Throwing Away the Key

A talented escape artist and con man gets more prison time. Will he serve it?

Steven Russell knew justice would be swift; he just hoped it would be merciful.

After a day and a half of testimony last week, a Walker County jury found Russell guilty of escape charges in only 13 minutes, and that included the time it took to elect a foreman. That quick verdict caused the noted con man and escape artist to begin having doubts about how much mercy would be coming. Russell's fears were well founded. Jurors sentenced him to 99 years in prison -- 99 years in addition to the 45 years he was already serving for theft. Of course, given Russell's track record over the past five years, the additional time could be a moot point.

For much of those five years, Russell's headline-grabbing antics have considerably embarrassed officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (see "King Con," February 6, 1997, and "The Further Adventures of King Con," May 14, 1998, both by Steve McVicker). Twice during that time Russell has simply, yet brazenly, walked out of the prison's front gates to freedom.

The first getaway came December 13, 1996. At the TDCJ's Estelle Unit near Huntsville, he broke open a green felt-tip pen in a bucket of water, dyed his white prison uniform into the green of surgical scrubs, then strolled away while posing as a member of the prison's medical staff. After a ten-day run, he was captured by authorities in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Just over a year later, in February 1998, TDCJ medical officials concluded that Russell was dying of AIDS. The state granted a "special needs parole" and moved him to a nursing home near San Antonio. After checking in, Russell was allowed to travel for medical treatment in Houston. During that trip, Russell's parole officer was informed that the convict had died, and for a short time state officials believed Russell dead.

A few weeks later, law officers discovered that the con man had pulled yet another hoax. Although Russell was captured in Florida, his ruse added to the legend of a man who already had pulled off two heady escapes from Harris County Jail. Once, he posed as a state district judge in a phone call to the district clerk's office. That got his bail substantially reduced so he could make bond and walk away. Another time, he used civilian clothes and a walkie-talkie to masquerade as a workman. County guards routinely buzzed him through security checkpoints. Timing was another part of Russell's flair: He made all four of his escapes on Friday the 13th.

Russell's trial last week in Huntsville focused on the December 1996 escape from the Estelle Unit. Details had been reported by the Houston Press, although trial testimony provided new revelations. At least two guards were suspended without pay, and a third was fired after the escape.

Russell's first stop after leaving Estelle was the home of Bobby Rushing, who said Russell convinced him that he was a TDCJ doctor, that he was drunk and needed a ride into town because he'd had an automobile accident. Although the witness's wife is a TDCJ employee, the unsuspecting Rushing gave Russell a glass of water and drove him to a Denny's restaurant in Huntsville.

Cab driver Margie Franks told jurors she picked up Russell as a fare at the Denny's, then chauffeured him the approximately 75 miles to Houston. Franks said Russell told her, too, that he had been in an accident, and that he didn't have his wallet. Russell told her to take him to Hermann Hospital, and once there, he convinced a security guard to let Franks park in an emergency zone so he could run inside to get some money to pay her. After about 15 to 20 minutes of waiting, Franks realized she'd been stiffed on the approximately $125 fare, and drove back to Huntsville.

Franks testified she had enjoyed their conversation on the way to the hospital and that they had talked about death row and other prison issues. She also pointed out that Russell was much different from the first escapee she had picked up a few years earlier. That inmate, said Franks, put a knife to her throat and kidnapped her. Not so with Russell.

"I thought he was nice guy," said Franks. As she departed the witness stand, she smiled and gave Russell a little wave.

The jury's farewell to Russell was hardly as fond. The defense tried to show his softer side, presenting his 21-year-old daughter in hopes of convincing the jury to go lightly with punishment. Stephanie Russell, a flight attendant from Virginia, tearfully pointed out that Russell is not violent and had been a good father when she was a child.

Russell then took the stand in the trial's penalty phase and apologized for the escape. But in response to questions by state prosecutor Kelly Weeks, Russell acknowledged that he had returned only about $500,000 of the $750,000 he embezzled from a Houston company over a five-month period in early 1996. During that time, Russell served as chief financial officer for North American Medical Management, a position the high school dropout was able to secure with a fake résumé.

Weeks told jurors that Russell, through his cons and scams, has wreaked havoc on the financial affairs of many people.

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