The real Phillip Morris from I Love You Phillip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor in the film, talks to Gina Piccalo about being duped by Steven Jay Russell: "I could just beat him to a pulp. But I love him." Related: Nicole LaPorte profiled Russell, who is serving a sentence of 144 years behind bars after four escapes. Read the story.
Phillip Morris, the demure Arkansas native whose jailhouse romance with Texas' most notorious jail-breaker inspired a series of remarkable escapes and the campy Jim Carrey film I Love You Phillip Morris, hardly sounds like the kind of man who would tie his fate to the so-called King Con, Steven Jay Russell.
But one day back in 1995, in the law library of a Harris County, Texas jail, Morris did just that. He thought he'd found his soul mate in Russell, a hulking charmer with such a powerful sway he seemed to bewitch everyone in his orbit. As it turned out, Morris had his own hypnotic power over Russell. Years after that first meeting, the intensity of their connection would lead Russell to brazenly escape prison twice on a harrowing mission to reunite with him.
As Morris shares his side of the story, his voice whispers across the phone line, a gentle Southern lilt kissing every syllable. Somewhere behind that tone, though, is a great reservoir of anger. Morris says he'll never forgive Russell for ensnaring him in a mammoth con, forging his name on bank accounts, and "tricking" him into jumping bail, actions that ultimately may have helped send Morris to prison for seven years. (Russell, by comparison, got 144 years, spent in perpetual lock-down.)
"This sounds crazy," Morris told me in a marathon phone call in October from his secluded home. "After all he's done to me. As messed up as my life has been and seven years in prison over something that I didn't do or even know about–I am so mad at him! I could just beat him to a pulp. Beat him 'til he dies." He takes a breath, adding, "But I love him. You explain that."
Morris, now 51, and Russell, now 53, met while they both awaited transfer to state prison. Morris was serving time for violating probation after failing to return a rental car. He was researching something for his dying cellmate in the jail's law library when Russell ambled along, claiming to be a lawyer, pointing to his name in the Texas Legal Directory as proof.
"He's got the book open to Steven Jay Russell born 9.14.58," says Morris. "We had little arm bands that have our [prison ID] number and our birth date. He tells me this. And it all matched up. He was a lawyer. I believed it."
• Nicole LaPorte: Gay Prison Movie's Real-Life ConBut Russell wasn't a lawyer. He was a brilliant impostor serving time for insurance fraud in the very jail he'd escaped from just two years prior by walking out in women's clothes. Russell was also a former police officer who had left his wife and kids in Virginia to live an extravagant gay lifestyle by lying his way into several well-paying jobs. Before he was finally stopped, Russell had more than a dozen aliases, having successfully impersonated a dying AIDS patient, a judge, a millionaire, a doctor, and an FBI agent.
"Steven Russell is the most charming man you will ever meet in your life," Morris says. "He's not the most handsome man. But I don't care who you are, if Steven Russell wants to attach himself to your life somehow, you will fall in love with him—period."
A few days after their meet-cute, Russell was miraculously relocated into Morris' cellblock. Then when they were both transferred to state prison in Rosharon, Texas, Morris says, Russell got himself housed in a separate unit so he could be released before Morris.
"I don't care who you are, if Steven Russell wants to attach himself to your life somehow, you will fall in love with him—period."
"He either called the judge and pretended he was another judge," Morris says, leaving the "or" part of his theory unanswered. "He figured if he got out before I did he would be able to pick me up and manipulate and control the situation. He wanted to be with me so badly. He made sure I didn't go back to my ex lover."
Russell got out and immediately landed two jobs, working days at a Kroger deli and nights at a Red Roof Inn. He still made it to the jail three or four times a week to visit Morris. The day Morris was due to be released, Russell accelerated his departure ahead of 200 other prisoners in line.
Initially, the couple lived simply in Houston in what Morris called "a nice little patio home down by Johnson's Space Center." Morris, who spent a decade as an Atlanta topographer, didn't really like to work. His diabetes complicated things, too. So he stayed home and decorated the place and Russell was the bread-winner. "I was happy," he says. "I didn't need a whole lot."
But Russell, says Morris, needed a lot more. Within a few months, Russell landed a job as the chief financial officer of a health-services company. He soon bought them a big house in Houston's version of Bel Air and lavished Morris with gifts he now says he didn't even want, like a $25,000 Cartier watch one day, and a $100,000 Mercedes-Benz another.
"He fulfilled every need that I had," Morris says. "He treated me like—if you pardon the expression—a queen."
Steve McVicker, author of the 2003 book I Love You Phillip Morris, has a more cynical view of Morris than the lovelorn naïf that he portrays. ("If a million dollars was stacked up and you left it with me for six months by God that million dollars would still be there," Morris says.)
McVicker interviewed Morris when he was being held in jail for helping Russell embezzle about $800,000 from North American Medical Management where Russell worked as CFO. (Morris portrays himself as an unknowing bystander, as do the I Love You Phillip Morris writer/director team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.)
"I don't think Phillip is quite the innocent angel that he comes off in the movie," McVicker says. "He's from a little town in Arkansas. His family was pretty zealous about their religion as conservative Protestants. Then he started hitting the big cities and had a knack for finding men who would support him. I think Steven was one in a line of people like that."
But Morris steadfastly denies that. "No one's ever really listened to my part of it because no one believed me," he says. "It wasn't a material thing. I just met somebody I thought I could trust."
Indeed, Morris lives pretty simply now with a small apartment he uses as an art studio in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and a lake house two hours south of the city, so remote that the nearest neighbor is eight miles away. Morris paints and draws when he isn't fishing. He hasn't worked in four or five years—he is on disability—and considers himself "retired."
Ewan McGregor spent a few quiet days at home with Morris while the actor was preparing for the role. Morris was flattered by McGregor's portrayal, but the provocative sex in the movie embarrassed him.
"I've been to prison and [the film] makes me blush," he says. "I'm just rolling with it."
Despite everything Morris says Russell put him through, the heartbreak and betrayal, the dark journey through the legal system, the trauma of serving seven years in prison, Morris still longs to see him.
"I would like to just see his eyes and talk to him," he says. "Let him know things that are on my mind."
Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.