Longform

King Con

Page 5 of 10

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."

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Steve McVicker