King Con

Steven Russell can bluff his way out of anything -- even prison. so why can't he stay out of jail?

Hollenhead believed the tale. Today, her credulity irritates her. "I think I know a lot about sociopaths," she says. "I think I've been married to half of them. And Steven Russell is a total sociopath."

Hollenhead was at an impasse with an architect who had worked on her house; the two couldn't agree on how much money she owed him. When she mentioned to Russell that the case was headed for mediation, he offered to act as her attorney. Hollenhead accepted the offer.

On the appointed day, she met Russell at the Harris County Civil Courthouse. She recalls that when Russell, wearing a three-piece suit, finally arrived in the courtroom, he explained that he had been tied up with a case in another court. He then walked into the judge's chambers. Hollenhead, Russell, the architect and the mediator gathered in a small room, and two hours later Hollenhead and the architect agreed on a payment schedule. On the way out of the courthouse, Russell asked Hollenhead, "Didn't I do great? Didn't I do great?"

"I thought that seemed like a strange thing for a lawyer to be asking," she remembers. "But I told him he had done fine."

Still, his behavior piqued her curiosity -- as did his and Morris's high standard of living so soon after leaving prison. (Russell and Morris, she noticed, each drove a Mercedes Benz.) And besides, she didn't much care for Morris, who would spend hours in her living room complaining about his tragic childhood.

"During all of this, he acted like he hated Steve," she says disgustedly. "He was just playing both ends against the middle. He was using Steve for anything he could get out of him."

To support Morris in style, Russell shaped himself into the very picture of a high-powered executive. He had his teeth capped and bought new suits. And, says Hollenhead, he went to her plastic surgeon for an eye job.

He also prepared a resume. In the summary of his qualifications, Russell presented himself as an attorney and a "team player relating well to people at all levels." He claimed to have served as chief financial officer for a $150 million division of Prudential and to have developed software in conjunction with IBM. He said he had been named employee of the year in 1982 and 1990.

It was, to say the least, quite an impressive list of accomplishments. It was also quite a lie.

Asked recently if anything on his resume was true, Russell paused briefly and smiled. "My name and address," he replied.

In documents filed in Harris County civil court, Russell claims that he took the bogus resume to Baldwin & Company, a Houston headhunting firm. In January 1996, he was hired as chief financial officer of North American Medical Management. NAMM, with offices on the North Loop, is an "independent practice association" -- that is, it helps doctors manage the business side of their practices.

In the court documents, Russell contends that NAMM paid Baldwin $17,000 for the privilege of hiring him. Apparently, neither NAMM nor the headhunting firm did much to verify Russell's work and educational history, much less investigate him for a criminal background.

A NAMM official, who asks that his name not be used, says that since a headhunter sent Russell to the company, the company assumed Russell was who he said he was. Still, NAMM attempted to verify Russell's employment record by calling the numbers he supplied on his application.

"Steve was apparently able to have people standing by telephones to take calls inquiring about him," says the NAMM official.

As for Baldwin & Company, owner Gary Baldwin initially refused to comment as well, other than to deny that his company was paid $17,000 to place Russell. Later, Baldwin called and offered to be interviewed if the Press would sign a written agreement promising to keep his name out of the story. The Press declined.

"They didn't check me out at all," Russell boasted in prison. "My educational background? I just took the GED last month."

At NAMM, Russell made good money -- approximately $90,000 a year, according to Harris County investigators. But it wasn't enough for Russell and Morris, who quickly developed a taste for riding high, wide and handsome. The pair bought a patio home on Burwood Way in Clear Lake. From the end of their street, across a field dissected by power lines, you can see the Johnson Space Center. Brick fences and wrought iron gates protect every home on the street. Neighbors in the mind-your-own-business enclave say that Russell and Morris kept to themselves.

Part of their time they spent remodeling. Court records show that in addition to making a 20 percent down payment on the $107,500 house, Russell and Morris spent $16,000 to install sliding glass doors and an undetermined amount to add a leaded-crystal front door. At Star Furniture, they spent just under $10,000.

The couple wrote checks for two new Mercedes: a $102,000 SL 500 for Morris and an $86,000 S 420 for Russell. They bought a $20,000 Cartier watch, along with two top-of-the-line Rolexes. There was a pair of jet skis, and a $10,000 savings bond in Morris's name. And when they grew dissatisfied with their home near NASA, they began scouting for houses in River Oaks and Southampton.

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