Steven Jay Russel: The Great Escape Artist – 1957

Steven Jay Russell photographed in Huntsville Prison, January 1997. Photograph- George Hixson
Steven Jay Russell photographed in Huntsville Prison, January 1997. Photograph- George Hixson

‘King Con’

Steven Jay Russell, otherwise known as “The Great Escape Artist,” or “King Con” was one of the most notorious con artists of all time. Born in 1957, Russell made a name for himself by masterminding a number of daring escapes from prison and committing a variety of frauds.

Russell managed a few forgeries, including AIDS and his own death certificate, various thefts, eluded capture by using 14 different aliases and, most daringly of all, he managed to escape police custody 5 times. Out of those, 4 times he was in Federal prison and simply walked out of them.

The escapes always took place on Friday the 13th, the day on which Morris was born.

He also had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which only adds to his cunning and outrageous behaviour.

Early Life

Russell was born in North Carolina in 1957. At the age of 9, he discovered that he was adopted. He felt especially rejected since his mother had given him away because she did not want to raise a child out of wedlock. But eventually, his biological parents married and started a family of their own, without ever looking for their firstborn.

Russell then began acting out his feelings of rejection. He did so by starting fights with strangers, obsessing with starting fires and various other acts of minor criminal mischief.

By the age of 12, he was sent to a Boy’s Boarding School for therapy where he enjoyed homosexual experiences with other boys. A fact he went on to hide until well in his 30s.

Smooth Operator- Con man Steven Russell has broken out of prison four times -- all, reportedly, for love of a good man.
Smooth Operator- Con man Steven Russell has broken out of prison four times — all, reportedly, for the love of a good man, Philip Morris.

At the Boy’s Home, Russell also learned that he was exceptionally gifted, with an IQ of 165. He graduated in 1971 and shortly after, became a police officer. Something he would later claim gave him all the skills needed for a life of crime.

He worked for a while as a reserve sheriff’s deputy and would end up marrying the police chief’s secretary, Debbie Davis. Two years later, they had a daughter named Stephanie. Russell played the role of a devoted family man who occasionally played the organ at the local church.

In 1985, Russell had a mental crisis after his adoptive father passed away. This left him pondering over his sexuality and his life. He was finally comfortable enough with his sexuality and he and his wife went through an amicable split.

Beginning a Life of Crime

Before his life of crime, Russell was a successful sales manager. But he was promptly fired from his job after his manager at the Los Angeles-based food company found out he was gay. Foreseen a decline in funds after the break up of his marriage and the loss of his job, Russell faked a slip-and-fall in the hopes of a $45,000 insurance payout.

A year after divorcing his wife, Russell met one James Kemple aka “Jimmy”. They moved together to an apartment in Palm Beach and enjoyed their evenings going to the cinema, concerts and eating out at expensive restaurants. Russell and Kemple were in love, but Jimmy had AIDS, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a death sentence. James Kemple was given only a couple of years to live.

Russell also began selling fake Rolex watches to keep up the lavish lifestyle James Kemple and himself enjoyed. To launder his criminal activities, he also applied for a number of driver’s licenses and passports using another Steven Russell name.

He was arrested in 1988 and charged with fraud, embezzlement, and grand theft. Amazingly, he was released on bail. Russell was sentenced to 5 years in prison and, by the end of 1992, serving inside Harris County Jail, with only 6 months left to his sentence, he began planning his escape.

The First Escape

He watched the guards. He knew when and where they went for smoke breaks and how long they took, and every time they did so, he will venture into forbidden areas of the prison, looking for a way out. He found a room with spare clothing from female inmates and set some aside.

On May 13, 1992, he got dressed, stole a walkie-talkie, took an elevator to the first floor and proceeded to walk out of the front building. Nobody stopped him.  He had just walked out of one of the most secure jails in Texas.

Russell headed back to his lover, James Kemple. A week later, they were both apprehended in the car park of Miami airport as they were preparing to fly out to Mexico. The judge ordered a $20,000 bail bond, which Russell was easily able to pay.

Kemper and Russell both flew to Mexico City. From there, Russell called the Harris County Sheriff and tauntingly told him that all this could have been avoided if the prison guards were allowed to smoke inside.

Not long after, however, Jimmy’s health began to decline very fast and they returned to the United States to get proper treatment. Unfortunately, they were caught and charged with fraud after another insurance scam.

James Kemper was released due to his failing health. Russell was kept in prison. They never saw each other again after the arrest. But they spoke every day until James passed away.

On February 9, 1993, Russell used a makeshift ladder to scale a fence and escape from prison. In December 1994 he was extradited to face felony insurance fraud and escape charges.

I Love you, Philip Morris

In the spring of 1995, Steven Jay Russell crossed paths with Philip Morris while both were incarcerated in Harris County Jail. Morris, a slender, blonde man from Arkansas, had been arrested for failing to return a rental car and later breaking bail conditions after struggling to pay restitution. While in jail, Morris and Russell became partners, and after their release, Russell supported Morris by cashing in fraudulent life insurance policies taken out on his former lover.

Philip Morris
Philip Morris

Russell also secured a job as the CFO of NAMM, a large medical management company, using an embellished resume with fake references that led back to him. Despite his lack of experience, Russell embezzled about $800,000 while working at NAMM, with his natural talent for mimicking different voices and speech patterns helping him to avoid detection. Although the founder of NAMM later admitted that Russell had no real experience, he was impressed with Russell’s job performance and found him easier to work with than other CFOs he had encountered.

Instead of leading a normal life at NAMM, Russell used his position to seek revenge against the company for its mistreatment of people seeking treatment for HIV, which was a cause close to his heart after his former partner, Kemple, had been treated poorly by similar companies.

After embezzling $800,000 in just five months, Steven Jay Russell’s luck ran out, and the authorities were sent to arrest him. However, Russell, who did not want to return to jail, took all of Philip Morris’ insulin shots and claimed to be diabetic. The arresting officers allowed Russell to inject himself with 40 doses of insulin, which caused him to go into shock in the booking room.

Russell later claimed that this was an attempt to kill himself, but Morris stated that he did it to buy himself some time to think while recovering in the hospital.

At their arraignment, Philip Morris was granted bail of $40,000, while Russell’s bail was set at $900,000, which he thought was unfair. Russell then decided to reduce it by impersonating the judge’s voice over the phone to the district clerk, who lowered Russell’s bail to $45,000.

Russell paid his bail and went home, but a few days later, the authorities noticed their mistake, and Russell was arrested again. Instead of going into hiding, Russell returned to his partner, saying that he did those things because he wanted to be with Morris and that he was out of control.

Russell was eventually sentenced to 45 years in prison for his crimes.

Becoming a Doctor

Unhappy with his situation and longing for his partner, Russell found a way to acquire green felt tip markers from the prison commissary and used the ink to dye his overalls the same colour as surgical gowns. He then submerged his white prison uniform in the dye solution, turning it green. To avoid being tracked by police dogs, he tightly taped plastic bags to his body before putting on the makeshift medical clothes.

Several days later, he put on his doctor’s outfit and simply walked out of prison. Timing his escape perfectly, he waited for the guard manning the door to be distracted on the phone before approaching her and being let through without question. He could have disappeared once again but instead returned to Philip Morris, who was now under close watch by investigators trying to locate Russell. To make it more difficult for authorities to find them, the pair fled to Mississippi but were eventually caught.

Russell’s ability to repeatedly escape prison walls was widely publicized and the authorities were determined to make an example out of him. Despite his usual light-hearted attitude, Russell appeared genuinely remorseful and saddened when he received his sentence, likely due to having recently tested positive for HIV and not expecting to live much longer. Or so he told authorities.

The Great Escape Artist 'King Con' - Steven Jay Russell
The Great Escape Artist ‘King Con’ – Steven Jay Russell

Faking Aids

Phillip Morris was convicted of aiding Russell in stealing $800,000 and received a 20-year prison sentence. Meanwhile, Russell was temporarily sent back to the Estelle Unit, but he soon began to feign the symptoms of AIDS over a 10-month period between 1997 and 1998.

He took laxatives and ate very little in order to appear as emaciated as possible. He even forged his own health records on the prison typewriter and sent them to the relevant department in the internal mail system to be included in his medical file. Surprisingly, the Texas authorities never ran their own tests and were convinced by Russell’s act, transferring him to a nursing home.

From there, Russell pretended to be his own doctor over the phone and was granted permission by parole officers to participate in a non-existent treatment program. Using his “dying” status, Russell succeeded in obtaining a “special needs” parole from the Texas State Board of Pardons and was released on 13 March 1998, which also happened to be Phillip Morris’s 39th birthday.

A few weeks later, the bogus doctor called the prison to let them know that, sadly, Russell had died. And he almost got away with it. Until an eagle-eyed detective spotted him a year later.

The Ledger. Friday, 10th April 1998
The Ledger. Friday, 10th April 1998

Russell went on to impersonate a millionaire from Virginia in an attempt to legitimize a $75,000 loan from NationsBank in Dallas. However, when bank officials became suspicious and alerted the police, Russell feigned a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. Despite being placed on security watch, Russell managed to impersonate an FBI agent and called the hospital on his mobile phone, convincing them to release him.

Russell almost got away with it until an eagle-eyed detective spotted him a year later. US Marshals eventually tracked him down in Florida on April 5, 1998, when he went to retrieve a fax. Russell received a total of 144 years in prison for his crimes, including 99 years for the escapes and 45 years for subsequent scams. In August 2000, he was found guilty by a Texas jury and given a life sentence for escape in addition to his 45-year sentence for the NAMM embezzlement.

Where is Steven Jay Russell Today?

Today, Steven Jay Russell is 65 years old. For all his crimes, he is serving a total sentence of 144 years at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, a prison in West Livingston, Texas. Despite having never committed a violent crime, Russell is on a 23-hour maximum security lockup, where he is only allowed one hour a day to exercise and shower. One way or another, Russell has spent 22 years in solitary confinement.

On February 7, 2023, Russell was granted parole. His release date is still pending.

Allan B. Polunsky Unit, where Russell is located
Allan B. Polunsky Unit, where Russell is located

Regardless of his criminal history, Russell has become something of a folk hero in his hometown of Detroit. In 2009, the movie “I Love You Phillip Morris” was released, based on the true story of Russell’s life. The movie was a commercial success, and many view Russell as a symbol of resilience and resourcefulness.

Despite his numerous convictions, Russell remains a master of disguise and his escapes have made him a celebrity. There’s no doubt that he is one of the most interesting criminal masterminds of the century and a source of fascination for many.