King Con

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

Russell somehow managed to steal his boss's briefcase, which contained documents concerning the checks scam. He then went to lunch and never returned.

When Russell failed to show up for his one o'clock appointment, NAMM officials asked Doug Adams if he'd seen or heard from his friend. Adams says he had no idea what was happening, but that late that afternoon Russell called and asked whether anything was going on in the office. Adams told Russell he hadn't noticed anything -- which was true. Those who knew about the embezzlement were playing it close to the vest.

During the call, Adams detected the sounds of an ATM in the background. "I could hear the voice on the speaker say he was trying to withdraw too much money," says Adams, "that he would have to come inside to process that amount."

Adams asked about the ATM, and noted that Russell had missed the meeting with his boss. Russell responded that he needed cash because he was going to Las Vegas, and added that he wouldn't be coming back to work, ever. He explained that the company had found out that he'd lied about working at Prudential, but didn't bother to mention the stolen money. Even so, Russell told Adams enough for Adams to realize that he, too, would soon be out of a job. Sure enough, NAMM officials remembered the Prudential connection, and the next day Adams was fired.

From the cellular phone in his car, Russell called to tell NAMM officials that his attorney would contact them. NAMM alerted the major fraud division of the Harris County District Attorney's Office. It was a bad break for Russell. "Companies don't want their stockholders to know when they put a guy like Russell in a position to steal their money," explains assistant D.A. Jennings. "Steve had been counting on that. He had told friends that he had done this to other companies and that they hadn't prosecuted."

Investigators believe that NAMM's quick response caught Russell by surprise, but that he quickly tried to control the damage. As proof, they point to a series of bizarre phone calls -- calls they can't prove Russell made, but which certainly show elements of his style.

At the request of the district attorney's office, Judge Mary Bacon had signed an order freezing Russell's and Morris's assets. The prosecutors had warned her that Russell was a master manipulator.

Nonetheless, when someone claiming to be a federal judge in Virginia called, Bacon was, she admits, a little slow on the uptake. "When you get a call from a federal judge, you pay attention," she says. "You don't ask for his number and say you'll call back."

Though Russell has often claimed to have AIDS, friends say he does not. The ruse fits with the call Bacon received: The "federal judge" complimented the work that the Harris County courts had done regarding the rights of AIDS patients, and said that he was writing a paper on the subject. He then asked Bacon whether she thought AIDS patients should receive lighter sentences than other felons. It was an odd question, and Bacon suddenly realized she was being had. She ended the conversation and notified the district attorney's office.

Around the same time, an attorney at a high-profile law firm received two similar calls. During the first, the caller claimed to be an executive with a local medical-profession group who was looking for help in persuading the district attorney's office not to file charges against an embezzler. The lawyer checked with Jennings, who claimed not to know of any such cases. A few days later, the same attorney received a call from someone professing to be a congressman from Virginia who wanted to discuss fraud in the medical industry. Suspicious, the lawyer asked for a number to which he could return the call. When he dialed it, he was connected to the White House.

Despite Jennings's denial to the attorney, the D.A.'s office had begun hunting for Russell. Detectives staked out the house in Clear Lake, hoping he might return there. He did, and was promptly arrested.

As the handcuffs were placed around his wrists, Russell told detectives that he was diabetic and needed a shot of insulin. The detectives ushered him inside the house, not realizing that it was Morris, not Russell, who was diabetic. They watched as Russell administered a shot to himself.

A few hours after being questioned, Russell went into insulin shock at the county jail. He was taken to the facility's infirmary, where the living is easier and the security looser.

"When he was arrested, he was already thinking ahead," marvels Jennings. "He was already thinking, 'How am I going to get out of the Harris County Jail?' "

Russell wasn't able to escape from the infirmary, but after recovering from the insulin overdose, he began inundating Doug Adams and Gaynell Hollenhead with phone calls. Sometimes he beseeched them to help get his bond lowered so that he could get out; sometimes he called just to chat.

"That son of a bitch called me collect from jail daily," says Hollenhead. "I guess he was bored. I had to bug the D.A.'s office to go over there and make him stop. Finally, I just stopped answering the phone."

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