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In for Life? Not Him

Times Staff Writer

Richard Lee McNair’s job in the prison factory was mending U.S. mailbags. Thousands of the leather pouches were routinely delivered to the shop at the federal maximum-security penitentiary here, and the middle-aged convict worked quietly each day, helping to stitch them back up.

Once the bags were refurbished, they were stacked on pallets, hundreds in a pile. McNair watched for four months as forklifts scooped up the pallets and hauled them to a warehouse just outside the prison walls.

One morning they carried off McNair -- hidden under the bags.

And he was free again.

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Twice before, in nearly two decades in custody, McNair has tasted freedom. Once he spread lip balm on his wrist, and slipped out of handcuffs. Another time he crawled to freedom through an air vent. Two other times his breakout attempts were foiled.

His latest escape was the first from a federal maximum security prison in 13 years. McNair, a confessed murderer, had just been moved to Pollock from the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo. -- the nation’s most secure lockup.

The government concedes it should have known he would again try to escape.

Since his April 5 run, he has crisscrossed the United States and Canada. He has left behind intriguing clues, almost as if daring the police and federal marshals to find him.

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“Oh, he’s taunting us, all right,” said an exasperated Vern Erck, the North Dakota lawman who first arrested him.

Soon after sneaking out of the off-site warehouse, when the prison was already in an uproar trying to find him, McNair smooth-talked his way past a police officer even though he had no ID and was running away from the prison.

Several weeks later, he jumped from a stolen car and ran off after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police pulled him over in Penticton, Canada, just north of Washington state. Inside was a digital camera full of photos he had taken of himself, along with a travelogue of scenic sites he had visited.

He was caught on video late in April at a honky-tonk called Coyote Ugly in San Antonio, sipping a beer on the bar’s back patio. And he mailed, or had someone else mail, a letter to his mother in Duncan, Okla. It was postmarked Corpus Christi, Texas.

When he is caught, if he is caught, McNair is unlikely to go quietly. He was serving two life sentences -- for shooting one man from behind and killing another at point-blank range during a 1987 burglary.

“He has murdered in the past,” warned Deputy U.S. Marshal Richard Sansone Jr., who is based in Louisiana and is helping coordinate the manhunt. “He will do most anything he can to stay out.”

What makes McNair, 47, tougher to catch and all the more dangerous is that he once worked in law enforcement. He is a stickler for detail and so methodical he used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the FBI records on his last escape so he could study how they tracked him down.

Before hiding under the pile of mailbags and being forklifted to freedom, he swore to his cellmates: “I won’t make the same mistakes next time.” His wanted poster, plastered on the Internet, shows him with brown hair and blue eyes, 6 feet tall and 210 pounds. That is how he looked when he came to Pollock in December, after five years at Supermax, where many of the nation’s most hardened criminals are held, locked in their cells for 23 hours a day.

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No one has escaped from Supermax. The last escape from any federal maximum security prison was in August 1993, when Rick Lee Archer and Gene Michael Diulio vanished from the penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif., only to be apprehended four months later in Las Vegas. Richard Thomas, McNair’s 73-year-old defense attorney, has represented numerous defendants in his long legal career. But none, he said, were as determined as McNair that he would not spend his life in prison.

“He used to send me Christmas cards every year,” Thomas said. “He hoped everything was fine. He was eternally optimistic.”

The county prosecutor in Minot, N.D., John Van Grinsven, notes that McNair would be eligible for parole just about now had he stayed in prison.

“If you were to meet him, you’d probably like him,” the prosecutor said. “But there is a dark side.”

*

McNair grew up the son of a jewelry store manager in Oklahoma. He joined the Air Force, was promoted to sergeant and was stationed at Minot. He worked as a military policeman and later, as his service was ending, assisted as a volunteer undercover officer with the local drug task force.

He also developed a compulsion for stealing things. Carpets. Electronics. An air compressor. He rented a storage locker and filled it up.

Police are divided over what to make of him; some call him a sociopath, others a thrill-seeker, still others see him as someone intent on proving that he is smarter than all of them.

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“I think his ulterior motive was to get in with law enforcement to understand how we worked,” said Van Grinsven, who was on the drug task force with McNair. “At one point, he stole a police radio and when he would go out on burglaries he’d listen in.”

On a November night in 1987, when McNair was 28, he was bent over the safe at the Farmer’s Union Grain Elevator when the manager, Richard Kitzman, unexpectedly showed up to assist a trucker with a late load.

McNair shot Kitzman three times from behind and left him for dead.

“I thought I was a goner, you betcha,” Kitzman said, still bewildered that McNair would shoot someone who couldn’t identify him.

McNair did not want to leave the trucker as a possible witness. So he reloaded the five-shot revolver, hurried outside, leaped onto the truck’s running board, stuck the gun in Jerome Theis’ face and emptied it.

Then McNair ran.

His undoing came when he ran behind on his rental payments at the storage locker. The owner opened it and found it full of loot, including spent shells from the grain elevator shootings.

McNair was arrested the next morning when he showed up at the offices of the drug task force.

Police handcuffed his wrist to a chair and stepped away to confer. McNair slid open a desk drawer and reached for the lip balm. After working his wrist free, he knocked down two officers and bolted past a receptionist.

He stole a car and was chased to the tallest home in Minot. He burst through the door, ran up the three flights and climbed out onto the roof. Realizing he was cornered, he shouted, “I’m not going to jail” and leaped into a tree. But the branch broke and McNair fell, practically into the arms of the police.

Awaiting trial in 1988 in the county jail in Minot, he apparently was already scheming. Somehow he hustled up a small hammer and flashlight and began loosening two cinderblocks in his cell.

When he was spotted, he was moved to tighter quarters.

“I knew right then he was pretty clever,” said Erck, who is now the Ward County sheriff in Minot. “He enjoys the game.”

McNair pleaded guilty to the shootings.

“He didn’t have any defense,” said Thomas, his lawyer. “He had given exhaustive statements to the cops about the killing. He confessed it all. And he was colder than a mackerel. He showed absolutely no remorse.”

He got two life sentences and, in 1988, was dispatched to the state’s maximum-security prison in Bismarck.

Three years later, McNair was about to bust out again.

He had removed many of the security fixtures from inside a prison air vent that led to the outside. He had only a few left to make it all the way out and had already stashed a jacket, a pair of glasses, food and a word-processing diskette to help in his getaway.

Another inmate snitched on him.

McNair told prison officials he had planned to head east, maybe to New York, “because it would be easy to live undetected in a large city.” He also told them he did not care if a tower guard shot him, saying that, if he was spotted running, he wished to die.

A year later, he pulled off the escape -- crawling through another ventilation chute with two other inmates. His accomplices were found in fairly short order. It took about 10 months to find McNair.

He stole cars. He dyed his hair blond.

Finally, in July 1993, he was caught trying to burglarize a Grand Island, Neb., car dealership. He was captured with a stolen Chevy van and was armed with a stun gun and police scanner.

*

With each escape and each attempt, McNair got more prison time. He eventually was transferred by North Dakota Prison Warden Tim Schuetzle under a prisoner-exchange program to a top-security facility in Oak Park Heights, Minn., that is largely underground.

Authorities thought that would be good for safe-keeping.

But McNair organized prisoner strikes and by 2001 Minnesota had had enough. So Schuetzle, under another prisoner exchange, traded him to the federal government. With his record of unruliness and escapes, federal officials sent him to Supermax.

“That’s where I thought he was all this time,” Schuetzle said. “Until I got the call from Pollock.”

Because McNair was well-behaved in Supermax, he was transferred to Pollock, one of the newest federal prisons, in September and, in December, was assigned to the prison shop repairing postal bags. “He seemed very low key,” said Jane Haschemeyer, an administrator in the warden’s office. “He hadn’t had any disciplinary reports. There hadn’t been any issues with him at all.”

Pollock also had a good record: no escapes since it opened five years ago. Asked about that now, Haschemeyer said, “Well, we’re just hoping he can be captured soon.”

Somewhere between the prison shop and the outside warehouse, McNair swapped his work khakis for the white T-shirt and white shorts allowed in his cell.

As Haschemeyer put it, “he wormed his way out of the pallet and made his run for it.”

Alerted to the dragnet, Carl Bordelon, a police officer in Ball, La., stopped a man running along some railroad tracks about a dozen miles from the prison.

Bordelon’s brief encounter with McNair was recorded by the video camera on the dash of his patrol car.

“Do you have any form of ID on you?” Bordelon asked.

“No.”

“What’s your name?”

“Robert Jones. I’m not supposed to be out on the tracks?”

“What’s your address?”

“I don’t have an address.” McNair said. “I’m at a hotel. We’re working on houses and stuff like that. Roofs.”

McNair shifted his feet. He giggled. He explained he was just out jogging.

Bordelon told McNair there was an escapee on the loose.

“There’s a prison here?” McNair laughed.

The officer called in McNair’s description and was told about the photo issued of the escapee. “You know the bad thing about it?” the officer said to McNair. “You’re matching up to it.”

“That sucks,” said McNair, tossing in a few more laughs.

To deflect suspicion he described a nearby Wal-Mart, the building behind it and the state highway that passes through. He said he was an Army veteran, his father a reserve cop. He said he grew up in Dallas.

“I promise you, I’m not no damn prison escapee,” he said. “Nope. Nope. Nope.”

True, the officer agreed, “you’d-a run by now.”

They laughed and shook hands.

“Be careful, buddy,” the officer said.

And off McNair went.


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