King Con Speaks

"This was a masterpiece, wasn't it?" laughs Steven Russell while talking on the phone from the eighth floor of the Broward County Jail.

He is referring to his latest escape. A fast-talking, pathological liar, Russell recently pulled off his fourth illegal exit from a Texas prison or jail. This spring, for the second time in just over a year, he basically walked out the front door of a prison to freedom -- more than 40 years ahead of schedule.

Russell's plans have always shown style; he specializes in nonviolent brazenness. Once he masqueraded as a prison workman and was waved out of jail; another time he dyed his prison whites green, presented himself as a doctor, and convinced a prison guard to buzz him out.

But with this latest escape, Russell was even more audacious: Rather than pretending to be someone else, he simply convinced prison officials he was dead of AIDS.

And once he was dead, Russell was off and running to South Florida, his favorite getaway. While most visitors to the Sunshine State come to escape the cold, he comes here to escape the Texas heat that is generated when he outfoxes the justice system. He's been caught all three times he's run to South Florida, however: the first time in Miami, the second time in West Palm Beach, and on April 7 in Sunrise.

His history in Florida, however, predates his merry-go-round with the law. Back in the early '80s, as a matter of fact, he was a police officer in Boca Raton. He's also worked in Florida's tomato industry.

Last month he was planning to enter another flourishing South Florida market: scamming.

Before the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) captured him, he'd already fraudulently purchased a computer and a fax machine for his Sunrise apartment. His mission was to sell life insurance policies of dying -- though quite fictitious -- people and make big bucks in the process.

Instead he was captured last month by FDLE agent Richard Dees, who noticed Russell looked pretty healthy... for a dead man.

Russell says he is calling from the day room of a cellblock -- which he has all to himself -- on the eighth floor of the Broward County Jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Texas prison officials wanted to deny Russell access to the media, but while he awaited extradition from Florida, he managed to phone a reporter three times.

This time, Russell is indignant. In addition to being isolated from other prisoners, he says he is strip-searched every eight hours. It's not the searches themselves that offend him; it's that the jailers don't understand him, don't respect his art. Guards checked for weapons or picklocks, but left him access to his best tool: the telephone.

"I have never broken out of jail," he fumes to the reporter from the Houston Press. "They make it look like I'm going to knock down that door any minute and then fly off the eighth floor over Fort Lauderdale. They are so stupid, it just blows me away."

Of course, he is saying all of this from inside a jail. Despite the brilliance of his escapes, so far, he's always been caught.

It's hard to say what drives Russell, now age 40, with a puffy face and thinning hair. Part of his joy in outwitting the law seems to be simple competitiveness, a desire to prove he's smarter than the authorities. But he didn't always need to prove that; in fact, for much of his life, he seemed a model citizen, even serving a stint with the Boca Raton Police Department. (Records show he was forced to resign after he called in sick in order to attend a Florida Highway Patrol training academy.) After moving back to his hometown -- Norfolk, Virginia -- he played the organ for his church and took over his father's produce business. His wife worked as a secretary for the police department, and together they were raising a young daughter. Then, suddenly, something caused Russell to abandon his middle-class family life for an existence of crime and passion. Pressed, he says only that he had "a midlife crisis."

Apparently he first broke the law while still living in Virginia. In late 1990 he was charged with stealing $11,000 in jewelry; he promptly skipped town and headed to Houston. Two months after his arrival there, he was charged with making a false statement on a passport application. And a month after that, he was in trouble again -- this time for scamming an insurance company by falsely claiming he had hurt his back.

He was eventually sentenced to six months in jail for the passport charge. But on April 10, 1992, when he was supposed to report to a federal prison in Oklahoma, he didn't show. Five days later he was arrested in Houston on the year-old, insurance-scam charge and sent to the Harris County Jail.

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Steve McVicker