Breaking Out For Love

3.12.2009

By Steve McVicker

It had been five years since I last saw Steven Russell, but when I interviewed him in December at the Michael Unit near Palestine, Texas 100 miles southeast of Dallas, he was still pasty and pale. More than a decade of spending 23' hours a day in a solitary confinement cell in a maximum security prison will do that to a man. If he were simply a great con artist, his conditions would probably be less severe; it's his reputation as an escape artist extraordinaire that landed him where he is.

Russell enters the prison's interview room (we are separated by a Plexiglas window) with his hands cuffed behind his back. When the cuffs are removed, the guard who escorted him locks him in the room. Another guard, stationed outside the room, monitors Russell's every movement through a window in the door. Russell will not be escaping today.

While we talk through the intercom phones on either side of the Plexiglas barrier, Russell downs first a grape soda and then an orange one that the guards have allowed me to buy for him. He is dressed in prison whites, and his cropped black hair is now graying, but he is pleased about the buzz around the movie I Love You Phillip Morris, based on my book and starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. 'I always knew the book would make a good movie,' he says. 'But I thought it would be a made-for-TV movie.'

Despite leaving his cell only once a day -- to shower -- Russell is extremely upbeat on this cold Tuesday afternoon and talks of all the reading he gets to do. It helps him take his mind off where he is and what his future holds, he says. And while it's possible he could be paroled at some point, when he is no longer an embarrassment to the Texas prison system, Russell seems to have come to terms with the likelihood that he will spend most, if not all, of the rest of his life behind bars.

Currently, the 51-year-old Russell is serving a 45-year sentence for embezzlement. Even were he to receive parole for that offense, he would then begin serving a life sentence for one of his escapes, an escape that was his third felony and therefore subjected him to the Texas habitual criminal statute: the 'three strikes and you're out' rule.
On the other hand, it's conceivable that he's lulling prison officials into the complacency that has served him so well in the past.

In the meantime, Russell's idle hours are filled with nothing but time to reflect on a once seemingly full life -- a life that jumped the tracks due to greed and, more important, an all-consuming love.

Russell and Phillip Morris met in 1995 in the law library of the Harris County Jail in Houston. Russell helped the frail and fair Morris, who was serving a sentence after failing to return a rental car, reach a book on the top shelf. 'We fell in love with each other at the county jail,' Russell told me during one of our earlier meetings. 'The first three months we were together were like a honeymoon.' (According to Morris, 'Steven was a take-charge kind of guy. He made me feel safe and assured me that everything was going to be OK.')

Growing up in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia, Russell was the stereotypical all-American straight male, the youngest child of an upper-middle-class family with a thriving produce business. He played the organ for the Calvary Temple Church of Norfolk. Its minister had severed his ties to the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists, which he deemed too liberal.

Russell was even involved in law enforcement. He married the Norfolk police chief's secretary, and they had a daughter he adored. He served as a part-time reserve deputy for the sheriff's office in Chesapeake, Va., and later as a full-time officer for the Boca Raton, Fla., police department.

But that was 180 degrees and three decades ago. From the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, not only did Russell come out as gay, he turned into a brazen con man and escape artist. The journey led him first to Miami and then Houston, two cities that offered a previously sexually inhibited man from the Bible Belt much greater opportunities than he had found in the restroom stalls of Virginia's parks.

Along the way, Russell also developed a taste for crime -- beginning with petty insurance fraud and escalating to an $800,000 embezzlement scheme. Russell used the money to give himself and Morris the lavish lifestyles he thought they deserved. Included in their play box were his and his Mercedes Benzes, Rolex watches, and a vacation to the Florida Keys. 'Whatever Phillip wants,' seemed to be Russell's game plan.

But five months was the longest they were actually together unfettered -- living fast and spending money faster. The embezzlement eventually came back on the pair, resulting in longer jail stays and love on the run.

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