Fly away, little jailbird

"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.

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Steve Mcvicker