The Man Who Walked Out of Prison a Few Times

In early 1998, an emaciated Texas inmate named Steven Jay Russell was granted a special parole — one which put him in the custody of a hospice. Russell’s medical records spelled out the reason: he had HIV/AIDS, and wasn’t likely to survive much longer.  Shortly thereafter, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice received a death certificate, alerting them that Russell had died.

A few weeks later, Russell was arrested.

Steven Jay Russell was born in 1957, if you believe his birth certificate. There’s no actual reason to doubt the veracity of the document, but a faked birthday or year would hardly be the most audacious lie Russell has ever told. His first major one — and his first known criminal one, for that matter — occurred in the early 1990s, when he faked a slip-and-fall, hoping for a pay day. His ruse was uncovered and he was convicted of fraud, sentenced to six months in prison. That sentence was too long for him, though, so he left. Russell’s boyfriend was dying of AIDS (really) and Russell wanted to be with him during his last days. Four weeks in his prison sentence, Russell impersonated a prison guard — he had stolen some discarded street clothes — and walked out to freedom without much difficulty.

He’d later be recaptured and he finished out his sentence, but not before he met a new romantic partner, a man named Phillip Morris (no connection to the tobacco company). Russell, despite having no meaningful relevant experience (and a fraud conviction), landed a job as the chief financial officer for a medical management firm. Being wholly unqualified for the position, perhaps, Russell decided to cash out while he could — with Morris’ help, he embezzled $800,000 before he was caught. Russell was indicted and, with his bond set at $950,000 given his obvious escape risk — he had busted out of prison once prior — it looked like he wouldn’t see freedom any time soon. But Russell had a trick up his sleeve. He called the court clerk, claiming to be the judge in his case, and (over the phone!) reduced his own bail to $45,000. That was a manageable amount; Russell paid the bond and fled to Florida, with two escapes to his credit in as many years.

He tasted freedom for a week before a manhunt (led by some phone taps) led to his recapture. He was brought to trial on the embezzlement charges and was convicted. Russell was again on his way to the clink, this time for a much longer period — 45 years. Morris was also sent to prison, but for a much shorter time period, and with a reasonable bail which allowed Morris to temporarily avoid incarceration. Russell wanted to be with Morris, so — you may be sensing a pattern here — Steven Jay Russell left lock-up for the third time.

Once again, Russell decided to impersonate someone in power — this time, a doctor. Russell procured a bunch of green markers and an extra, generic prison uniform. According to Pink News, he used the dye in the markers to make the uniform look like a pair of doctor’s scrubs and made his surprisingly easy escape. Despite the fact that Russell was being held in a maximum security prison, he was able to walk right out the front gate — apparently, the prison guards and medical staff didn’t know each other all that well. Russell connected back up with Morris, and the couple made their way to Biloxi, Mississippi — where they were, ultimately, captured again. Russell was tried for his unlawful escape, and this time, another 45 years were added to his sentence.

Russell didn’t give up, though. Instead, he got even more creative: why be the doctor when you can be the patient? And why be alive — and on the lam — when you can pretend to be dead? No one orders manhunts for a corpse.

He set his plan in motion almost immediately after his recapture in Mississippi. While he awaited trial for his escape, Russell abused laxatives in order to drop a lot of weight in a short period of time. He also managed to doctor his medical records during that period, noting (falsely) that he had HIV. As recounted by a profile in Esquire, looking sickly with the papers to back it up, in March of 1998, he was sent to a hospice. Given the understandably low security, he left pretty easily — and left the state shortly thereafter. Once clear of the Texas authorities, as Wikipedia notes, Russell sent a fake death certificate to the Texas courts. He was home free — except that not everyone believed that he was dead. In his case, officials checked to make sure he was actually dead and, finding that he was not, went off on the chase again. Eventually, officials tracked him to Florida, and he was convicted, again, of escape, for what was the last time.

And it will likely remain the last time, too. Russell is now serving a 144-year sentence — 45 for the embezzlement, 99 for the two escapes. Even though his crimes (including the escapes) were non-violent, Russell spends his days in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, with an hour for recreation and a shower.

Bonus Fact: In 2009, Russell’s story was turned into a movie, titled “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. According to Wikipedia, the movie made only about $20 million in the box office on a $13 million budget, despite the A-lister cast and unique story. In fact, the reason for its box office failure was unrelated to the movie’s quality — the AV Club, for example, called it “one of Jim Carrey’s best performances.” So why did it fail? The AV Club notes that “American studios and distributors were not particularly interested in I Love You Phillip Morris, despite the presence of superstar Jim Carrey, due to its explicit (if lighthearted) treatment of homosexuality.” The movie was produced by a French studio and debuted in the U.S. ten months after its European debut, despite the fact that the actual story occurred in the U.S. and the movie feature American superstars.

From the Archives: The Escapee: Another man who seems to find his way out of prison (on his own).

Take the Quiz: Name the famous prisons.

Related: “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” the movie.