Cell Phones

Not even prison officials can silence the irrepressible King of Con

Larry Fitzgerald routinely fields inquiries from media around the world wanting to talk to some of the 140,000 inmates incarcerated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

But late last June, this TDCJ public information officer couldn't suppress his laughter at the request by the Houston Press to interview one prisoner, the notorious escape artist Steven Russell.

Russell is an extraordinary con man who is serving a 45-year sentence for embezzling $800,000 from a medical management company in Houston. His bold escapades, including two escapes from the Harris County Jail and two from state prisons, have landed him on the cover of the Houston Press twice in recent years.

Russell says he doesn't escape but instead is allowed to leave.
Russell says he doesn't escape but instead is allowed to leave.

In December 1996, he dyed his prison whites green and simply walked out the front door of the Estelle Unit in Huntsville by posing as a doctor in surgical scrubs. Just over a year later, Russell briefly savored freedom again 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.

The escapes, especially the last one, embarrassed the hell out of state prison officials. When the Houston Press learned that Russell was again on the run in March 1998, authorities asked the paper to hold the story until he was captured, because they didn't want Russell to know that they knew he was still alive. The Press cooperated, with the understanding that prison officials would return the favor when Russell was eventually captured.

Instead, when he was finally arrested in Florida a few weeks later, state officials whisked Russell away to an East Texas prison and have refused to allow him to speak with reporters from the Press or from anywhere else. Their excuse is that the investigation into the latest escape is continuing.

So in June Fitzgerald couldn't help but laugh when asked about the prospects of talking with Russell. But he wasn't joking when he said there was no way permission would be granted for an interview with that inmate.

Fitzgerald has a solid reputation for honesty, although he is sometimes wrong.

Two weeks after Fitzgerald's prediction, the telephone rang at the Press office. "Steve? Hi," the voice said. "This is Steven." As in the irrepressible, ready-for-interview Mr. Russell.

That began what has become several phone conversations with the man the prison system can't seem to squelch.

Following his capture last year at an apartment complex in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Russell reports, he was first placed in a high-security administrative segregation cell with a rather large padlock on the door. He was moved to a different cell every four days.

"The first month was pure hell," says Russell. "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.' " (Indeed, Russell has always maintained that he has never escaped from prison but, instead, has been allowed to leave.)

But recently, claims Russell, he obtained trusty status at the Michael Unit near Palestine, Texas, despite his history as an escape threat. TDCJ officials deny that Russell was ever 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 Fitzgerald. "I doubt he will be making trusty status anytime soon."

Russell also claims that Ricky Lee Smith, another Michael Unit inmate who gained escape-artist honors at TDCJ and Harris County Jail, made a formal request for a visit with Russell for legal advice. According to Russell, the request was granted.

"Ricky's never had the publicity I've had because he never gets away for very long," says Russell proudly. "If you don't plan where you're going, you're not going to make it. That's why I told Ricky that I don't understand him. He has enough creativity to get out of these 'seg' cells, but he doesn't plan what he's going to do next. And he said, 'Well, I guess I just didn't know who to go talk to.' "

Of course, it also goes without saying that even though he has eluded the law for up to two years at a stretch during his various runs, Russell himself has always landed back in jail as well.

When Russell first contacted the Press last summer, he called from a federal prison in the Dallas suburb of Seagoville, where he said the food is much better than in state prison.

He had filed a civil rights complaint in federal court accusing TDCJ of refusing to allow him to call witnesses in his defense during a disciplinary hearing. Russell was under the mistaken impression that he was relocated on a bench warrant for action on his federal complaint.

However, Russell soon learned that he was about to go to court for a different reason: three charges of federal bank fraud committed during his last taste of freedom.

During almost a month on the run, Russell called a loan officer at the downtown Dallas branch of what was then NationsBank on March 20, 1998. 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.

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