Book Review

The Master Manipulator

I Love You Phillip Morris:

I’ll get to that “so-called” comment in a minute. But first, the premise: Russell landed in the Harris County jail in 1995 for insurance fraud. It wasn’t his first time there, but it was his first chance to meet the improbably-named Phillip Morris, a hapless inmate doing time for violating a probation imposed when he failed to return a rental car. Morris, who McVicker describes as “a boy-man with porcelain skin, wire-rimmed glasses, and baby-fine blond hair,” caught Russell’s eye one afternoon while browsing the jail’s law library. The two non-violent offenders hit it off immediately. Russell, according to McVicker, “found something appealing in Morris’ Lolita-in-distress air as he unsuccessfully tried to reach a book on the top shelf of a bookcase.” Morris, for his part, “had been impressed with Russell’s knowledge of the law and flattered by his obvious interest in him.” As Morris puts it, “he seemed like a man who knew what he was doing.” True enough. Within a few days Russell somehow arranged to have himself transferred to Morris’ cell block, an all-homosexual unit. “ne day I turned around, and there he was,” recalls Morris. “We saw each other and began to hug.” Little did Morris know the ride his new lover was on.

I’ll get to that in a minute too. But back to that “so-called” remark. Certain stories beg to tell themselves, and McVicker, using the sparest prose, makes it seem as if this one does just that. His artful narrative threads the sub-plots of Russell’s prison breaks, business schemes, ex-lovers, affection for Morris, and his past life as a conventional family man into a tapestry of epic adventure. It’s a quality that certainly obscures McVicker’s painstaking attention to craft while keeping this unpretentious, soap-operatic book grounded in the smallest details of Russell’s life. The problem is that the person ultimately orchestrating this story really isn’t McVicker at all, but rather Russell. McVicker, an ex-reporter for the Houston Press, had a maddening time “verifying what Russell told me, and wrote in his letters.” Russell’s brother, mother, ex-lover’s family, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to talk in any substantial way about Steven Russell’s life. Russell’s ex-wife had little to offer. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice was also gagged on Russell’s case, probably because his repeated escapes made it look so damned stupid.

To his credit, McVicker could not be more up-front about these problems, and this common journalistic headache really might not matter so much if the subject at the story’s sizzling vortex wasn’t a brilliant and vulpine master of manipulation. But, as it stands, McVicker finds himself in the awkward position of reporting on a man who has lived his adult life deceiving others with details almost exclusively provided by the deceiver himself. The fact that McVicker “never once caught him in a lie” is cold comfort. Not to mention quiet testimony to the machinations of a man with an IQ of 163.

But so what. While the core of the story might be misconstrued, or at least unverifiable, the outlines and inner layers have complete integrity and make for a riotous, fun, and even provocative book. When Morris and Russell made parole, they moved to Houston and lived like queens-fancy restaurants, sports cars, weekends at the Ritz, vacations to Miami. Naturally, this lifestyle had to be paid for, but such a concern was always an afterthought for Russell because “Russell felt prepared to enter a world where he knew his skill as a con artist would be appropriately rewarded. He was ready to join the ranks of the Fortune 500.” The deep background to this audacious and seemingly ludicrous ambition leads McVicker into to the ironic source of Russell’s very well-honed deceptive skills: the law.

Russell eventually found his mother, and the reunion becomes one of the book’s more sensitive episodes. Even more interesting, however, is the way in which Russell exploited his access to the tools of law enforcement to walk the thin blue line like a tightrope and then flagrantly violate it.

After coming out of the closet, Russell lost his job and his family, suffered a steep emotional decline, and began visiting parks and bathrooms to engage in anonymous sex. It was the latter indulgence that led to his forced resignation from a job as a well-paid manager at a food distribution company. And it was that resignation, made in the midst of a sexual identity crisis, that inspired him to make “a conscious decision to become a career criminal.”

Russell’s life subsequently became a revolving door between freedom and imprisonment. The well-greased hinge was always a well-choreographed deception. In the clinker, he escaped through deceptively simple schemes. Luck, sure, but Russell’s foresight predisposed him to be lucky. For example, his first escape from the Harris County jail followed the logic that the most obvious was the least obvious. Russell decided that the best way out would be to “get hold of civilian clothes and somehow walk out of the front door from the visitors side of the jail.” His prison job as a data clerk gave him access to the discarded clothes of new prisoners. After pilfering duds that looked like they might fit, he asked a small kid whom he had occasionally defended to secrete them in an isolated location on another floor. Next, to improve his get-up, he snagged a walkie-talkie by getting an infirmary nurse to drop her guard by offering her a hamburger that he obtained from the officers’ dining hall. He intensely studied jail security, paying specific attention to when guards took cigarette breaks. Finally, he arranged for his lover at the time to make detailed maps of the visitors’ lobby. On May 12, 1993, he went for it, and it worked.

McVicker tells it with characteristically subdued intensity:

As he made his way to the front doors, he partially covered his face by pretending to speak into the walkie-talkie. At any moment, he expected to be grabbed, tackled, or shot. But nothing happened. He kept on walking. No one shouted for him to stop. No one slapped a pair of handcuffs around his wrists. No one put him in a headlock or wrestled him to the ground. No bullets flew past his head. . . . And then he was outside.

And once outside, the high-stakes hijinks intensified. “Ex-convicts fresh out of prison often find themselves bouncing from menial job to menial job,” McVicker writes. “For Steven Russell, that simply would not do.” That’s when the Fortune 500 plan came in. To see what an executive resume looked like, Russell took out bogus ads in the Houston Chronicle for swank jobs in a fabricated Fortune 500 company. From the responses, he cobbled together a dream resume for an HMO executive position under an alias, set up accounts with answering services that posed as his references, called back glowing reports on his own behalf, and learned the business inside and out. The upshot? He landed an $85,000-a-year job as the CFO of North American Medical Management. “Russell was the best chief financial officer we ever had,” one of NAMM’s founders would later admit. That was, of course, when he wasn’t pilfering hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company.

The prison escape and the NAMM scam accurately strike the tenor of a half-dozen or so other con jobs that keep the line between freedom and imprisonment so precariously thin for Russell. As McVicker recounts these schemes, however, he loses sight of two themes that might have leavened his book with material that would have added some substance to its style. First, Morris never comes to life as anything more than a whiny little twerp who remains strategically ambivalent about his lover’s chronic criminal behavior. What were the dynamics of their relationship? Did Morris feel strange about driving the $86,000 Mercedes that Russell bought him on his $85,000 salary? Morris stayed with Russell through thick and thin, wealth and poverty, sickness and health. There was obviously an unusual spark and a tenacity to their relationship. But McVicker never captures it. Second, Russell pulls off what he does not only because of his own intelligence but also because of others’ incompetence. Failing to do thorough background checks or leaving prison guardposts empty to take cigarette breaks suggests deeper institutional problems that McVicker fails to explore.

In the end, though, we have Russell. He’s enough to keep the story going. How, after all, do you resist the arrogance of a man who says, “The only reason I have remained incarcerated is so that Steve can finish his book”?

(To which McVicker responds, “God help the good men and women of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. They’re going to need it.”)

James McWilliams is a writer in Austin.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST