Books: Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Break Out Book

Texas author Steve McVicker follows a colorful character in and out of prison in I Love You Phillip Morris.


There are stories that journalists would give their eyeteeth for — stories with intrigue, fascinating characters, piles of anecdotes, danger, sex, and, best of all, Redeeming Social Significance. Steve McVicker didn’t gather the awards he’s won as a journalist by failing to recognize such stories when he got whiffs of ’em. And so he patiently waded through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s bureaucratic protocols and delays until he was able to begin a long series of interviews and letter exchanges with one of the prison system’s most infamous guests.

Steven Russell isn’t a serial rapist or mass murderer, a hate-crime specialist, or a hostage-taker. He’s simply a crook who treats himself as a guest— rather than a prisoner — of the system. Beginning in 1993, he managed to escape from Texas prisons and jails four times in five years. And, as the book jacket says, add to that the fact that he usually busts out on Friday the 13th, and you have “the stuff of legend.”

Maybe that’s the problem. It could be that McVicker, an excellent journalist who has written extensively about the Texas prison system, is so used to dealing with facts — digging them out, lining them up, making them speak — that he couldn’t quite get the hang of dealing with this larger-than-life guy. The difficulties in sorting out the often-uncorroborated stories of a con man were also undoubtedly part of the problem. Nonetheless, faced with a veritable Spindletop of material here, McVicker has given us a rather perfunctory narrative about this embezzler who so successfully turned his con man talents on Texas jail guards. One senses that, perhaps not having completely made the transition from journalist to author, McVicker was still stunned by how long a tale he was allowed to write.

Don’t get me wrong. This is still a fascinating picture of a romantic and apparently brilliant thief, insurance fraud scammer, and jail break artist. His ingenuity in coming up with the cons and his cool in pulling them off — some that took only moments, and others that took months — are really breathtaking.

Russell grew up in the Virginia Tidewater country, beloved adopted son of a couple who ran one of the state’s largest produce companies. McVicker says Russell showed early aptitude for the math and accounting that would aid him in many of his later illicit ventures and also fairly early on showed a penchant for avoiding physical labor and going straight for the wheeler-dealer aspects of the business. He also displayed one of the common signs of kids who are headed for a criminal future — he liked setting fires. McVicker writes that this began happening when Russell was about nine and had just learned that he was adopted. The fires led to a stay in a psychiatric hospital and then to reform school. From there on, his path was always at least a little on the wild side. Although he had homosexual experiences beginning when he was in his teens, he dated girls and eventually married — and even went into law enforcement. His time on police forces in Virginia and Florida would serve him well later on, when he essentially gave up on the straight (in several ways) life and turned to embezzling and other crimes.

Russell had become disconnected from more than the law-abiding world, however. He’d apparently lost the ability to handle life’s reverses with any strength of character. Despite his virtuosity in fooling Texas law enforcement, Russell had too little willpower to keep from repeatedly falling back into the system’s clutches. McVicker paints the picture of a highly intelligent man who can’t bear to live the life of an honest mook, with its limited rewards and limitless work. Faced with the prospect of jail, he at one point repeatedly tried to commit suicide. Faced with a less-than-wealthy existence as a free man, he repeatedly stole and conned to pay for the high life.

His penchant for crime also was probably strengthened by the shady dealings of the supposedly legitimate companies he was involved with. Twice, Russell helped federal agents put an end to price-fixing scams in the food and produce industries.

The book, as its rather lame title suggests, is also a quirky love story, of the relationship between Russell and Phillip Morris, a petty criminal with a history of being the kept lover of bigger bad-asses. Russell met Morris in the Harris County jail — and promptly conned him by telling him he was an attorney. He wasn’t lying, though, when he told Morris he could help get him out of jail. He just didn’t plan on doing it through lawyering. Russell never did break Morris out of jail, although he offered repeatedly to do so later on and at one point went on a crime spree trying to raise money for Morris’ legal fees. Beginning in 1995, however, in jail and out, the two have spent every possible moment in each other’s strange company.

In the end, it’s the stories of Russell’s escapes that make the book worth reading. Using every method from impersonating lawyers and judges to elaborately faking his own death, he time and again wriggled away from law enforcement officials, both in avoiding capture and in engineering early exits from cells.

Since 1998, he’s been back in the prison system. But he’s still the con man. He’s only stayed behind bars this long, he wrote to McVicker’s literary agent, “so Steve can finish his book.”

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