced a prison guard to buzz him out.

But with this latest escape, Russell was even more audacious: Rather than pretending to be someone else, he simply convinced prison officials that he was dead. And once he was dead, Russell was off and running.

Russell says he is calling from the dayroom of a cellblock--which he has all to himself--on the eighth floor of the Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale. Texas prison officials wanted to deny Russell access to the media, but while he awaited extradition from Florida, he managed to phone the Houston Press three times.

This time, Russell is indignant. In addition to being isolated from other prisoners, he says, he is strip-searched every eight hours. It's not the searches themselves that offend him; it's that the jailers don't understand him, don't respect his art. Though checking for weapons or picklocks, the guards have left him access to his best tool: the telephone.

"I have never broken out of jail," he fumes. "They make it look like I'm going to knock down that door any minute and then fly off the eighth floor over Fort Lauderdale. They are so stupid, it just blows me away."

Of course, he is saying all of this from inside a jail. Despite the brilliance of his escapes, so far, he's always been caught.

It's hard to say what drives Russell, now 40 with a puffy face and thinning hair. Part of his joy in outwitting the law seems to be simple competitiveness, a desire to prove that he's smarter than the authorities. But he didn't always need to prove that; in fact, for much of his life, he seemed a model citizen. He worked as a Florida law officer in the early '80s, for a year serving with the Boca Raton Police Department. (Department records show he was forced to resign after he called in sick to attend a Florida Highway Patrol training academy.) After moving back to his hometown--Norfolk, Virginia--he played the organ for his church and took over his father's produce business. His wife worked as a secretary for the police department, and together they were raising a young daughter. Then, suddenly, something caused Russell to abandon his middle-class family life for an existence of crime and passion. Pressed, he says only that he had a "midlife crisis."

Apparently, he first broke the law while still living in Virginia. In late 1990, he was charged with stealing $11,000 in jewelry; he promptly skipped town and headed to Houston. Two months after his arrival, he was charged with making a false statement on a passport application. And a month after that, he was in trouble again--this time for scamming an insurance company by falsely claiming he had hurt his back.

He was eventually sentenced to six months in jail for the passport charge. But on April 10, 1992, when he was supposed to report to a federal prison in Oklahoma, he didn't show. Five days later, he was arrested in Houston on the year-old insurance-scam charge and sent to the Harris County Jail.

In May, Russell pulled off his first escape--on a Friday the 13th, a date that would become his trademark. Somehow, he obtained a set of civilian clothes and a walkie-talkie. Posing as a workman, he tapped on the window of a guard station, then simply walked to freedom.

That freedom didn't last long. Three days later, federal agents snared him in Miami as he attempted to board a flight to Mexico. A Florida magistrate set his bond at $20,000, and after posting the money, Russell was on the run again. For the next two years, he eluded federal authorities, as well as police from Texas and Virginia.

In January 1994, he finally surfaced in Philadelphia, where he and another man, James Vincent Kemple, were arrested on bank-fraud charges. According to government records, during the two missing years, Russell worked as an executive for NutraSweet Inc. in Chicago. On his job application, he used Kemple's birth date and Social Security number. Later, to collect $200,000 on his own life insurance policy, Russell submitted the medical records of Kemple, who was in fact dying, and eventually did die, of AIDS. The two men were arrested as the money was being wire-transferred to a bank in Philadelphia.

Following the bust, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia decided not to take Russell to court after he convinced them that he, too, was dying of AIDS. After Russell's arrest, federal prosecutors received a letter from a Dr. Richard Kones with a company called Medical Diagnostic Center of Philadelphia: "It is with great sadness I tell you Mr. Russell is in the final stages of his illness and will soon succumb to it within the next few months."

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."

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.

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.

With Russell in tow, the agents searched his apartment, where they found several thousand dollars' worth of merchandise: computers, a fax machine, and other office equipment. Russell had used the name Wolcott to make the purchases; according to Dees, the real Edward Wolcott Jr., actually a Virginia attorney, claims not to know Russell.

Dees surmises that Russell planned to use the equipment to execute yet another scam--perhaps something in the line of insurance fraud. "So far, I can't find anything that has been done," says Dees, "but it appears he was on the verge of doing some stuff."

On the phone, Russell sounds downright gleeful while admitting that insurance fraud was exactly what he had planned. "I was fixing to score big," he says with a laugh, "if you know what I mean."

According to Russell, his "little scam" would have entailed setting up bogus companies with fictional employees, each of whom he'd insure. He'd then produce documents showing that some of those employees had contracted deadly diseases-- say, AIDS or cancer. And at that point, he'd sell the policies to viaticals, companies that purchase the life insurance of terminally ill patients for about 40 percent of their value.

"The reason they caught me is because they got lucky," he says. "As smart as I am, they always get a lucky break. And that's what happened this time."

But almost in the next breath, he seems to admit that his most recent downfall--like the previous one--has less to do with luck than with his obsession with Phillip Morris. "If they hadn't had Phillip, they would have never caught me. But they had Phillip, and they knew that was the key to getting me."

If Russell's saga proves anything, it's that history repeats itself even when the players ought to know better. Russell, ignoring the past, continues to be a fool for love; and prison officials, equally blind, continue to look like fools.

Steve McVicker is a staff writer for the Houston Press, the Dallas Observer's sister paper.

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