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The Great Escapee

The Great Escapee

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Published by dgalleni
Brief biography of Steven Jay Russell, the man who inspired the film "I Love You Phillip Morris".

Feature article from Esquire Magazine, January 2010 by Alex Hannaford
Brief biography of Steven Jay Russell, the man who inspired the film "I Love You Phillip Morris".

Feature article from Esquire Magazine, January 2010 by Alex Hannaford

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Published by: dgalleni on Dec 03, 2010
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02/16/2013

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During his reign as America’s most prolicconman Steven Russellposed as a judge, FBI agent,and CEO and escaped from jail an incredible ve times. Alex Hannaford visited the jail where he’s serving a144-year sentence
Words by Alex HannafordPhotographs by xxxxxxx
Steven russell
loved to study people. Towatch their every move, remember habitsand observe individual quirks. It came inhandy in prison, particularly one day inDecember 1996 — a Friday 13th — the day he planned to escape. Again.Russell had bought a handful of greenMagic Marker pens from the commissary at the Estelle Unit, an imposing maximumsecurity prison about 10 miles north of theTexas town of Huntsville. He didn’t tellanyone what he planned to do — Russellknew that in prison the less people knewwhat you were doing, the better.He dropped a white prison-issue shirtin the sink and emptied the magic markerrells into the water until a cloud of greenink swirled round the bowl. It took him
 
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hours of meticulous shaking and blowing to dry the shirt the next day, but the rusehad worked: it now looked almost identicalto the medical scrubs the visiting doctorswore. On the night of 12 December, heslept with it under his mattress. Over thepast few weeks, Russell, a 6ft-tall man justa year shy of 40, had observed the womanguarding the entrance to the unit whereinmates ate their breakfast, the one whospent her time gossiping on the phone.The next morning he slipped into thetoilet and changed into his green shirt. And then he simply walked out — past theguard at the entrance, her ear as usualglued to the phone, through the maindoors, across the prison courtyard and outthrough the security gates. The armedofcer standing in the guard tower calledout, “Damn doc, those look like prisonwhites you’re wearing.”“Well, don’t shoot,” he laughed. As Russell disappeared out of sight, heturned round and stuck his middle ngerup at the concrete building that hadcontained him for the last four months.
Throughout his incredible
career as aconman, Steven Russell would escape from jail ve times in as many years. By the timeof his last recapture in 1999, he had become the most prolic prison escapee inUS history. But he had never used violence,each time he would make his attempt on aFriday 13th, and, each time, his love forone man — Phillip Morris, the blond,delicately featured son of a preacher from Arkansas — would be his undoing.In February, I Love You Phillip Morris,the story of his incredible life, hits UKcinemas. A clip of its stars, Jim Carrey (asthe effervescent Russell) and EwanMcGregor (as Morris) kissing is already allover YouTube.Russell’s story is almost unbelievable.He eluded capture by operating under 14different aliases, faking Aids, forging hisown death certicate and using anything he could lay his hands on: a magic marker,a pay phone, a walkie-talkie, even a pair of women’s stretch pants. Twice he walkedout of prison and into jobs where he became the CEO of the company; hepretended to be a judge to reduce his bailand arrange his own early release from jail, and impersonated an FBI agent toreport himself no longer wanted.Today, he’s locked up in a 10ft by 7ftconcrete cell in a maximum security segregation ward of the Michael Unit, a grey prison building a couple of hours southeastof Dallas where he’s serving a 144-yearscalp and he's wearing thick black glasses.Only when he’s inside is he allowed to puthis cuffed wrists through the slot and havethem removed. He smiles and laughsthroughout our interview, and he’ll fog upthe bulletproof Perspex that separates us onmore than one occasion as he animatedly relays his astonishing story. Despite this,there’s a palpable air of sadness about him.One or two of the newer guards seemto like Russell. But they are all paranoidabout getting too close. He’s a condencetrickster and they know that’s how he’smanaged to escape so many times. “Itwon’t happen on my watch,” the manguarding him today says. Perhaps that’swhat they all said.
Steven jay russell
was born in NorthCarolina in 1957. His parents, David andGeorgia, were devoutly religious. But whenhe was nine years old he discovered they'dadopted him. He found this hard to takeand began getting into trouble at school,he also became obsessed with setting res. At the age of 12 he was sent to a boys’ homefor therapy. He discovered two thingswhile he was there: that he had an IQ of 163 (well above average) and that heenjoyed having homosexual experiences.He left the boys’ home on 13 May 1971 — aFriday. From then on, Friday 13th would behis lucky day. After graduation, he become a policeofcer — something he later said taughthim all he needed for a life of crime — andin 1976 he married the police chief’ssecretary, Debbie Davis. Their daughter,Stephanie, was born two years later. Butthis law-abiding family man was about toembrace the lifestyle he had so far kepthidden from his family. In 1985, nine yearsafter they had wed, Russell told Davis hewas gay and the couple agreed to separate.Forseeing a decline in funds, he faked a“slip and fall” accident, claiming $45,000on the insurance; he also made thousandsof dollars selling fake Rolex watches, butit was his decision to apply for a drivers’licence and passport in the name of another Steven Russell — to help with hiscriminal activities — that would lead to hisarrest and indictment by a grand jury forfraud. Amazingly, Russell was released on bail.The following year, he met James“Jimmy” Kemple and it wasn’t long beforethe pair moved into an apartment togetherin Palm Beach. They loved going to thecinema, eating out at expensive restaurantsand going to concerts. But Kemple had Aids, which in the early Nineties was oftenuntreatable, and he’d been given only acouple of years to live.Inside the Harris County Jail, serving his six-month sentence for fraud, Russellwas missing Kemple and began looking foran escape route. “I started watching howthe guards operated,” he says. “Every three hours the ofcers would go outsideto take a smoking break, and when they did, I’d go off exploring.” He discovered aroom where female inmates would give uptheir civilian clothes before being processed. “I found these red sweat pantsand set them aside,” he says. He also stolea tie-dyed t-shirt and walkie talkie.On Friday 13 May 1993, Russell put hisplan into action. While the guards were ontheir break he put on the red tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt and took the lift downto the 10th oor — a secure area whereinmates were forbidden. “There wereguards there, but I just walked through,took the other elevator to the rst oor andwalked out the front door,” Russell says. “Ihad a radio to give me a sense of authority and nobody asked me for identication.”Russell had just walked out of one of the busiest and most secure jails in Texas.But his mistake was heading back toKemple, and he was arrested less than aweek later in the car park of Miami airportas the pair were about to y to Mexico.Incredibly, the judge ordered bail of just$20,000, which Russell was easily able topay. Together with Kemple, Russell ew toMexico City where he called the HarrisCounty Sheriff, telling him he was now inthe Dominican Republic. “I hope you don’t blame my escape on those guards whowere out there taking a smoke break,” hesaid. “You could x the problem if youallowed smoking back in the jail.”“Fuck you,” came the reply.Concerned about the lack of decenthealth care for Kemple, they decided tomove back to the US, but were caught andcharged with fraud after anotherinsurance scam went wrong.“The last time I saw Jimmy, he was in aholding cell in front of me,” Russell says.“They let him go home and they kept me forthat six-month sentence. We spoke every day after that, but he was getting weaker.He went back to West Palm Beach anddied with his dog lying in bed beside him.”“I really liked Steven at rst, but heconned Jimmy,” Kemple’s mother Helensays during a brief phone conversationwith Esquire. “He lied like a rug. He toldone lie after another, and he deserves to bewhere he is 100 per cent because he’ll do itall again. He should be in prison forever.”wasn’t so sympathetic, and in December1994 he was extradited to face felony insurance fraud and escape charges.
On July
21, 1989, Phillip Morris, a 5ft 2in,slim, blonde 20-year-old from Arkansaswound up on the wrong side of the law forthe rst time in his life. He was moving home from Houston to Atlanta, but waslate in returning his rental car and wasarrested. Years later, struggling to keep upwith restitution payments he was sent to ahalfway house. He ed and was re-arrestedfor breaking his bail conditions. Which ishow he ended up in Houston’s HarrisCounty Jail library that December in 1994.“Phillip was trying to reach for this book that was bigger than he was,” Russelltells Esquire. “He’s little — he only weighsabout 115lbs soaking wet — so I grabbed itfor him and we started talking.” Russelltold Morris he was a lawyer. “I told him allkinds of bullshit,” he says. “You don’t expectto meet someone cool in jail; you expect tomeet the derelicts. And damn, was I wrong.”Russell was paroled in October 1995,after serving just nine months of athree-year sentence, and Morris followedtwo months later. The pair moved into anapartment together in Clear Lake, just 30minutes drive from the Harris County Jail.Free from the shackles of the Texascriminal justice system, the pair devotedthemselves to a life of hedonism andexcess. With the help of a friend, Russellwas able to cash another life insurancepolicy he’d taken out for Jimmy Kemple.“We bought each other Mercedes Benzes,”Russell says. “It was ostentatious; it wasoutrageous. We were out of control. Butwe were on parole and we were free, so wehad a good time.” After faking his CV, Russell had walkedinto a job as the chief nancial ofcer forNorth American Medical Management(NAMM), a company overseeing patientcare. NAMM’s founder Don Holmquist hasdescribed his employee as a “likeable guy,engaging and easier to work with thanmost chief nancial ofcers. The guy is theworld’s best actor. He said all the rightthings”. But what Russell was saying andwhat he was doing were two very differentthings. He began investing millions of dollars in short-term accounts, siphoning off 50 per cent of the revenue andpocketing $800,000 in the process.To this day Morris insists he had noidea Russell was embezzling money. Heknew his partner had a fantastic job; they had just bought a house with a pool, andthe lifestyle of fast cars, jet skis and fancy sentence. His food and mail are pushedthrough a large letterbox style slot in thecell door, and the only time he leaves is totake his daily shower. According to theguards he never bothers with recreation. At the prison gate there is little love forthe man who made an ass of the US penalsystem. “You here to see that guy that didthat shit?” the guard asks contemptuously  before waving my car through. Inside the jail, Russell is handcuffed as he’s let intothe tiny interview cell. He looks older,more overweight than in the few picturesthat exist of him. His hair is shaved to theThe reality was that Russell was still inprison and needed to get out. With the helpof a fellow inmate, a doctor, he beganlearning about Aids. The doctor wrote aletter on smuggled medical stationery saying Russell would succumb to the nalstages of the illness within a few months.Using a prison typewriter, Russell alteredhis lab reports to support this. Inexplicably the authorities never tested him.Due largely to his “declining health”,the federal authorities dropped the chargesagainst him. Russell had once again fooledthe system. However, the state of Texas
His food and mail arepushed through a slotin the cell door. Heleaves only to showerRussell eluded capture by using 14 aliases,faking Aids and forging his own death certicate
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