Longform

King Con

Page 4 of 10

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Hollenhead remembers hearing that Russell had just gotten out of prison, but that by some fluke his law license hadn't been revoked.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.

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Steve McVicker