King Con

Page 7 of 10

Investigators believe that NAMM's quick response caught Russell by surprise, but that he quickly tried to control the damage. As proof, they point to a series of bizarre phone calls -- calls they can't prove Russell made, but which certainly show elements of his style.

At the request of the district attorney's office, Judge Mary Bacon had signed an order freezing Russell's and Morris's assets. The prosecutors had warned her that Russell was a master manipulator.

Nonetheless, when someone claiming to be a federal judge in Virginia called, Bacon was, she admits, a little slow on the uptake. "When you get a call from a federal judge, you pay attention," she says. "You don't ask for his number and say you'll call back."

Though Russell has often claimed to have AIDS, friends say he does not. The ruse fits with the call Bacon received: The "federal judge" complimented the work that the Harris County courts had done regarding the rights of AIDS patients, and said that he was writing a paper on the subject. He then asked Bacon whether she thought AIDS patients should receive lighter sentences than other felons. It was an odd question, and Bacon suddenly realized she was being had. She ended the conversation and notified the district attorney's office.

Around the same time, an attorney at a high-profile law firm received two similar calls. During the first, the caller claimed to be an executive with a local medical-profession group who was looking for help in persuading the district attorney's office not to file charges against an embezzler. The lawyer checked with Jennings, who claimed not to know of any such cases. A few days later, the same attorney received a call from someone professing to be a congressman from Virginia who wanted to discuss fraud in the medical industry. Suspicious, the lawyer asked for a number to which he could return the call. When he dialed it, he was connected to the White House.

Despite Jennings's denial to the attorney, the D.A.'s office had begun hunting for Russell. Detectives staked out the house in Clear Lake, hoping he might return there. He did, and was promptly arrested.

As the handcuffs were placed around his wrists, Russell told detectives that he was diabetic and needed a shot of insulin. The detectives ushered him inside the house, not realizing that it was Morris, not Russell, who was diabetic. They watched as Russell administered a shot to himself.

A few hours after being questioned, Russell went into insulin shock at the county jail. He was taken to the facility's infirmary, where the living is easier and the security looser.

"When he was arrested, he was already thinking ahead," marvels Jennings. "He was already thinking, 'How am I going to get out of the Harris County Jail?' "

Russell wasn't able to escape from the infirmary, but after recovering from the insulin overdose, he began inundating Doug Adams and Gaynell Hollenhead with phone calls. Sometimes he beseeched them to help get his bond lowered so that he could get out; sometimes he called just to chat.

"That son of a bitch called me collect from jail daily," says Hollenhead. "I guess he was bored. I had to bug the D.A.'s office to go over there and make him stop. Finally, I just stopped answering the phone."

Shortly after Russell was picked up, Phillip Morris was arrested as an accomplice to the theft from NAMM. Friends managed to post his $50,000 bond, and Morris was released -- but his lover's bond was still too high to manage.

Apparently, Russell kept making calls. On July 13, a Friday, a detention clerk at the jail received a call from someone who claimed to be retired state District Judge Charles Hearn, who was serving as a "visiting" judge. Russell's bond had already been lowered from $1.8 million to $900,000, but the caller posing as Hearn ordered the clerk to reduce the bond still further.

The inmate phones at the Harris County Jail will make only collect calls, and Russell insists that someone inside the jail, someone with access to a regular phone, made the call for him. But authorities contend that it was Russell himself who spoke to the clerk, possibly by routing the call through his home computer. However the trick was done, Russell's bond was slashed from $900,000 to $45,000.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve McVicker