Steven Russell, who’s serving a 144-year sentence at Michael Unit, a maximum-security prison a couple hours southeast of Dallas, looks harmless enough: The 53-year-old man is bald save for brackets of colorless hair, with features so nondescript it almost appears as if his face was doodled by a child. But three guards accompany him out of his 10-by-7 cell, shuffle him into a cramped booth, and then remove his handcuffs through a slot in the locked door. One can forgive their vigilance. Between 1992 and 1998, Russell broke out of various Texas prisons a stunning four times — without ever pulling a gun. Well, he didn’t so much break out as he did slip out the main entrance, waving a breezy goodbye. ”I asked if I could go home, and they opened the door,” he smugly told a roomful of journalists who were there to welcome him back to Texas’ Huntsville prison in 1997. And, as he insists repeatedly from behind a thick Plexiglas window, he did it all for love.
Russell’s story is so fantastical it’s as if somebody stamped Hollywood on his enormous forehead. ”Well, I never thought about it becoming a movie because of the homosexuality part,” says Russell, who dove recklessly into a life of crime after falling for Phillip Morris, a sweet, slight man — bearing no relation to the tobacco company — whom he met in a Houston county jail. ”I didn’t think that would fly in America.” But Russell’s misadventures, as recounted in Houston journalist Steve McVicker’s 2003 book, did in fact catch the interest of filmmakers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. ”We saw it as an epic love story,” says Requa, who co-wrote 2003’s Bad Santa, ”about two people who happen to be gay.” But when the duo pitched Russell’s story to production companies, Ficarra recalls, ”they said, ‘Great! Sounds like an amazing story. Can you turn Phillip into a woman?”’ Instead, Ficarra and Requa wrote the script on their own and then managed to sign Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor to play Russell and Morris, respectively. The R-rated dark comedy I Love You Phillip Morris, which Ficarra and Requa also codirected, hits theaters Dec. 3. (It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 but fell into limbo when its first distributor ran short on funds for marketing; Roadside Attractions acquired I Love You Phillip Morris in August.)
Not that Russell will get to see the movie of his life story. He’s spent the past 12 years on a prison block with murderers, rapists, and gang leaders, in solitary confinement for 23 hours of each day. He doesn’t have any access to a TV or the Internet. (His only sources of distraction are his clock radio, a stack of books, and newspapers.) He’s never even seen a Jim Carrey movie. The last film he saw was Titanic, by himself in a little Dallas theater when he was on the lam. Russell pauses, angling his face away from the receiver so he can let forth his high-pitched laugh. ”Figures,” he says, his Southern accent thick. ”It was a love story!”
Steven Jay Russell was raised in Virginia by conservative, churchgoing parents who adopted him at birth. His biological mother, who kept his older and younger siblings, handed him over in the hospital parking lot. Jim Carrey, who plays Russell in the film but has never met him (his requests were denied by Texas prison authorities), believes the man was driven by this early imprint of rejection. ”As far as I’m concerned,” says Carrey, ”and it’s certainly true of myself as well, that’s why I recognize it, he has this sense of worthlessness that he walks the world with. For him it was very extreme. It created a grandiosity and a void that can’t be filled.” (On hearing this diagnosis, Russell responds, ”Jim said that? I don’t know why he would say that. I probably didn’t feel good about being rejected by my biological parents. But I couldn’t have had a better family! Mommy issues?” he says with a grin. ”No, I always felt pretty loved.”)
When Russell was 17, he met Debbie Davis, a good Christian girl whom he married in 1976. Three years later, they had a daughter named Stephanie. Russell worked as a manager for his father’s produce company and as a cop, playing model husband while he ran around with men behind his wife’s back. When he woke up in the hospital after a horrible car accident in 1986, he decided to stop living a lie and told Debbie he was gay. (They later divorced.)
Around this time, Russell started getting sticky fingers. He blames his descent into crime on the fact that he was fired from a job because of his sexuality — though he doesn’t say what job, or where, or when. In 1991, he was busted for scamming an insurance company on a phony claim of a back injury. He was arrested in April 1992 and sent to Houston’s Harris County jail. That May, he donned women’s stretch pants that he’d stolen from an inmate processing room. He rapped on the guard-station window with a filched walkie-talkie and, pretending to be a workman, was waved through the door to freedom.
Two years later, Russell was arrested on bank fraud charges. He was extradited back to the Harris County jail, where he pleaded guilty to the two-year-old insurance charge and was given a three-year sentence. On Dec. 29, 1994, in the jail’s law library, he met Phillip Morris. (Morris was serving time stemming from an arrest for an overdue rental car.) ”When I met him, I was so full of bull,” says Russell, who told Morris he was an attorney. When Morris told him he’d been born on a Friday the 13th, Russell smiled and declared that it had always been his lucky day. ”We just had a bond that can’t be described,” recalls Morris, now out of prison and living in Arkansas. ”We were so in tune with each other and we could sit and not even speak.” Ever the manipulator, Russell arranged a transfer that allowed the men to live together in the same cell until they were both paroled in the fall of 1995.
Once they were free, Russell set up a lavish new lifestyle for the two of them in Houston — a world of Mercedes-Benzes and pool chaises and expensive restaurants. ”I wanted to show Phillip something he’d never seen before,” says Russell. Faking his résumé and references, Russell talked himself into a $90,000-a-year job as CFO of a Houston medical management firm. He kept his home life a secret, telling colleagues he had a fiancée. When Russell noticed $150 million sitting untapped in company accounts, he says he just couldn’t resist taking advantage of such capital and invested in the stock market. ”I made $1.6 million in five months. That’s pretty good! Gave them half, took the other half, and they got mad,” he says. ”I shouldn’ta done it, but it was easy.”
Russell had been steadily depositing embezzled funds, totaling $800,000, into bank accounts — including one he’d opened in Morris’ name (without his knowledge) using a cooked-up driver’s license and Social Security number. On May 13, 1996 — ”the day my earth came tumbling down,” Morris tells me — Russell confessed his crimes to his stunned boyfriend. ”Steve went down to all the banks and withdrew suitcases full of money,” says Morris. Russell surprised Morris at Morris’ sister’s house, then handed him an open briefcase of cash. ”’Here, baby, this is yours,”’ Morris remembers Russell telling him, ”and I said, ‘You MF-ing blanking blank!’ and I kicked the briefcase, and bundles of money flew everywhere.”
Both men were soon arrested. Morris was released on $50,000 bail, but Russell’s bond was set at $900,000. On Friday, July 12, 1996, he made a phone call impersonating a judge and ordered his own bond to be decreased to $45,000. After writing a check — a bad one, naturally — for the amount, he sailed out of jail. He was arrested a week later in West Palm Beach, Fla., on his way to meet Morris — whom he had persuaded to jump bail by making it appear through a phony answering service that Morris’ bond had been revoked.
In September 1996, Russell pleaded guilty to the embezzlement charge and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Three months later, he broke open some green felt-tip markers he’d pocketed from his art class, dropped the cartridges into some water, and dyed his prison whites a vivid green. On Dec. 13 — another Friday, of course — Russell put on his uniform and, posing as a doctor in green medical scrubs, walked past the prison guard and out of a maximum-security prison. He found Morris, who was hiding out with a friend in Galveston, Tex., and gleefully announced that he’d made parole. When Russell suggested they take off together, Morris says he went along only grudgingly. With their pictures splashed over the front pages of every major newspaper, they rented a limousine and took off for Biloxi, Miss. They were arrested on Dec. 23.
Back in prison, Russell concocted his most elaborate con yet: He convinced doctors that he was dying of AIDS, mimicking the physical symptoms and forging medical tests on a prison typewriter. He then arranged to have himself transferred to a low-security nursing home outside San Antonio on a special-needs parole. There he posed as a doctor and got permission to be released — on Friday, March 13, 1998 — to a Houston hospital offering experimental treatment. But he never showed up. On the lam again, he obtained blank death certificates and informed prison officials that Steven Russell had died. By this time, Morris had been transferred to the Dallas County jail, and Russell, posing as Morris’ lawyer, started visiting day and night.
On March 20, Russell posed as a Virginia millionaire in an attempt to score a $75,000 loan from a Dallas bank. When suspicious bank officials tried to detain him, Russell faked a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. But nobody bothered to strip him of his cell phone, so when he was left alone in his room, he simply called the hospital’s main line, introduced himself as ”Special Agent Johnson from the FBI,” and told them to cut Steven Russell loose. ”That’s called fast thinking on your feet!” Russell says now. ”I mean, I took off! Went downtown to Neiman Marcus and bought myself some new clothes. Phillip was in jail, and when I showed up, I told him what happened…” Russell pauses, laughing. ”And he groaned and started smoking hard.” Russell told Morris of a new scheme to bust him out of jail, but his boyfriend cut him off. ”Don’t you think you’ve gotten me in enough trouble?” Morris recalls telling Russell. ”You get your ass out of here and don’t you ever come back.”
Russell enjoyed about two more weeks of freedom. He was arrested for the last time on April 7, 1998, when a policeman spotted him walking to his car in Sunrise, Fla. Texas prison officials seem to have finally learned their lesson, keeping Russell on a short chain. ”Because of his penchant for escaping, Mr. Russell is housed in administrative segregation, which is our highest level of security,” says Michelle Lyons of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice at Huntsville. ”We do indeed consider his fondness for escaping on Friday the 13th,” she adds, noting that checks of his cell are stepped up ”whenever that day rolls around.”
The guards rap on the door. Before they lead Russell away, I ask him if he ever gets depressed. ”Do I look like I’m sad?” he replies. ”I’m happy! And if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t show it because I’m hardheaded. Never let them see you sweat.” He wipes his brow, stuffs his damp handkerchief in his pocket, and bids a gallant farewell. For his part, Carrey understands Russell’s surface good cheer. ”It’s important to Steve to be viewed as on top of his world, even though it’s completely out of control,” says the actor. ”So he’s going to try to appear as if he’s the winningest guy in solitary confinement.”
Phillip Morris, now 51, lives alone on mental-disability benefits in Hot Springs National Park, Ark., reminding himself each day to forgive Russell. Morris spent nearly seven years in prison for a crime both he and Russell continue to insist he played no part in committing. ”I love the man and always will,” says Morris of Russell. ”But I wish often I’d never met him.” Even after all this time, his feelings about his ex remain complicated. ”I truly believe that everything he did was out of love for me,” says Morris. ”And if I wasn’t one of the characters, I would absolutely love the movie. Living it, it’s been hell for 14 years.”
Still, Morris was planning to go to New York City for the Nov. 22 premiere of I Love You Phillip Morris. ”I just hope I don’t say something stupid or stumble or knock the podium down,” he says with a soft laugh. McGregor promised him they would go as each other’s dates and wear matching tuxedos (”Though aren’t all tuxedos matching?” Morris says).
While the story unspools on the big screen before a crowd of strangers, Russell will be in his cell at Michael Unit. ”I’m going to buy some barbecued beef that night and make a spread for my neighbors, whoever they may be,” he says. He’ll turn his fan on high, maybe practice his meditation. If he wants to see any stars, he’ll have to stand on his bunk on tiptoes, stretching for a glimpse outside his narrow window of the big Texas sky.