King Con

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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.

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Steve McVicker