By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
"Life's a funny old dog." — Dan Jenkins
So there I was. About 30,000 feet high over the beautiful snow-covered Rocky Mountains, and headed for the most important destination of my life — the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The event: the premiere of the movie version of my book, I Love You Phillip Morris, starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. I was literally and figuratively in rarefied air. But there was one small problem: I also thought I was dying.
That morning the Houston Chronicle had run a story about the movie and my trip to Sundance. The piece had been accompanied by a photograph of me sitting on my front porch doing my best impersonation of some badass writer, prominently displaying my cowboy boots and sunglasses.
My stories in the Houston Press about Steven Russell, who in the mid- to late 1990s escaped from Texas jails and prisons four times in five years, always on Friday the 13th, had struck gold. I was even in the movie — if my part didn't get cut — playing a judge to Carrey's portrayal of Russell.
But now all I could think of was that I was going to die in the land of the Mormons or, at best, I wouldn't get to see my movie — a project that had been almost a decade in the making.
Operating on just three hours' sleep from the night before, I was having trouble dealing with muscle cramps that started in my feet and spread to my chest. I reached for a banana I had stored in the overhead compartment, but stretching to reach it only worsened the pain, which was especially intense in my rib cage area. I was meeting several friends in Park City, but none of them were on this flight with me. I had to work this out for myself.
I kept trying to fight off the cramps and not call attention to myself. But two hours into the flight, I only felt worse. My chest was tight, and I could feel the adrenalin pumping through my body at an alarming rate. I was sweating like a pig.
Reluctantly, I pushed one of the overhead buttons for a Continental flight attendant, and asked her to bring me some water and a soft drink. When she reappeared with the drinks, I told her I couldn't breathe.
In just moments, she came back with a bottle of oxygen. I strapped the breathing device around my face. Nearby passengers on the close-to-capacity flight began rubbernecking to get a glimpse of the guy in the back of the plane who was about to croak. The flight attendants quickly rounded up a couple of doctors from among the passengers, and they were now tending to me.
"Hi, my name is Dr. Elmer Bernstein," said one of the volunteer doctors.
It was all I could do to keep from laughing. I wanted desperately to tell him how funny I thought it was that, while I was apparently dying, I was being tended to in the air by a doctor with the same name as the great Hollywood composer Elmer Bernstein, who, among other things, wrote the music for The Magnificent Seven.
Despite a life as a law-abiding, churchgoing family man, in the mid-1980s, when Steven Russell moved his family from his native Virginia to Houston for a new job, he finally embraced the lifestyle that he had so long kept hidden from his family. He became obsessed with money and men.
In comparison to some of his later grand criminal exploits, it would be a rather mundane slip-and-fall insurance fraud crime that would land Russell in jail in Houston in late 1994, and mark a significant turning point in his life.
In spring 1995, while in the Harris County Jail law library, Russell met and fell dumb-struck in love with another inmate: Phillip Morris, a small, fair boy-man who was incarcerated for theft of services — or failing to return a rental car in a timely fashion. From that point on, Russell's actions revolved around his obsession to make Morris happy. And for that, he needed money, and lots of it.
Russell first came to my attention in the summer of 1996. A story in the Houston Chronicle said that fugitive trackers had just captured a man — Russell — who had escaped from the Harris County Jail. But it had been no ordinary escape or crime.
In early 1996, with Russell and Morris freshly paroled from prison, North American Medical Management had hired Russell as its chief financial officer. He persuaded the company to hire him after producing a greatly exaggerated résumé, with all references directed back to him.
Five months later, company officials finally wised up — but only after Russell had embezzled $800,000 from NAMM, a company that handled insurance claims and billings for area doctors. Russell had used the money to buy Rolex watches and Mercedes-Benzes for himself and Morris.
Russell's escape had been equally brazen. All inmate calls from the Harris County Jail are preceded by a taped message advising the persons receiving the calls that they are being contacted by prisoners and that the calls are collect.