“King Con”- The Conman Who Simply Walked Out of Prison Four Times

At the time of writing this, conman Steven Jay Russell is sitting in a 6×9 ft maximum security isolation cell where he is sentenced to spend the next century and a half- 22 to 23 hours per day, only let out for things like showers, a little exercise, and to see the occasional visitor during visiting hours. However, even then he is only allowed to see people through a rather thick pane of glass, and not allowed to touch or be touched by anyone other than the guards who strip him any time he leaves or enter his cell.

While such extreme isolation, even for relatively brief periods, is almost universally only ever for exceptionally violent or death row inmates, Russell is neither of those. In fact, beyond having never committed a violent crime, at this point he is in his 60s and can’t even walk well. No, the extreme nature of Russell’s sentence is officially for fear he will escape the maximum security prison… in his wheelchair we guess… Because of this, he alleges the real reason he is kept in such isolation is mostly due to the embarrassment he caused law enforcement by literally casually strolling out of prison four times during the 1990s in order to be with his partner- one who was dying of AIDS and the other who he simply missed.

Born in 1957, Russell spent much of his childhood believing that he was the son of devoutly religious Virginia natives who ran a large food produce company. However, at age 9, Russell discovered that he’d been adopted and that his biological mother had given him up because she didn’t want to raise a child out of wedlock. Russell would further later learn that his mother had eventually married his father and had a few other children together, but the couple hadn’t chosen to even try to take their first born back or have any contact with him at all. Learning all of this shook the boy. He states, “I felt rejected… I had a little bit of a problem when I found out.”

This was apparently putting it mildly. He began to act out in rather extreme ways- everything from getting into regular fights to setting random things on fire, and generally engaging in various other acts of minor criminal mischief.

Not knowing what to do about this, Russell’s adoptive parents attempted to curb this behaviour by sending him to a boy’s home. During his time at the home, Russell had a number of homosexual experiences with other boys there- something he would remain confused about for a number of years, noting in later interviews that he didn’t admit to himself he was gay until he was in his late 30’s.

Prior to realizing this, Russell met and fell in love a female secretary whilst, somewhat ironically given his later criminal exploits, working as a volunteer deputy police officer. The couple would later marry and have a daughter together named Stephanie.

If this all seems relatively typical, you’re right- outside of the brief period of acting out when his mind was a bit rocked to learn what his biological parents had done, the man who would come to be known as “King Con” lived an unassuming early life, including as a young adult being a devoted family man who occasionally played the organ for his local church. However, in 1985 Russell had another mental crisis when his adoptive father passed away.

Among other things, this triggered him to reflect on his own life and, eventually, contemplating his sexuality. After discussing it with his wife, Russell came to the realization that he was, in fact, gay, and he and his wife agreed to an amicable divorce. In regards to all this, Russell states, “People use the term ‘sham marriage’, but I don’t think it was a sham because there was a sexual attraction towards women, but there was always a stronger attraction towards men. I finally let go and it became easier to deal with my sexuality because I wasn’t trying to hide it.”

After coming out, Russell initially endeavored to earn an honest living. However, after his manager at a Los Angeles based food company he was working at as a sales manager found out Russell was gay, he promptly fired him. (The 1990s everybody.)

Russell states of this, “When I lost my job, that really screwed with my head. I lost control of my life.”

As to whether he’d react the same way again if he could go back, he states, “I would never put myself or anyone else through that. Instead of feeling sorry for myself when I lost my job, I would have got another job. I didn’t know how to react because I was angry. I’m not angry anymore.”

Speaking of that anger, it was at this point that he unilaterally decided to devote all of his time and energy to sticking it to the man.

Starting small, Russell first began selling fake Rolex watches and later defrauded an insurance company out of $45,000 (about $85,000 today) by pretending to have hurt himself in a fall. Amazingly, neither of these things attracted the attention of the law and it wasn’t until he submitted a false passport application that Russell was arrested for the first time in 1992.

He was subsequently given a ten year sentence in Harris County Jail when all of this was uncovered. This was something that didn’t sit well with Russell, whose thoughts turned to James Kemple- a man he was dating at the time and who’d recently tested positive for HIV- at the time a death sentence for most. Needless to say, sitting in a cell while the man he loved was dying did not sit well with Russell, who states, “Keep in mind that Texas was asking me to serve ten years for insurance fraud, another six months for passport fraud and Virginia wanted 90 days of jail time from me for theft. By the time I was to get out of prison, Jim would be dead.”

So how’d he escape? After observing the shift patterns of guards, Russell rustled himself up a pair of sweatpants and a tie-dye t-shirt from a room he stumbled across designed to hold the personal effects of female inmates. Realising that this outfit didn’t exactly confer the air of authority needed to fool the guards, he decided to accessorize with a radio the guards typically carried. How he “acquired” this isn’t clear.

A few days later, Russell patiently waited for the guards to go on their usual smoke break, put on the outfit, casually walked over to the door leading to freedom and soon found himself on the other side.

He states of this, “My first escape worked because I used that portable police radio to tap on the window of the guard’s picket. The guards thought I was an undercover police officer. It was such an adrenaline rush. Those first moments of freedom felt amazing. Best of all I knew I would get to see and take care of Jimmy. He lived another 26 months after my escape.”

As alluded to there, after escaping, Russell made a beeline for his apartment where Kemple was staying and informed his love that they had to leave. While there were some shenanigans in between, ultimately they made it to Mexico.

Russell’s freedom wasn’t to last, however. This was not because the police tracked them down in Mexico but, rather, Kemple got really sick and they needed to return to the U.S. for proper treatment. While in the states again, Russel attempted to commit insurance fraud to drum up money to support he and Kemple. Unfortunately for him, he was caught and arrested, having at this point been free for around two years.

A few weeks later, Kemple died while Russell was imprisoned.

The following spring of 1995, Russell met and fell in love with an inmate called Phillip Morris. He states, “I didn’t think it was possible. I mean, we were in prison! He was softly spoken, with a deep southern accent. I saw him in the law library trying to get a book. He’s short – he’s only 5ft 2 and I’m 6ft 2, and I said, ‘Hold on, I’ll get that for you.’ And that was it.”

After both men were paroled later that year, Morris set about providing for his new boo.

In this case, in addition to cashing in multiple fraudulent life insurance policies he’d taken out on his previous love, Russell applied for a job as the CFO of a massive medical management company called NAMM with a wildly embellished resume, the references on which were all just numbers that led back to him. It’s probably important to note here that Russell apparently has an incredible talent at changing his voice and speech patterns to sound very naturally like different people.

After being hired, Russell set about embezzling some $800,000 (about $1.4 million today) under the nose of other executives. Amusingly, despite Russell having no real experience in such a job, the founder of NAMM would later sheepishly admit that Russell was much easier to work with than other CFOs he’d met and had seemed to do his job well.

With such a high paying, comfortable gig, you might be wondering why Russell didn’t just go straight and simply resume a rather normal life working for NAMM. Well, according to Russell, his decision to defraud NAMM was, in part, his way of getting revenge for how Kemple had been treated by similar companies when trying to seek treatment for HIV, as well as how NAMM were treating people. In his own words,

The HMOs put Jim and I through hell during his illness. They wouldn’t cover the cost of certain treatments. At NAMM I watched executives badger their medical directors to put pressure on network physicians to get patients out of the hospital as soon as possible because otherwise it would affect their bonus. That got my revenge genes all greased up. I decided to make NAMM pay for their deeds as well as the other HMO’s deeds towards Jimmy.

As you might expect, however, stealing $800,000 in about 5 months was bound to get discovered eventually, and ultimately the cops were sent out to arrest him. Thinking quickly and apparently not wanting to go back to jail, Russell told officers he was diabetic and grabbed all of Morris’ insulin shots. Not knowing any better, the arresting officers then allowed Russell to inject himself with 40 doses of insulin, at which point he went into shock. Russel would later claim this was an attempt to kill himself. His boyfriend, however, would later state that Russel actually did it just to buy himself time to think while recovering in the hospital. However, given Russell’s very apparent intelligence and how dangerous such a course of action was, we’re going to go ahead and give Russell the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Whatever the case, he lived.

As you can imagine, the judge was none too impressed with Russell’s previous mockery of the judicial system and extreme risk for flight, so set his bail at $900,000 (about $1.5 million today). This was an amount Russell didn’t think was fair. Thus, he decided to reduce it by calling the district clerk from jail and doing a spot-on impersonation of the judge’s voice. In the end, all he had to do was tell the clerk to reduce Russell’s bail to a much more affordable $45,000. The next day, Russell paid his bail and walked home.

A few days later, the authorities noticed their mistake, in part because the funds Russell used to pay bail didn’t end up clearing, and arrested Russell again. This was something that was once again easy because rather than going into hiding, he, as ever, simply returned to his partner. He states of this, “I did those things because I wanted to be with Phillip. I was out of control.”

This time he got a prison sentence of 45 years.

Not at all happy with this turn of events and missing his man, over time Russell acquired a few dozen green felt tip permanent markers from the prison commissary and emptied the ink into his sink. How would this facilitate an escape? Well, after he had his dye solution, he placed his white prison uniform in, dying it green. This just so happened to be the same color worn by visiting doctors. Russel offers a pro-tip to anyone else interested in doing the same, “You have to be very careful because if you wring them out, you get streaks in the material.”

A few days later, he donned his doctor’s outfit and once again simply walked out of prison, in this case maximizing his odds by waiting to approach the door until the person manning it was on the phone, and thus she ended up opening and letting him through without any awkward questions.

The key in all of this was simply acting natural. He states, “If you are scared, you really mustn’t show it. You have to act like you’re meant to be there… [But] 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 [flipping the bird]. I guess it was kind of arrogant.”

From here, he naturally needed to get away from the prison as fast as possible and so used his outfit to good advantage, convincing a random citizen that he was a doctor who needed a ride into town after having gotten into a little accident with his car. He states, “By the time they had their helicopters and search teams out, I was drinking margaritas in a bar in Houston.”

Once again, Russell could have likely successfully disappeared except that he made it easy for the authorities by returning to Morris who the investigators were now paying extremely close attention to in order to find Russell. To make it not so easy for the fuzz initially, the pair absconded to Mississippi where they were eventually tracked down.

Now thoroughly embarrassed by Russell’s behaviour, which had been gleefully reported upon by the press given the apparent ease in which he was penetrating the prison walls, the authorities threw the book at the conman who accepted his sentence with an unusual air of sadness about him. When questioned about why he was no longer being his usual jovial self, Russell solemnly informed authorities that he had tested positive for HIV and likely didn’t have long to live.

For the next 10 months prison officials watched as Russel became a shadow of his former self, down to skin and bones, as well as showing all the signs of the late stages of dying from this particular virus.

Once death seemed close, he was sent to a prison nursing home. While there, the prison officials got a phone call from a physician noting Russell had been selected for an experimental drug trial and needed to come for that treatment immediately.

And so it was that Russell was granted medical parole and simply walked out of the prison. A couple weeks later, the prison received word from that same physician that Russell had passed away.

Of course, Russell did not have HIV.

Naturally, having watched his former partner dying of AIDS, he knew the symptoms well and otherwise just did everything he could to mimic them over time- perhaps the hardest of which was choosing not to eat very much for many months and otherwise taking laxatives when he did to try to rush everything through his system.

Now, you might think that surely the doctors in the prison must at some point have actually tested Russell for HIV. But no. No such test was ever done as they already had all the records they needed showing it- all made by Russell of course who simply typed them up on a prison typewriter and made sure these health records got slipped into the appropriate internal prison mail inbox.

He states of this particular escape, “That… was the most difficult… I had to completely discipline myself… You do whatever you have to do. I get my ideas from studying. I watch, I look for weaknesses. You look the whole way around something and you never let yourself get blocked in… I don’t think I’m cleverer than the police, but I managed it because they think anyone who is a criminal is stupid and they’re complacent. I think anyone can escape from anywhere.”

Unfortunate for Russell, when he was later attempting to get a $75,000 loan from NationsBank in Dallas (at the time posing as a rather wealthy individual), the bank became suspicious of him and decided to get the authorities to look into the matter. Not long after, it was discovered that in fact the man in question was that thought to be dead Mr. Russell. Once this was determined, he was promptly arrested.

He did initially try to trick the arresting officers that he wasn’t the man they were looking for, and was apparently quite convincing. However, they had apparently been forewarned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to not listen to anything he said no matter how believable. Said Glen Castlebury of the TDCJ, “We told them in Florida if he comes out of the apartment and says he is Bill Clinton don’t believe him even though you may want to.”

Keen to punish Russell for the embarrassment he had caused the authorities and manpower needed to continually track him down over the years, the judge ultimately sentenced him to 144 years in prison- 45 years for his various scams and 99 years for his multiple prison escapes.

Despite being on lockdown literally 22 to 23 hours per day for many years now, prison officials are still convinced that Russell is plotting to escape again, with one guard saying of the matter, “If I know Steven, he’s in touch with Phillip Morris right now. I’m absolutely positive that his little brain is constantly turning.”

They also, as ever, note nobody should believe a word he says being, after all, a master conman with infinite charisma and penchant to get people to believe his lies.

As to what he says, Russell states he has no intention of escaping, despite the rather abhorrent situation he currently finds himself in, which he does have a rather lot to say about.

Solitary confinement is designed to weaken and destroy a human being. It’s a perverse form of retribution. Over the years, I’ve known 21 men that have died by suicide from hanging, cutting their jugular vein or femoral artery or overdosing on prescription medications. The sign of impending suicide is usually when a prisoner throws all of their personal property out of their cell. Other than that, they are typically quiet about their intentions until it is too late. I’ve also witnessed hundreds of self-mutilations. Cutters will shred their arms, legs, face or neck. Some have cut out their testicles and thrown them out onto the floor outside their cell. A death row inmate once plucked out both of his eyes.

I have not been immune to the effects of 22-plus years of solitary. About four years ago, I was diagnosed with recurrent major depression… My body is now broken in more ways than I can list, with my spine and hips the chief casualties due to the discomfort of my surroundings ― no chair, nothing to support my back except the cell walls ― and the restrictions placed on my movement. I am obese because of the poor quality of the food I’m given and the near-impossibility of exercise. Were my survival instincts weaker, I too might have succumbed to self-harm.

[However,] unlike others, I’m blessed with the love of my family and friends. Linda and David, my best friends from Houston, come to visit me nearly every weekend. My friend Helen visits me twice a year from Oslo, Norway….

In my opinion, solitary confinement should only be reserved for the most violent of inmates and should never be used for more than two years at a time. It destroys the human spirit. Put simply, it makes men mad. It is the only legal form of torture in today’s prison system, but it’s a slow maltreatment of the body and mind that, in the short run at least, leaves no visible signs. That’s why it’s permitted. Plus, society tends to view anything that happens to inmates in prison as no more than they deserve. Prisoners, however, aren’t necessarily evil or beyond redemption… If we expect prison to rehabilitate offenders or if we expect inmates to reintegrate into society once they have done their time, the less broken they are when they finally come out, the easier that will be.

While, again, you might think this would have him even more likely to try to escape, he notes that all of his previous escapes were motivated to be with his partner- by love. Unfortunately for him Morris is no longer in the picture, never having visited Russell since the life sentence, though Russell doesn’t begrudge him this, stating, “I miss him. But I’m also realistic. I don’t want to ever do anything that would hurt him again and any action I took now would cause him problems. I can’t be with him, there’s no way they would let that happen… It doesn’t make any difference how I feel about it. [But] you can’t feel sorry for yourself. I did this to myself.”

Further, he claims a different type of love motivates him NOT to escape- the love of his daughter. He explains, “My daughter, Stephanie, travels from the East Coast several times a year so she can spend time with her dad. She deserves all of the credit for my change in behavior. It’s because of her that I stopped trying to escape. The power a daughter has over her father is strong. She helped me see that my actions weren’t just hurting me, they were hurting her as well. All of my escapes had been acts of unthinking selfishness. In order for me to stop hurting the ones I love, they had to stop.”

He goes on,

[Extreme isolation has] given me time to consider who I am and how I got here. It’s a daily battle though, full of regret, flashbacks, self-doubt, paranoia, boredom, self-loathing, questioning and futility. There are days when I break down and cry. My daily life, if you can call it that, is barely worth living… All by myself… not touching another individual, not being able to [hug] my daughter… And it’s my fault… It is only the future that gives me hope.

I’m now almost 61 years old. Do I belong in prison? Yes, I do. I understand and accept why I’m here. I most definitely do not belong in solitary, however. That is a cruel and unusual punishment completely disproportionate to my crimes. It’s also unnecessary. Setting aside my decision to give up trying to escape, escaping is now a physical impossibility for me. My spine is now so impacted that I have to be pushed around in a wheelchair whenever I leave my cell. Escaping also makes no sense now that I have served so much time. Because all of my crimes were nonviolent, I may make it out of here legitimately one day, on parole. That is an infinitely better option for me than trying to escape again.

On this note, given he has been a model inmate and has for years been saying and doing all the right things to convince a parole board to let him go when the time comes, whether he’s being honest or not, it really would seem his fifth escape plan is for once the legitimate way, and maybe soon. His first possibility of parole will occur in December of this year.

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