SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers of I Love You Philip Morris (2009).
This is reposted from Elizabeth Day's article on THE OBSERVER on September 6, 2009. After watching the film again, I can't help researching whatever happened to Russel and Morris.
The article's quite long, but it's worth the read!
In the Michael Unit correctional facility of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Steven Russell sits on the other side of a bulletproof screen with an out-of-place smile on his face. He is wearing white prison overalls and the collar of his shirt is stained with what looks like faded tomato sauce. Curiously, one of the first things he mentions when he starts to speak is the poor quality of the prison food. "Hotdogs, hamburgers, pork this and pork that," he says with a laugh. "There's quite a bit of pork."
His upbeat demeanour is at odds with his predicament. Nine years into a 144-year jail sentence for assorted charges, including felony escape and embezzlement, Russell is one of the Michael Unit's most notorious and closely guarded inmates. His skin is pale and puffy from the 23 hours a day he spends in solitary confinement and he has almost no contact with the outside world. We have to speak into connected phone receivers to make ourselves heard through the thick screen and the line is crackly and unclear even though he is sitting only two feet away from me. Several months ago, a fellow prisoner shook him by the hand while he was being walked to his cell – it was the first time Russell had been touched for almost a decade.
And yet, despite his desperate situation, Russell insists his story is not a dispiriting tale of crime and punishment. Ask him why he is here, incarcerated and alone, and he will answer without missing a beat that it is because he was a fool for love.
"This is a love story," he says, light and breezy as a chatshow host. "It's about what a person will do, who is in love, who can't see the forest for the trees." He smiles his crooked smile and sits back in his chair. A glimmer of sweat appears on the flesh just beneath his right eye and he wipes it away rapidly with the sleeve of his shirt.
Steven Jay Russell has many other names. As well as the 14 known aliases he used while fabricating bogus credentials and passing himself off variously as a judge, a doctor, an FBI agent and a bar student, he has been nicknamed "Houdini" and "King Con" for his remarkable ability to escape from prison. From 1992, when he was imprisoned for the relatively minor charge of insurance fraud, Russell managed to escape four times from several different Texan jails over a five-year period. His story has been immortalised in a film starring Jim Carrey: it had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is due to be released in the UK next year. Critics have already called it "top notch" and "an hilarious tragedy" in the vein of Steven Spielberg's 2002 hit movie Catch Me if You Can, which recounts the real-life story of con artist Frank Abagnale Jr.
Like Abagnale, who successfully stole millions of dollars by posing as a pilot, an attorney and a doctor, Russell's life story is also the stuff of improbable fiction. His escapes were marked by astonishing brazenness that left law-enforcement officials slack-jawed in bafflement. But unlike Abagnale, Russell's shenanigans were driven by his obsessive love for a fellow inmate called Phillip Morris whom he met in jail in 1995. (The escapes always took place on Friday 13th, the day on which Morris was born.)
"It was lust at first sight," says Russell now, in his first interview since the film went into production. "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."
I ask Russell to describe the man for whom he experienced such a startling coup de foudre. "He's very intelligent, he loves fishing and four-wheel driving. He loves music." What kind? "Oh, er, classical, like Bach and Beethoven and Mozart. He's like a little mess. He's a diabetic, but he'll go out and buy 12 doughnuts and eat them all at once."
Russell and Morris, who was serving a sentence for failing to return a rental car, were both released on parole in 1995. Setting up home together in Houston, Russell went in search of money to lavish on his lover. He persuaded a medical insurance company to hire him as their chief financial officer on the basis of a greatly exaggerated CV with all references directed back to him. In five months, he embezzled $800,000 from dormant accounts to fund the couple's glamorous lifestyle of Mercedes-Benz cars, jet-skis and matching Rolex watches. Russell even had his teeth capped and plastic surgery on his eyes.
Eventually, he was found out and sent back to jail, but not before impersonating a judge over the telephone and demanding his own bail money be lowered from $900,000 to $45,000 (he paid with a cheque that later bounced). Back in captivity, his escapes were from then on shaped by the single, overwhelming desire to be with Morris.
Perhaps, then, it is no surprise the film of Russell's life, which co-stars Ewan McGregor as Morris, is being released with the self-explanatory title, I Love You Phillip Morris. The gay love story at the heart of the film initially put off several American distributors; it was finally acquired in May by Consolidated Pictures Group and is due for release in the US on Valentine's Day next year.
"I think it's a good title," admits Russell. "I did those things because I wanted to be with Phillip. I was out of control." And therein lay his fatal flaw; despite managing repeatedly to outwit the federal authorities, Russell was always caught because, each time he escaped, he would end up beating a path to Morris's door. He claims not to have seen Morris, who now lives in Arkansas, for several years. Does he still love him?
"Well, I'm not in love with anyone else," he says, shrugging his shoulders. "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 [the authorities] would let that happen."
How does that make him feel? "It doesn't make any difference how I feel about it," he says, his natural ebullience temporarily deserting him. "You can't feel sorry for yourself. I did this to myself."
In person, the 52-year-old Russell is an engaging, quick-witted conversationalist. He claims to have an IQ of 163 and spends his days reading newspapers and magazines. "I have a stack this high," he says, lifting his hand several feet off the floor. "I read the New York Times, theWall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and theEconomist. You can't be lazy. If you don't keep yourself focused in here, you lose your mind."
He talks in a soft, southern drawl punctuated with high-pitched laughter and looks quite unexceptional: he is bald, broad-shouldered and plump, with stubby fingers. Perhaps his only distinguishing feature is his mouth, which opens to reveal sharp and surprisingly delicate teeth.
But it is this unmemorable physical exterior that has proven to be Russell's greatest asset. He seems to possess an extraordinary capacity to transform himself and go unnoticed. According to Steve McVicker, the Houston-based journalist who befriended Russell and wrote the book on which the film is based: "He has lots of different voices and he always makes sure to give a different face in every mugshot."
Russell's escapes were never violent – he claims, even now: "I didn't break out. They opened the door and let me through" – but they were ingenious. Twice, he simply walked through the front gates. In 1993, while languishing in the Harris County Jail in Houston for making a false insurance claim about an injured back, Russell disguised himself as a workman with a walkie-talkie and a pair of women's black trousers stolen from the prison infirmary. "I tapped on the security gate with my walkie-talkie and the guy let me through," he explains, nonchalantly. Was he scared? "No. And if you are scared, you really mustn't show it. You have to act like you're meant to be there."
Three years later, he stockpiled green felt-tip pens from prison art classes, squeezing the ink from the cartridges into a sink of water and dying his overalls the colour of surgical gowns. "You have to be very careful because if you wring them out, you get streaks in the material," he says matter-of-factly. Underneath the makeshift medical clothes, Russell taped several plastic bags tightly to his body so that police dogs would not be able to follow his scent once he was on the run. He picked a moment when the woman manning the front desk was on the telephone and then, unquestioned by prison staff, simply walked out "dressed like Dr Kildare".
"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 [he mimes giving someone the finger with the glee of a naughty child]. I guess it was kind of arrogant."
Russell walked to the nearest house, knocked on the door and claimed to be a doctor who had been involved in a car accident and who needed a lift into town. The stranger obliged. "By the time they had their helicopters and search teams out, I was drinking margaritas in a bar in Houston."
But not for long. Within the year, he was back in jail, this time plotting his most daring escape ever. Over a 10-month period in 1998, Russell began to feign the symptoms of Aids. He ate almost nothing and took laxatives in order to look as emaciated as possible. He wrote up fraudulent health records on the prison library typewriter and sent them to the relevant department in the internal mail system for inclusion in his medical file. Astonishingly, Russell was so persuasive that the Texas authorities never ran their own tests and he was transferred to a nursing home. From there, he posed as his own doctor over the telephone and received permission from parole officers to take part in a non-existent treatment programme. A few weeks later, the bogus doctor called the prison to let them know that, sadly, Russell had died.
In reality, Russell was very much alive and on his way, once again, to be with Phillip Morris. "That escape was the most difficult," says Russell. "I had to completely discipline myself to lose the weight and did lots of reading up on the symptoms of Aids. 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."
He says he is convincing at assuming different professional personae because, in each case, he is able to sound like he knows the terminology. "Most of the time I make it up, it's just bullshit." I ask him to demonstrate and he immediately slows his voice down to a deep, languid drawl. "I, uh, did a bail hearing for Steven Russell this morning. I don't have the computer print-out in front of me but the docket sheet should reflect his lowered bond." He grins. "It's kind of like acting."
No one is quite sure what to make of Russell, a man who possesses as many facets as he does aliases. For Steve McVicker, who visited Russell every Saturday for six months while he was researching his book, it was hard not to warm to him. "He's a natural-born liar but he's so charming and so funny," says McVicker. "If he ever gets out of jail, I can imagine having dinner with him."
Terry Cobbs, the commander of special operations at the Texas Department for Criminal Justice who tracked Russell down after his two last escapes, is less enamoured. "He's a big guy so full of himself who absolutely loves the attention," Cobbs says. "He's obnoxious. I can't stand to be around him for too long.
"There's two sides to him: if he's in a group of people who don't know his identity, there's a confident part, a remarkable ability to convince them. The other end of that is when he knows you know who he is and he's like a bowl of mush. All of his confidence goes out of the window, his voice will shake and he is a frightened little man."
But for Jim Carrey, the actor who plays Russell in I Love You Phillip Morris, the truth was more straightforward: "The bottom line was that he [Russell] wanted to be loved and he felt disenfranchised his entire life."
Russell politely dismisses this thesis when I put it to him, but there is much in his background to suggest it might be true. In 1957, Russell was given up for adoption at birth by his mother, who had just divorced his biological father and did not want to raise a child out of wedlock. Russell later tracked her down only to discover that she had remarried his father and given birth to three other children, each of whom was Russell's biological sibling. "I felt rejected," is all he will say now. "I had a little bit of a problem when I found out."
His adoptive parents, Brenda and Thomas, were a conservative couple who ran one of the largest food produce companies in the state of Virginia. Russell later married and had a daughter, Stephanie. For much of the late 1970s, Russell was a law-abiding citizen who played organ for the local church and, somewhat ironically, volunteered as a deputy police officer.
But in 1985, the death of his adoptive father triggered a personal crisis. Walking out on his wife and 12-year-old daughter, Russell moved first to Houston, where he began living as a gay man and then, three years later, to Los Angeles.
"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," he says. "I finally let go and it became easier to deal with my sexuality because I wasn't trying to hide it."
It was his sexuality that, indirectly, first led Russell into criminal activity. He claims to have been sacked as a sales manager for a food services company in Los Angeles when the chief executive found out he was gay, after which he spiralled into bitterness. "When I lost my job, that really screwed with my head," he says. "I lost control of my life." Soon, he was being arrested for lewd behaviour and false passport applications. When he fraudulently pretended to have hurt his back to claim insurance money, he was sent to jail in 1992 for the first time.
Looking back now, does Russell feel guilty about any of it? There is a long pause. "Yeah," he says finally. "I feel bad that I've deprived my daughter from seeing me [Stephanie still occasionally visits Russell in jail]. I was a completely different person back then." He claims that he is resigned, now, to a future behind bars – he says that planning escapes was "exhausting" and that he no longer suffers from the extreme anxiety he would get while on the run (although he still has nightmares about being chased).
Would he do it all again? "No. 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."
In fact, news of the film's release has made him into something of a celebrity among his fellow inmates and he is occasionally asked for autographs, sometimes even from the prison guards. Although he has not been able to see the movie yet, Russell has managed to download some clips from Google and is struck by the accuracy of Carrey and McGregor's portrayal.
Carrey and Russell have never met, but the actor has heard taped recordings of Russell's voice and Phillip Morris acted as an adviser to the production. "They've got it down," Russell says. "The way we speak, the mannerisms, the clothes – everything. It's surreal."
Yet despite Russell's apparent acceptance of his fate, few around him are convinced. McVicker says he would not be surprised if Russell turned up on his doorstep tomorrow. "He's just so darn persistent," says McVicker. "If I know Steven, he's in touch with Phillip Morris right now." Terry Cobbs remains "absolutely positive that his little brain is constantly turning".
And it is difficult to believe that Russell, with his finely tuned people-watching skills and his childish delight in getting one over the authorities, does not miss the social interaction of life on the outside. He tells me he is "pretty happy", but there is a gap at the end of his sentences, a small exhalation of sadness, a drooping at the corner of his tired eyes that suggests otherwise.
Of course, if he does plan to escape, it will have to be on Friday 13th. Does he know when the next one will fall? "November," he replies, without hesitation and for the briefest instant his face is totally serious, his mouth set in an unsmiling line. Then he catches himself and starts to giggle. Perhaps King Con is not ready to lay down his green marker-pens just yet