Had he come into the world 61 seconds earlier, he would have been born on Friday 13, a magic number for Steven Jay Russell, prison escape artist par excellence. That is the date he always chose to break out of prison if possible and the birthdate of his lover Phillip Morris in 1959 two years after the birth of Russell on September 14, 1957 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Morris, the son of a Baptist preacher, was born in Blythe, Arkansas. Journalist Steve McVicker recounts the wild ride of this latter-day Bonnie and Clyde duo through several states and about as many prisons. Russell, the escape artist, has the skill of Houdini and the charm of the fictional Tom Ridley.
Mr. McVicker got the bulk of his information from interviews with Russell whom the author says he never caught in a lie. To his credit, McVicker does not try to analyze the reasons for what Russell did-- after all he is not a psychologist but a jouralist-- but lets Russell tell the events as he remembers them. Neither does Russell spend any time contemplating his own motives. "I live in my own little world. I build walls around me to keep from getting hurt. I don't understand why I'm like this. I've never tried to analyze it. It takes a lot of bumps in the road before I am able to trust another person." According to Russell, he has an I.Q. of 163. "Studyng people is a large part of what I do. . . When I talk to someone, I watch their eyes to see if they're looking at me in the eye or if they're drifting off somewhere else. I have to know that I can trust them before I know I can get them to trust me."
Russell first exhibited unusual behavior shortly after his parents told him when he was nine that he was adopted but that he was special. He soon proceeded to torch a cousin's parents' garage. And as an adult, he remembers when he made a conscious decision to lead a life of crime. He had previously been married, had become a father and had run the family business, been a police officer-- before being arrested by a vice squad officer for solicitation for sex-- and even been a church organist.
It is almost as if Russell breaks out of prison multiple times for the sheer joy of outsmarting law officials. At various times during his wild ride, he impersonates a prison physician, an attorney and a police officer. He even fakes an AIDS diagnosis and his death in order to escape. During Russell's long life of crime, however, he never becomes violent or hurts another person. He is also capable of great affection towards those people he cares about: his wife, his child, a lover he takes care of during that lover's long illness with AIDS and, of course, Phillip Morris.
There are few dull moments in Russell's life of crime which McVicker narrates in spare, to-the-point prose. Now we have the movie version with Jim Carrey as Russell and Ewan McGregor playing Phillip Morris. If the film is half as good as this book, it will be well worth seeing.