King Con

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

Shortly after Russell was picked up, Phillip Morris was arrested as an accomplice to the theft from NAMM. Friends managed to post his $50,000 bond, and Morris was released -- but his lover's bond was still too high to manage.

Apparently, Russell kept making calls. On July 13, a Friday, a detention clerk at the jail received a call from someone who claimed to be retired state District Judge Charles Hearn, who was serving as a "visiting" judge. Russell's bond had already been lowered from $1.8 million to $900,000, but the caller posing as Hearn ordered the clerk to reduce the bond still further.

The inmate phones at the Harris County Jail will make only collect calls, and Russell insists that someone inside the jail, someone with access to a regular phone, made the call for him. But authorities contend that it was Russell himself who spoke to the clerk, possibly by routing the call through his home computer. However the trick was done, Russell's bond was slashed from $900,000 to $45,000.

Investigators say that Russell continued to manipulate the jail phone system and placed a call to A-Rose Bonding Company. Posing as a New York banker, he allegedly convinced a rookie bondsman to post the reduced bond. The bondsman was eager to impress his boss by getting a big-time client, and happily allowed Russell to pay with a check -- which later bounced. He also gave Russell a ride from downtown to the house in Clear Lake, even stopping along the way to buy him a soft drink.

Phillip Morris was still out on bail. He claims that he believed his lover had gotten out of jail legally, and that when Russell insisted that they travel to Florida, he reluctantly agreed to jump bail.

The two traveled separately -- either good planning, or a stroke of luck for Morris. They were to rendezvous at the Fort Lauderdale bus station, but a week after Russell's escape he was arrested in West Palm Beach. At the bus station, Morris spent hours waiting for Russell to show. Alone, he returned to Texas.

From West Palm Beach, Russell was extradited back to Harris County. When he arrived at the jail, Captain Dan Doehring made a point of greeting him as he got out of the car.

"I wanted to be the one to turn the key on the door and lock him in," says Doehring. "And I think he probably took it in the spirit that it was in -- that the captain was staying over tonight to welcome him back home, knowing that he was probably already formulating his next escape plan, and was already on step two out of 300."

At the jail, Russell endured the standard booking procedures. Like most smart career criminals, Russell puts effort into his mug shots, manipulating his facial muscles to make himself look different from picture to picture. In almost every photograph there's something changed about his nose, his mouth, his forehead or his eyes. The reason he does this, authorities explain, is that Russell knows his mug shots could someday be used to help track him down or convict him -- and a bad mug shot might throw the hounds off his trail.

Doehring observes that Russell is always looking for an angle. "If Steven tells you it's daylight outside," Doehring says, "I would highly recommend going out to see if there's that big yellow thing in the sky that hurts your eyes."

Russell began to negotiate a plea bargain. He tried to help himself by claiming that a deputy sheriff had helped him escape, but prosecutors didn't believe him. He also tried unsuccessfully to arrange for Morris to serve time in the same prison he was in.

Russell soon agreed to a fairly stiff sentence: 45 years for theft and 20 years for escape, to run concurrently. Prosecutors say that he'll probably serve at least ten to 12 years before he's eligible for parole, and they believe that he might have received a lighter sentence had he taken his case to trial. Russell explains that he accepted the arrangement because he was guilty and wanted to get on with serving his time.

Prosecutors believe otherwise. At the Harris County Jail, Russell was placed in leg irons any time he was taken somewhere, and he wasn't allowed to use the telephone unsupervised. "We think that's one of the main reasons he pled," says Jennings. "He's always got to be talking to someone. He's always got to be scamming. When they took the phone away from him, he pled out very quickly."

Jennings theorizes that Russell wanted to be transferred to state prison as quickly as possible. The idea was that the sooner he left the jail, the sooner he could begin planning his next getaway. Russell describes that theory as "presumptuous."

Perhaps that's because he was attempting to escape even while he was in the jail. In August, during a recreation break, he jumped into an elevator with a maintenance worker and tried to pose as part of a cleaning crew. That time, he was caught.

Naturally, when it came time to transfer Russell to state prison, the jail took extra precautions. Instead of sending him on the usual secured bus with other prisoners, two armed deputies drove Russell to Huntsville in a car. And Captain Dan Doehring made sure his office warned the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that Russell was a significant escape risk.

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