King Con

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."