Longform

King Con

Page 3 of 10

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.

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Steve McVicker