Steven Russell returned to prison something of a celebrity. His escape -- his third, counting two from the Harris County Jail -- had made national news by dint of its audacity: This time, he had used a felt-tip pen to dye his prison uniform green, so that it resembled surgical scrubs. Then, posing as a doctor, he had simply walked out of the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, hitchhiked to a restaurant and taken a cab to Houston.
It was an amazingly bold con -- but one that was only par for the course for Russell. Once before, he'd escaped by posing as a jailhouse workman. Another time, claiming to be a state judge, he had called a clerk at the jail and lowered his own bail. And once, while free, he had used a fake resume to get himself hired as the chief financial officer of a large company.
Despite Russell's obvious brains and chutzpah, he managed to stay out of prison for only ten days following the green-marker escape. Now two large lawmen were driving him back to Huntsville, delivering him once more into the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The white four-door sedan pulled up at the back door of the Diagnostic Unit, where all state prisoners are swallowed into the system.
A handful of reporters and photographers awaited Russell. They expected someone dramatic, someone who looked like he was capable of larger-than-life exploits. But the pasty, potbellied man who emerged from the back seat looked more like a bloated rat than a criminal mastermind. As Russell stepped into the Diagnostic Unit's parking lot, his hands were chained to his waist. His dark eyes darted about. His thinning hair waved in the January wind. Clad in aT-shirt, khakis, deck shoes and leg irons, Russell looked as though he couldn't bluff his way out of a parking ticket, much less a prison.
A few minutes later, he was led into the visitation room, where reporters would pose their questions. Given the chance to freshen up, Russell had metamorphosed. He was scrubbed and shaved, and sported a new burr haircut and a fresh white prison uniform. Seated in front of a television camera, he looked around the room, his dark eyes moving from the guards to the journalists and back to the guards, searching perhaps for a sign that someone might be buying his story.
The first question posed Russell concerned his most recent escape. How, he was asked, did he do it?
Russell deflected the question. He explained that he hadn't escaped, exactly. "I didn't break out." he said. "I asked if I could go home, and they opened the door."
For a split second, it was almost possible to believe him. He sounded so earnest that you could envision a kindly guard simply granting his wish, disregarding the convict's 45-year sentence and opening the prison door to let him go home. Russell makes you want to believe. Listening to him, you're not surprised that he keeps managing to escape. You're surprised that he keeps getting caught.
Terry Jennings, a prosecutor with the major fraud division of the Harris County District Attorney's Office, speculates that to Russell it's not the crime that matters, but the cops and robbers game of it all, the childlike pleasure of beating the system. "A lot of the investigators in our office love the hunt," says Jennings. "Well, Russell loves to hustle, and he loves to run -- to see what he can get away with."
"And," Jennings adds, "he gets away with quite a bit."
For the first three decades of his life, Steven Russell seemed like just another upstanding businessman. He grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia and entered his father's produce-wholesaling business in Norfolk. He had close ties to law enforcement. Friends say his wife, Debbie, worked for the police department in Chesapeake, Virginia. And one of Russell's uncles, H.P. Williams, is a retired district attorney for a county in northeastern North Carolina.
"Steve is a very personable fellow, obviously," laughs his former attorney, William P. Robinson Jr., who is also a member of the Virginia legislature. "He's intelligent, sincere and beguiling. He has a lot of knowledge about general things, and he can charm the nose right off your face." He's the kind of guy, Robinson says, that you wouldn't mind having as a neighbor.
If, that is, you can tolerate a few criminal tendencies. According to court records, in December 1990, Russell was charged with stealing almost $11,000 from a jeweler in Virginia Beach.
It's not clear what, other than greed, drove him to commit the theft. Russell himself sheds little light on the matter. "I don't understand myself, to be quite honest with you," he said in prison. "I can't explain it to you."
Perhaps the crime was his reaction to a midlife crisis; perhaps he'd committed crimes all his life, and this was simply the first time he'd been caught. Either way, the theft charge marked a turning point in Russell's life, the point at which his life on the lam began.
Reliable information about this period is hard to come by, but it appears that while awaiting resolution of the theft case, Russell left his wife, who still lives in Virginia, and went to work for food-wholesaling businesses in Miami and Houston.
There's no doubt, though, that he began to rack up a dizzying array of criminal charges. In February '91, a Houston federal court charged him with making false statements on a passport application. A month later, while still in Houston, he was charged yet again -- this time for trying to scam an insurance company by falsely claiming he had hurt his back in a fall.
The federal case was the first to reach court, and in November 1991, Russell was found guilty of passport fraud. He was sentenced to six months in a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma, to be followed by two years probation -- a relatively light sentence. But apparently the deal wasn't sweet enough for Russell. On April 10, 1992, the day he was supposed to report to an Oklahoma prison, he failed to show up.
Five days later, he was arrested in Houston, on the year-old felony theft charge related to his insurance hustle. Following his arrest, he spent a month in the Harris County Jail -- just long enough, apparently, to learn how to beat its system.
Somehow, Russell obtained a set of civilian clothes and a walkie-talkie. On May 15, dressed as a workman and holding the walkie-talkie, he tapped on the window of a guard station. A jailer opened the door, and Russell walked out to freedom.
He didn't stay out for long. Three days later, he was arrested in Miami while boarding a flight to Mexico. A Florida magistrate ordered a $20,000 bond, which Russell posted. And then he went on the lam again.
This time, freedom lasted longer. For the next two and a half years, Russell eluded authorities from Virginia, Texas and the U.S. government. He claims that during this time he worked in Chicago as an executive for Nutra Sweet.
In January 1994, Russell and another man -- James Vincent Kemple -- were arrested on federal bank fraud charges in Philadelphia. According to the indictment, when Russell went to work for Nutra Sweet, he used Kemple's birthdate and Social Security number. To obtain insurance through the company, Russell was required to take a physical. Later, however, in order to get an advance payment of $200,000 on a life insurance policy, Russell submitted the medical records of Kemple, who was dying of AIDS. The two men were arrested as the money was being wire-transferred to a bank in Philadelphia.
After the arrest, a company called Medical Diagnostic Center of Philadelphia sent a letter to the court. A Dr. Richard Kones wrote that Russell had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1990: "It is with great sadness I tell you, Mr. Russell is in the final stages of his illness and will soon succumb to it within the next months." Although federal prosecutors say that Kemple died of AIDS, Russell is obviously still alive.
Since the money in the AIDS-fraud case had been recovered, and since Russell was supposedly dying, prosecutors in Philadelphia decided not to pursue the bank-fraud charges and extradited Russell to Houston. It appears, however, that Russell may have duped the prosecutors. The number listed on the diagnostic center's stationery rings at a company called Medical Broadcasting. When the Press called, the person who answered the phone had never heard of Medical Diagnostic Center of Philadelphia. Additionally, there is no directory listing in the Philadelphia area for either Medical Diagnostic Center or Dr. Richard Kones.
After his return to Houston, Russell was sentenced to three years in state prison for the faked-fall insurance rip-off, and this time he didn't try to run. That might be because the sentence was light; Russell knew that he would spend less than a year in prison before he could be paroled. But perhaps more important, he had fallen in love with a fellow inmate.
"I think anybody can start a new life," Russell said recently. But unfortunately for him and his lover, their new lives would include a lot of old habits.
The first time Phillip Morris saw Steven Russell, they were in the law library of the Harris County Jail. Morris, a blond, small-boned petty criminal, was trying to reach a book on a high shelf. Russell grabbed it for him.ooo "He wrote to me every day after that," remembers Morris, who was housed in a different cellblock than his admirer.
According to Morris, Russell claimed to be an attorney from Florida. He wrote his new flame that he'd just gotten out of federal prison after refusing to testify against the Mafia, and that Morris reminded him of a previous lover who had died of AIDS.
There were elements of truth in Russell's claims. James Kemple, his male accomplice in the bank fraud, did die of AIDS, and Morris says Russell once showed him $10,000 in cash that he claimed to have received from his lover's life insurance policy. But other than the money, Russell offered Morris no evidence that such a man ever existed.
Russell is not and never has been an attorney, and his tale about the Mafia contains, at best, a funhouse version of the truth. In the early 1990s, Russell was apparently involved in a U.S. Department of Justice probe into allegations of price fixing by food-distribution companies serving school districts in Southeast Texas. The probe targeted three Houston-based companies, among them White Swan Inc.
Russell told the Press that at the time of the price-fixing investigation, he was employed as White Swan's vice president of marketing. (Like Nutra Sweet, White Swan did not respond to inquiries about Russell.) Eventually, two of the companies, including White Swan, paid fines totaling $2.5 million; two employees were sentenced to electronically monitored home detention, and one went to prison.
Officials with the three food companies, as well as federal prosecutors, declined to comment on Russell's role in the investigation. But according to an attorney who defended one employee, Russell was instrumental -- but not because he refused to cooperate with the feds.
"He was the snitch," says lawyer Joel Androphy.
Russell claims that because he helped the investigation, he was "banished from the food-service industry and unable to make a living." But there's no evidence that the investigation had anything to do with the Mafia or his prison term; when he told his story to Morris, Russell was serving time solely for the unglamorous crime of faking a fall.
Still, Phillip Morris believed what he heard. Morris, the 35-year-old son of a Baptist preacher, was also waiting to be transferred to state prison. In 1989, he'd been arrested for failing to return a rental car. He had been sentenced to six years deferred adjudication and ordered to repay the rental agency. But he hadn't been able to hold a steady job, and was ordered to a halfway house where his restitution efforts could be closely monitored.
Supervised living didn't suit Morris. He says that he fell out with another resident of the halfway house because they had different ideas about God's tolerance for homosexuality. According to Morris, the man threatened to "blanket" him -- that is, to throw a blanket over him and beat him with a baseball bat.
Morris left the halfway house without permission. When he called to explain his predicament, his probation officer wasn't understanding. A warrant was issued for Morris's arrest.
In jail, he was happy to place himself under Steven Russell's protective wing. Russell, for his part, seemed besotted with Morris.
Russell got himself transferred to Morris's cellblock. "Steven's letters had stopped coming," remembers Morris. "Then one day I turned around, and there he was. We saw each other and began to hug. That was the first time we ever touched."
Morris began telling people on the outside about his new boyfriend. "Phillip called me a lot to tell me about Steve and how wonderful he was," recalls a friend. "I would also talk with Steve, and he seemed really nice. I felt he was really helping Phillip."
Russell became possessive of Morris, and protective of him as well. Russell -- who apparently had access to significant funds -- hired a new attorney for Morris. He also put money into Morris's commissary account.
Morris says that at one point he complained to Russell about an inmate who habitually screamed. Not long afterward, Morris, who is diabetic, left the cellblock to receive an insulin shot. When he returned, he noticed a large group of inmates standing near the door, watching a fight. "When I asked what was going on," says Morris, "they told me that Steve had paid someone to beat this guy up."
After that incident, Russell was moved to a different cellblock. He and Morris were briefly reunited on the 75-mile bus trip from the Houston jail to the Huntsville prison. But the lovers had to serve the remainder of their sentences apart.
Russell was paroled in October 1995. He returned to Houston and began preparing for a life with Morris. When the younger man was paroled two months later, the couple shared a two-bedroom apartment in Clear Lake.
Despite the appearance of domesticity, a mutual friend believes that Morris was less interested in Russell himself than in Russell's alleged promise to give Morris anything he wanted, just as he had in jail. "Phillip was never attracted to Steve sexually," says the friend, Doug Adams (not his real name). "I mean, Steve looked like some kind of beached whale."
(There may be an element of truth in Adams's assessment of the relationship. When recently given the opportunity to describe his feelings for his partner, Morris never used the word "love." Instead, he said that he "cared a lot about Steve.")
Despite Adams's distaste for Russell's physique, the two became friends. Adams had first met Russell by phone, while Morris was in the Harris County Jail. When Russell was paroled, he gave the state parole board Adams's name as his Houston contact and reference. Adams even offered to let Russell stay with him a while after his release. Russell didn't accept the offer, but he often dropped by Adams's Montrose apartment.
"He seemed like a real nice guy," Adams says. "He started renting a car. He had some money from somewhere. Then he started working temp jobs. He also told me he was a lawyer."
He told Adams's neighbor the same thing -- and furthermore, he offered to help with her legal problems. Gaynell Hollenhead had lived next door to Adams for only a month when Russell began visiting. Sometimes Adams brought Russell to her house. Hollenhead remembers hearing that Russell had just gotten out of prison, but that by some fluke his law license hadn't been revoked.
Hollenhead believed the tale. Today, her credulity irritates her. "I think I know a lot about sociopaths," she says. "I think I've been married to half of them. And Steven Russell is a total sociopath."
Hollenhead was at an impasse with an architect who had worked on her house; the two couldn't agree on how much money she owed him. When she mentioned to Russell that the case was headed for mediation, he offered to act as her attorney. Hollenhead accepted the offer.
On the appointed day, she met Russell at the Harris County Civil Courthouse. She recalls that when Russell, wearing a three-piece suit, finally arrived in the courtroom, he explained that he had been tied up with a case in another court. He then walked into the judge's chambers. Hollenhead, Russell, the architect and the mediator gathered in a small room, and two hours later Hollenhead and the architect agreed on a payment schedule. On the way out of the courthouse, Russell asked Hollenhead, "Didn't I do great? Didn't I do great?"
"I thought that seemed like a strange thing for a lawyer to be asking," she remembers. "But I told him he had done fine."
Still, his behavior piqued her curiosity -- as did his and Morris's high standard of living so soon after leaving prison. (Russell and Morris, she noticed, each drove a Mercedes Benz.) And besides, she didn't much care for Morris, who would spend hours in her living room complaining about his tragic childhood.
"During all of this, he acted like he hated Steve," she says disgustedly. "He was just playing both ends against the middle. He was using Steve for anything he could get out of him."
To support Morris in style, Russell shaped himself into the very picture of a high-powered executive. He had his teeth capped and bought new suits. And, says Hollenhead, he went to her plastic surgeon for an eye job.
He also prepared a resume. In the summary of his qualifications, Russell presented himself as an attorney and a "team player relating well to people at all levels." He claimed to have served as chief financial officer for a $150 million division of Prudential and to have developed software in conjunction with IBM. He said he had been named employee of the year in 1982 and 1990.
It was, to say the least, quite an impressive list of accomplishments. It was also quite a lie.
Asked recently if anything on his resume was true, Russell paused briefly and smiled. "My name and address," he replied.
In documents filed in Harris County civil court, Russell claims that he took the bogus resume to Baldwin & Company, a Houston headhunting firm. In January 1996, he was hired as chief financial officer of North American Medical Management. NAMM, with offices on the North Loop, is an "independent practice association" -- that is, it helps doctors manage the business side of their practices.
In the court documents, Russell contends that NAMM paid Baldwin $17,000 for the privilege of hiring him. Apparently, neither NAMM nor the headhunting firm did much to verify Russell's work and educational history, much less investigate him for a criminal background.
A NAMM official, who asks that his name not be used, says that since a headhunter sent Russell to the company, the company assumed Russell was who he said he was. Still, NAMM attempted to verify Russell's employment record by calling the numbers he supplied on his application.
"Steve was apparently able to have people standing by telephones to take calls inquiring about him," says the NAMM official.
As for Baldwin & Company, owner Gary Baldwin initially refused to comment as well, other than to deny that his company was paid $17,000 to place Russell. Later, Baldwin called and offered to be interviewed if the Press would sign a written agreement promising to keep his name out of the story. The Press declined.
"They didn't check me out at all," Russell boasted in prison. "My educational background? I just took the GED last month."
At NAMM, Russell made good money -- approximately $90,000 a year, according to Harris County investigators. But it wasn't enough for Russell and Morris, who quickly developed a taste for riding high, wide and handsome. The pair bought a patio home on Burwood Way in Clear Lake. From the end of their street, across a field dissected by power lines, you can see the Johnson Space Center. Brick fences and wrought iron gates protect every home on the street. Neighbors in the mind-your-own-business enclave say that Russell and Morris kept to themselves.
Part of their time they spent remodeling. Court records show that in addition to making a 20 percent down payment on the $107,500 house, Russell and Morris spent $16,000 to install sliding glass doors and an undetermined amount to add a leaded-crystal front door. At Star Furniture, they spent just under $10,000.
The couple wrote checks for two new Mercedes: a $102,000 SL 500 for Morris and an $86,000 S 420 for Russell. They bought a $20,000 Cartier watch, along with two top-of-the-line Rolexes. There was a pair of jet skis, and a $10,000 savings bond in Morris's name. And when they grew dissatisfied with their home near NASA, they began scouting for houses in River Oaks and Southampton.
Obviously, $90,000 a year wouldn't cover that lifestyle. Russell told friends that NAMM had started him at $150,000, and later claimed that his salary had ballooned to $500,000. He also maintained that he made money on the side by investing in tomato futures.
"He'd call me up in the middle of the afternoon and say that he'd just made $50,000 on tomatoes," Morris remembers. "I had met somebody who could give me whatever I wanted. I never questioned anything." According to friends, Morris spent his days drinking and keeping house.
Their friend Doug Adams began to wonder about the couple's lifestyle after they invited him over to see a home video. On the screen, Morris rolled around on a bed covered with money, a la Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, saying that he had just won big at a casino.
"He was doing it because I had won some money at a casino one time," Adams says cattily. "He was just throwing it in my face. But I didn't believe him for a minute."
Russell helped Adams land a job in NAMM's finance department, coaching him to lie on his application by saying that he, like Russell, had worked at Prudential. Adams went along, but he had his limits.
Eventually, says Adams, Russell asked him if he would like to transfer to the personnel department. And Russell wondered aloud whether there was any way Morris could be added to the payroll without the annoying burden of actually coming into the office.
Adams needed the job, but didn't, he says, want to do anything illegal. That night he had nightmares. The next day, he took Morris aside to express his concern that something wasn't quite right.
Morris calmed him, explaining that Russell wouldn't do anything to endanger the couple's freedom. Adams bought the story.
During the five months that Steven Russell worked for NAMM, he pocketed nearly a million dollars of the company's money. But when he wasn't busy stealing, he did a pretty good job as chief financial officer. According to investigators, he was able to convince company officials that he was doing his job and doing it well.
At least, for a while. "He had almost no ability to deal with complex asset and equity issues," says the NAMM official. "With enough time, we would have decided it wasn't working out. But a good personality can cover a lot of sins."
But according to Russell, his bosses had qualms about him -- not about his honesty, but about his sexual preference. In a rambling, longhand response to a civil suit the company filed against him, Russell wrote that he felt pressured to lie to his bosses by claiming that he was flying to Las Vegas to marry a woman who worked for a high-powered law firm. He also alleged that NAMM officials urged him to bring his new bride to the company picnic.
The NAMM official denies that the company discrinimates against gays. He also says that it was Russell who initiated the tale about his wife -- to explain that it was she who bought the Mercedes Benzes.
But Russell never had to produce a woman. In May 1996, an official with Texas Commerce Bank notified NAMM that Russell had applied to TCB for a loan. During the credit check, the loan officer noticed alarming irregularities in a bank account that Russell shared with Morris. Since March, Russell had deposited more than $750,000.
Asked recently about the charges of embezzlement, Russell readily admitted to stealing the money. But he adamantly maintained that Morris was unaware of his actions. According to Russell, after taking over as CFO, he discovered a large number of checks that NAMM had failed to deposit. He deposited the checks in the company account, but never entered them into the company books. Then he wrote checks to Morris from the company account and deposited them into their joint account. To make the checks look legitimate, Russell made them payable to P.C. Morris, CPA; P. Morris, CPA; or Dr. Morris, CP.
There's likely some truth to Russell's version of events, but investigators say the real explanation is a bit more complicated. Though the money was indeed withdrawn from NAMM accounts, NAMM officials never even knew those accounts existed.
When Russell was hired in January, he was not a signatory to any of NAMM's accounts. But apparently he soon rectified that situation. In the documents filed in the civil suit against Russell, NAMM contends that shortly after he was hired, Russell asked a secretary to make copies for him. She got up to do it -- and on her desk she left the signature stamp for the NAMM accounts. When she returned, the stamp was gone.
Investigators believe that Russell stole the stamp, but not because he wanted to use it. Instead, when NAMM was forced to get another one, he had his name included on it. After he became an account signatory, he opened new accounts, into which he deposited uncashed company checks and transferred money from other accounts. Then he wrote checks payable to Morris from the new accounts.
Texas Commerce Bank contacted NAMM on May 13. That morning, when Russell arrived at work, his boss said that they needed to talk. Russell quickly explained that he was busy just then, and the two men agreed to meet after lunch.
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."
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.
In only three months, Russell proved Doehring right.
It was in the Estelle Unit that Russell broke open a green felt-tip pen, placed the cartridge in a bucket of water, then soaked his white uniform in the makeshift dye. The newly colored V-neck top and drawstring pants then bore a strong resemblance to surgical scrubs.
On December 13, Russell put on that green uniform and walked confidently toward a guard. Assuming he was a doctor, she opened the prison door. Once again, Russell walked to freedom.
He hitchhiked to a Denny's restaurant in Huntsville, explaining to the driver who picked him up that he was a doctor at the prison, and that he'd been driving drunk and had an accident and didn't want his boss to find out.
From Denny's, Russell called a cab. He convinced the driver to haul him the 75 miles into Houston, where, he claimed, he was needed for surgery at Hermann Hospital. When the cab arrived at Hermann, Russell told the driver that he had to go inside to get the money to pay his fare. He never returned.
Inside the hospital, Russell convinced personnel to give him fresh scrubs. He says that he also phoned a friend, who took him to a Mexican restaurant.
At some point he called his ex-wife in Virginia. Prosecutors say that she wired him $2,000, but that they have no plans to file charges against her; she claims that she thought Russell had been paroled. With some of the money she wired, he bought new clothes.
Russell refuses to explain how he hooked up with Morris, who was hiding out at a friend's beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula. And Morris maintains that he doesn't know how Russell found his hideaway. "I was staying in a house that was on stilts," Morris remembers. "That night, a car pulled up. I looked down, and it was Steven."
Again the lovers headed for Florida, though their accounts of the trip differ. Russell claims that they hitchhiked. "I mean, if I'm able to talk anybody into anything, I should be able to talk someone into a ride," says Russell, who's obviously read his press clippings.
Morris, though, claims that a friend drove them to Lake Charles, where they checked into a motel. The next morning, he says, they hired a limousine, in which they glided all the way to Biloxi. They registered under fake names at an Econo Lodge and stayed in their room for most of the next ten days.
Morris says that Russell claimed to have been paroled, and said that he was having his parole transferred to Florida, where he planned to get back into the tomato business. "He said he had been offered a job by a guy named Tony Thomas with Sanford Produce," remembers Morris, "and that he was going to help me get out of my mess."
The Press was unable to reach either Tony Thomas or Sanford Produce. But a woman who works in the Florida produce industry confirmed that both exist, and that neither wants anything to do with Steven Russell. It's also true, she said, that Russell previously worked in Florida. As a matter of fact, she added, in 1990 he worked for her father. While employed as a tomato broker, Russell borrowed $10,000 from her father for a down payment on a sports car, and then refused to repay the loan. One day, the woman's brother found Russell at a Palm Beach salon, about to get his back waxed. Her brother dragged Russell to a bank and physically forced him to withdraw the $10,000.
When the woman heard on the news that Russell had escaped from a Texas prison, she worried that he was headed in her direction. "I called my mother and father," she said, "and told them that if they saw him at their front door, to call the police."
For fear of revealing trade secrets, Harris County law enforcement officials refuse to say how they tracked Steven Russell and Phillip Morris. An official with NAMM says he understands that Russell, for some unfathomable reason, continued to use his credit cards while on the run, leaving an easy trail for lawmen to follow.
Morris recalls an incident that may also have led to their capture. He explains that during the lovers' ten days at the Biloxi Econo Lodge, Russell, as usual, stayed busy working the phone. To pass the time, Morris took walks along the beach. Upon his return one evening, he spotted Russell headed for an adult bookstore. Morris returned to the motel room, locked the door and fumed.
"When Steve got back," says Morris, "I called the desk clerk and told them to call the police, that somebody was trying to get into my room and I didn't know the guy."
Morris finally allowed Russell back inside. But Morris claims that he'd had enough, and that he told his lover he was returning to Texas to turn himself in. The next morning, Russell was back on the phone, and Morris amused himself at a casino.
When Morris returned to the hotel that afternoon, he couldn't get into the room. He could, though, see that his suitcase and belongings were in a heap on the floor, and that Russell was gone. As Morris walked to the front desk to report that his key didn't work, he assumed that Russell had split town, leaving him behind. But when Morris looked outside the motel lobby, he saw several police cars slide into the parking lot. The game was over; he was arrested.
Russell was already a guest of the Biloxi PD when Morris arrived at the police station. The two were then driven to the Harrison County Jail in nearby Gulfport. It was during that ride to jail, Morris claims, that Russell finally confessed all of his lies.
Prosecutors have a hard time believing Morris knew so little. "He says he thought Steven was really a lawyer and was really making money legitimately?" prosecutor Terry Jennings asks rhetorically. "Bullshit!"
Between property recovered and bank accounts seized, authorities have so far been able to recover $550,000 of the $850,000 they say Russell and Morris stole from NAMM. Morris remains incarcerated at the Harris County Jail while awaiting trial. Russell has been assigned to serve his sentence at the Texas Department of Justice's Eastham Unit, a maximum-security prison.
As of mid-January, Russell and Morris were no longer in communication. Although Russell's main concern appeared to be Morris's well-being, Morris did not appear particularly interested in Russell. "Something that people don't understand is that I've forgiven Steve for what he's done to my life," said Morris. "I'm more angry at myself for being so stupid and gullible."
On the cold January night that Steven Russell was returned to the custody of Texas prison officials, the first thing he wanted to tell reporters was that Phillip Morris was completely blameless.ooooo "It has caused me a lot of grief that he had to go to jail because of me," said Russell. "Causing an innocent person to go to jail -- that's probably the greatest tragedy anyone can ever be guilty of. I'm pretty disgusted with myself, to be quite honest with you."
"To be quite honest with you" -- it's a phrase that Russell drops into sentences like punctuation. He cased the room, checking to see whether anyone believed that he'd suddenly been overwhelmed by the desire to tell the truth.
No one seemed to.
At the conclusion of the interview, Russell was asked when he plans to leave prison. For the first time that evening, his eyes twinkled, and he couldn't hide a cat-like smile.
"Just as soon as the parole board will let me go," he said.
Once again, no one believed him.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.