The Escapee

Sometime in 2006 or 2007, a man named Tim Schuetzle didn’t apply for a cell phone — but the phone providers thought otherwise. Someone was using his name to fraudulently obtain a phone and phone service. But it wasn’t a big mystery as to whom. Schuetzle, in December of 2006, received a Christmas card from the fraudster, a man named Richard Lee McNair. And while Schuetzle wished to find McNair, well, that was nothing new. McNair had been hiding from Schuetzle and others since April of 2006.

He had escaped prison — for the third time.

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Richard Lee McNair was born in December of 1958. Just a few weeks before his 29th birthday, McNair was a sergeant at a local Air Force base in Minot, North Dakota. But in November of that year, he burglarized a grain elevator building –and things went wrong during the heist. McNair thought the facility would be unoccupied but, in the course of his escape, he came across two men, killing one and wounding the other. He was arrested shortly thereafter — in February of 1988 — and a gun matching the one used in the robbery was found on his person.

The events of that arrest portended the next twenty years of McNair’s life. The Minot police department either didn’t have a jail cell or, for some reason, the police officers opted not to use it in this case. Instead, McNair was handcuffed to a chair and put in a room with a few officers. But McNair had a trick up his sleeve — or, more accurately, in his pocket. He had a tube of lip balm and used it to lubricate his cuffed hand and wrist. He slipped free of the shackle, ran out of the police station, and led the officers on a foot chase through town. He was apprehended after climbing a tree in hopes of escaping, only to find out that the tree wasn’t able to support his weight as he tumbled to the ground. After conviction, he spent the next few years of his life at North Dakota State Penitentiary.

He was supposed to spend a lot more time there — he was sentenced to two life terms plus thirty years for his crimes. But in October of 1992, McNair escaped again. He and two others pulled off the rather low-creativity crawl-through-the-ventilation maneuver, but it worked. The other two were apprehended before the week was out, but McNair managed to live on the lam for ten months. When finally recaptured, North Dakota asked the Federal government to step in, and McNair was transferred to a Federal institution in Pollock, Louisiana.

Pollock was a bigger challenge for McNair — but one he ultimately bested as well.

In April of 2006, McNair leveraged his in-prison job repairing old mail bags — bags which were shipped out of the facility and to the post offices in the area. He created himself a bubble of sorts — Wikipedia calls it an “escape pod” — outfitted with a breathing tube. He put the escape pod at the bottom of a bin covered with repaired mail bags and waited. The pallet of mail bags (and, unbeknownst to security, McNair) was shrink wrapped and transported outside of the prison. McNair cut through the pod and walked out, once again free of the prison walls.

And then, he got very lucky. Just a few hours after authorities became aware of his mistake, McNair was walking alone when he stopped by a local sheriff, who asked him for ID — but of course, he didn’t have any. The sheriff joked that he was looking for an escapee and questioned McNair for about ten minutes. The officer concluded that McNair did not appear to meet the escapee’s description, somehow, and McNair convinced that he was on his way to help Hurricane Katrina victims, even though he didn’t have a wallet or anything of the sort on him. (Incredibly, the whole thing was captured via a dashboard camera on the officer’s patrol car, and you can watch it.)

McNair managed to remain free for well over a year, despite being a most-wanted criminal for much of that period. (The image above comes from his “Wanted” poster. The full one is available here as a pdf file.) During that period, he taunted warden Schuetzle with the cell phone application and Christmas card — after all, he was able to move around the country pretty much undetected, and this seemed like a good way to send that message. He even escaped into Canada multiple times. In fact, it was the Canadian authorities who, ultimately, captured McNair. His key mistake? He had stolen a van (that wasn’t the mistake) and decided it needed tinted rear windows, so he did the tint job himself. But he did a pretty lackadaisical job in applying the tint, and it caught the eye of a Canadian officer who thought something was up. The officer ran the plates and, discovering the van was indeed stolen, engaged it. On October 24, 2007 — eighteen months after his third escape — McNair gave up after a short, low-speed chase.

He didn’t go back to the prison in Pollock, Louisiana, though. McNair is now in a supermax prison in Colorado, with almost no human interaction allowed. He’s expected to remain there the rest of his life, but with a guy like this, one never knows.

Bonus Fact: If you escape from prison in Mexico, you don’t get into more trouble. As the Washington Post reported in 2002, “Mexico’s legal system recognizes that all people have a fundamental desire to be free. And it does not punish them for pursuing it.” The escapees still have to finish out their existing terms, of coruse.

From the ArchivesHairy Houdini: Another escape artists — and no, that’s not a typo.

Related: “The Mammoth Book of Prison Escapes” by Paul Simpson. Unreviewed.