King Con

Page 9 of 10

On December 13, Russell put on that green uniform and walked confidently toward a guard. Assuming he was a doctor, she opened the prison door. Once again, Russell walked to freedom.

He hitchhiked to a Denny's restaurant in Huntsville, explaining to the driver who picked him up that he was a doctor at the prison, and that he'd been driving drunk and had an accident and didn't want his boss to find out.

From Denny's, Russell called a cab. He convinced the driver to haul him the 75 miles into Houston, where, he claimed, he was needed for surgery at Hermann Hospital. When the cab arrived at Hermann, Russell told the driver that he had to go inside to get the money to pay his fare. He never returned.

Inside the hospital, Russell convinced personnel to give him fresh scrubs. He says that he also phoned a friend, who took him to a Mexican restaurant.

At some point he called his ex-wife in Virginia. Prosecutors say that she wired him $2,000, but that they have no plans to file charges against her; she claims that she thought Russell had been paroled. With some of the money she wired, he bought new clothes.

Russell refuses to explain how he hooked up with Morris, who was hiding out at a friend's beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula. And Morris maintains that he doesn't know how Russell found his hideaway. "I was staying in a house that was on stilts," Morris remembers. "That night, a car pulled up. I looked down, and it was Steven."

Again the lovers headed for Florida, though their accounts of the trip differ. Russell claims that they hitchhiked. "I mean, if I'm able to talk anybody into anything, I should be able to talk someone into a ride," says Russell, who's obviously read his press clippings.

Morris, though, claims that a friend drove them to Lake Charles, where they checked into a motel. The next morning, he says, they hired a limousine, in which they glided all the way to Biloxi. They registered under fake names at an Econo Lodge and stayed in their room for most of the next ten days.

Morris says that Russell claimed to have been paroled, and said that he was having his parole transferred to Florida, where he planned to get back into the tomato business. "He said he had been offered a job by a guy named Tony Thomas with Sanford Produce," remembers Morris, "and that he was going to help me get out of my mess."

The Press was unable to reach either Tony Thomas or Sanford Produce. But a woman who works in the Florida produce industry confirmed that both exist, and that neither wants anything to do with Steven Russell. It's also true, she said, that Russell previously worked in Florida. As a matter of fact, she added, in 1990 he worked for her father. While employed as a tomato broker, Russell borrowed $10,000 from her father for a down payment on a sports car, and then refused to repay the loan. One day, the woman's brother found Russell at a Palm Beach salon, about to get his back waxed. Her brother dragged Russell to a bank and physically forced him to withdraw the $10,000.

When the woman heard on the news that Russell had escaped from a Texas prison, she worried that he was headed in her direction. "I called my mother and father," she said, "and told them that if they saw him at their front door, to call the police."

For fear of revealing trade secrets, Harris County law enforcement officials refuse to say how they tracked Steven Russell and Phillip Morris. An official with NAMM says he understands that Russell, for some unfathomable reason, continued to use his credit cards while on the run, leaving an easy trail for lawmen to follow.

Morris recalls an incident that may also have led to their capture. He explains that during the lovers' ten days at the Biloxi Econo Lodge, Russell, as usual, stayed busy working the phone. To pass the time, Morris took walks along the beach. Upon his return one evening, he spotted Russell headed for an adult bookstore. Morris returned to the motel room, locked the door and fumed.

"When Steve got back," says Morris, "I called the desk clerk and told them to call the police, that somebody was trying to get into my room and I didn't know the guy."

Although the police did not come to their room, it's possible that Morris's call may have alerted law enforcement to the fugitives' presence in Biloxi.

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Steve McVicker