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Breaking Out For Love

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; its his reputation as an escape artist extraordinaire that landed him where he is. Russell enters the prisons 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 Russells 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 its 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 youre out rule. On the other hand, its conceivable that hes lulling prison officials into the complacency that has served him so well in the past. In the meantime, Russells 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 chiefs secretary, and they had a daughter he adored. He served as a part-time reserve deputy for the sheriffs 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 Virginias 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 Russells 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. During a five-year period, Russell escaped four times from Texas prisons and jails. Each escape was nonviolent. Each was on a Friday the 13th. And each was more audacious than the last. While being held in the Harris County Jail in 1992, for example, Russell managed to stow away some civilian clothes and snatch a walkie-talkie from the jails sick bay. Dressed as a workman, he tapped the walkie-talkie on the window of a jail checkpoint and was waved through to freedom. In 1996, following his arrest on the embezzlement charge, Russells bond was set at $900,000. After gaining access to a nonsecure telephone, he called the district clerks office, posing as a state district judge, and said he was lowering Mr. Russells bond to $45,000. The bogus order was never questioned, and he was a free man again. In December of that year, Russell used green felt-tip pens and a sink full of water to dye his white prison uniform green and then walked out of a state prison disguised as a doctor. But Russells last escape was definitely his most ingenious. Over nearly a year, Russell ate next to nothing and became emaciated and incontinent. It was enough to convince state prison officials -- who didnt run their own medical tests -- that he was dying of AIDS and win him a transfer to a south Texas nursing home. From there he called both the director of the nursing home and the head of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. He told both men that he was an AIDS specialist in Houston and that he would like Mr. Russell to participate in an experimental treatment program in a private clinic in Houston. Both men agreed. Russell then had the father of a fellow inmate pick him up at the nursing home and drive him to a nearby car lot, where hed arranged to purchase a vehicle over the phone some weeks earlier. A few weeks after his release -- ostensibly to the AIDS clinic -- parole and nursing home officials were informed by phone that, unfortunately, Mr. Russell had died during the treatment. And once again, Russell was on the run. Until, that is, his all-consuming love for Morris led authorities back to him. On this occasion, after convincing state and nursing home authorities that he was dead, Russell obtained a Texas state bar card that attorneys used to identify themselves. He manipulated the ID and had Morris moved from a state prison to the Dallas County Jail, where Russell wouldnt be recognized. After the transfer, he brazenly and repeatedly used the card to pose as an attorney and visit Morris. It was Russells in-your-face style at its finest, but authorities would later review videotapes of those visits in their successful search for him. I do love Phillip Morris, Russell said during our most recent interview. But I dont see how it would be possible for the two of us to ever be together again. Even if Russell does win a parole, a reunion between them seems unlikely since any parole would be likely to come with a stipulation that they have no contact. People may feel sorry for Steven and feel he is being overpunished and all that, says Terry Jennings, who prosecuted Russell as an assistant district attorney in Harris County. But the problem with Steven is that you really cant trust him. You have to be on guard about feeling sorry for the guy. No one is ever going to trust him again -- because he will make a fool of you. As I prepared to interview Russell for this story, I had to laugh out loud when I thought back to the first time we met, in January 1997. Russell had just been captured following his escape by dyeing his prison uniform green. I was at the prison when Russell arrived. After processing him back into the system, prison officials allowed me and another Houston reporter a few minutes to interview him. Russell denied that he had escaped. I didnt break out, he said. I asked if I could go home, and they opened the door. Following that encounter, we traded a few letters. I couldnt help but want to stay plugged in to the story of this man I suspected would find another uncanny path to freedom. And true to form, after convincing prison officials he was dead and subsequently being captured in Florida, Russell called me at the Houston Press, where I was then working, to gloat about the great scam he had pulled. This was a masterpiece, wasnt it? hed laughed. If they hadnt had Phillip, they would have never caught me, hed said at the time. But they had Phillip, and they knew that was the key to getting me. Law enforcement officials refuse to reveal any secrets or techniques they have employed to repeatedly capture Russell. But its plain the authorities knew -- and know -- that, sooner or later, Russell will always come back for or contact Morris, who is now 49 and lives with his family in Arkansas. Its a flaw that former Texas prison fugitive tracker Terry Cobbs has been able to count on. At heart, he is a crook and a thief who doesnt care what he does to other people, says Cobbs. But when you sit down and talk to him, hes a personable guy. And when hes comfortable with you, you can readily see how he could con people who are a little bit vulnerable, because he does have that air of confidence about him. Morris dreams that a relationship can still be a reality. I still miss him, Morris said recently during a phone interview. We have a connection that Ive never had with another human being. A lot of people search their whole lives for that and never find it. So thats something to me. 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