Huntsville Houdini

Federal prosecutors get tough with an escape artist

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice had taken every precaution to guarantee that escape artist Steven Russell stayed where he belonged: behind bars. State prison authorities had placed him in administrative segregation; they denied him trusty status; they even refused all media requests to allow him to be interviewed.

But that wasn't enough for federal prosecutors in Dallas who decided to take matters and Russell into their own hands when they successfully tried him on September 14 for bank fraud. He now faces an additional sentence of up to 55 years in the federal penitentiary. That is, if he doesn't figure out a way to escape first.

Russell is no ordinary con man ("Fly away, little jailbird," May 14, 1998). In September 1996, he received a 45-year sentence for embezzling $800,000 from a Houston medical company. Three months later, he dyed his prison whites green and walked out the front door of the Estelle Unit in Huntsville by posing as a doctor. Although captured, Russell again tasted freedom when he convinced a prison doctor that he was dying of AIDS, obtained a medical parole, and had his parole officer notified that he was dead.

He was re-arrested in April 1998 in Florida and immediately thereafter state officials whisked him away to an East Texas prison and refused to allow him to speak with reporters. But somehow the irrepressible rogue scammed his way to a phone and spoke with the press virtually at will. Russell claimed that he had first been placed in a high-security administrative segregation cell. He was moved to a different cell every four days.

"The first month was pure hell," Russell says. "They'd come to my cell, bang on the door, and ask me when I planned to escape again. And I'd say, 'I'm not going anywhere. Besides, you've never seen me break out. I don't break out of prison."

But recently, Russell claims, he obtained trusty status at the Michael Unit near Palestine, Texas, despite his history as an escape threat. TDCJ officials deny that Russell was every made a trusty and say that records show that when he returns to their custody, he will again be placed in administrative segregation.

"Basically, his daylight has been shipped to him by Federal Express," says TDCJ spokesman Larry Fitzgerald. "I doubt he will be making trusty status anytime soon."

Russell has always maintained that he has never escaped from prison but, instead, has been allowed to leave. Despite these various departures, which have lasted for up to two years at a stretch, he somehow manages to get caught again.

After his latest capture, Russell thought he had escaped state custody, at least temporarily, by filing a federal civil rights complaint. TDCJ transferred him to the federal pen in Seagoville after he claimed in federal court pleadings that state prison officials had refused to allow him to call witnesses in his defense during a disciplinary hearing. But Russell was mistaken as to the exact reason for his relocation. He soon learned that he was about to be tried on three charges of federal bank fraud committed during his last escape.

On March 20, 1998, Russell, while a fugitive, called a loan officer at the downtown Dallas branch of what was then NationsBank. Claiming to be Norfolk, Virginia, millionaire Arthur Sadler, Russell requested a phone loan of $75,000. He was told he would have to appear in person for a loan of that size.

While waiting for Russell to arrive, the loan officer reported the suspicious request to bank security personnel.

Videotape surveillance tapes tracked Russell as he entered NationsBank shortly before 3 p.m. and presented identification showing him to be Arthur Sadler. A short time later, he was confronted by security chief Tad Bailey. FBI Special Agent Tom Tierney was also dispatched.

But testimony during Russell's trial held here in September showed this was hardly the feds' finest hour. Russell managed to slip through the grasp of the two veteran lawmen and avoid immediate incarceration by feigning a heart attack. Paramedics arrived and rushed Russell to Baylor Medical Center. The authorities called ahead to the hospital with orders that Russell not be allowed to leave.

However, hospital officials received a second call from someone claiming to be with the FBI who said it was all a big mistake and that Russell was free to go. Speculation by authorities is that Russell himself placed the call -- on his cellular telephone that the lawmen had allowed him to keep on his ambulance ride to the hospital. Russell would eventually make his way to Florida before being apprehended yet again.

During cross-examination by Matt Golla, the public defender who served as Russell's attorney, Bailey and Tierney sheepishly admitted that neither of them had bothered to include a physical description of the suspect in their written reports.

Golla, who describes Russell as the smartest defendant he has ever represented, attacked the FBI's credibility. Although he never mentioned the words "Waco" or "Branch Davidians," Golla tried to capitalize on recent news that the FBI had lied about using incendiary devices during the 1993 siege at Mount Carmel.

"What else did the FBI lie about?" Golla asked the jurors. Unfortunately for Russell, the prosecution had three additional eyewitnesses who identified Russell.

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