Steven Jay Russell has many other names. As well as the 14 known aliases he used while fabricating bogus credentials and passing himself off variously as a judge, a doctor, an FBI agent and a bar student, he has been nicknamed “Houdini” and “King Con” for his remarkable ability to escape from prison. From 1992, when he was imprisoned for the relatively minor charge of insurance fraud, Russell managed to escape four times from several different Texan jails over a five-year period.
Russell’s life story is also the stuff of improbable fiction. His prison escapes were marked by astonishing brazenness that left law-enforcement officials slack-jawed in bafflement. Russell’s shenanigans were driven by his obsessive love for a fellow inmate called Phillip Morris whom he met in jail in the early 1990s (his escapes always took place on Friday 13th, the day on which Morris was born).
When Russell and Morris were released on parole in 1995 they set up home together in Houston, and Russell went in search of money to lavish on his lover. He persuaded a medical insurance company to hire him as their chief financial officer on the basis of a greatly exaggerated CV with all references directed back to him. In five months, he embezzled $800,000 from dormant accounts to fund the couple’s glamorous lifestyle of Mercedes-Benz cars, jet-skis and matching Rolex watches.
Eventually, he was found out and sent back to jail, but not before impersonating a judge over the telephone and demanding his own bail money be lowered from $900,000 to $45,000 (he paid with a cheque that later bounced). Back in captivity, his escapes were from then on shaped by the single, overwhelming desire to be with Morris. This turned out to be his fatal flaw. Despite managing repeatedly to outwit the federal authorities, Russell was always caught because, each time he escaped, he would end up beating a path to Morris’s door.
Russell’s escapes were never violent – he claims, even now: “I didn’t break out. They opened the door and let me through” – but they were ingenious. Twice, he simply walked through the front gates. In 1993, while languishing in the Harris County Jail in Houston for making a false insurance claim about an injured back, Russell disguised himself as a workman with a walkie-talkie and a pair of women’s black trousers stolen from the prison infirmary. “I tapped on the security gate with my walkie-talkie and the guy let me through,” he explains, nonchalantly. Was he scared? “No. And if you are scared, you really mustn’t show it. You have to act like you’re meant to be there.”
Three years later, he stockpiled green felt-tip pens from prison art classes, squeezing the ink from the cartridges into a sink of water and dying his overalls the colour of surgical gowns. “You have to be very careful because if you wring them out, you get streaks in the material,” he says matter-of-factly. Underneath the makeshift medical clothes, Russell taped several plastic bags tightly to his body so that police dogs would not be able to follow his scent once he was on the run. He picked a moment when the woman manning the front desk was on the telephone and then, unquestioned by prison staff, simply walked out “dressed like Dr Kildare”.
“You do get a huge adrenaline rush. I walked to the woods just outside the penitentiary and after about 100 yards, I turned round and went like this [he mimes giving someone the finger with the glee of a naughty child]. I guess it was kind of arrogant.”
Russell walked to the nearest house, knocked on the door and claimed to be a doctor who had been involved in a car accident and who needed a lift into town. The stranger obliged. “By the time they had their helicopters and search teams out, I was drinking margaritas in a bar in Houston.”
But not for long. Within the year, he was back in jail, this time plotting his most daring escape ever.