Friday, October 27, 2006

A killer who can’t be kept in prison

By Mark Singer, New Yorker

With a few noteworthy exceptions, people who meet Richard McNair tend to find him likable. He typically has an engaging and relaxed manner, chatty and unhurried; a former employer characterized him as having “an outgoing, lovable personality.” When McNair was younger, women were drawn to him because he was good-looking: six feet tall, wiry and well groomed, with a playful smile. Now in his late forties, he remains trim and fit but has a curiously protean appearance. Sometimes he lets his hair grow long enough for a ponytail, and sometimes it’s styled in a crewcut; sometimes it’s blond or black instead of its natural brown. He might have a mustache and a goatee, a mustache but no goatee, a week’s worth of stubble, or a clean shave. Most official documents list his eye color as blue, but it’s also been identified as hazel. Last spring, in Louisiana, McNair removed his wire-rimmed glasses and told a police officer standing only a few feet away from him that his eyes were “green-well, kind of a turquoise-blue,” and the officer didn’t contradict him.

Acquaintances also remark upon McNair’s intelligence and powers of observation. He has a casual alertness, a talent for sizing up people and his physical surroundings. His father, Jim, has said of him, “Anything he wants to do he would figure out,” adding that any periodical his son read he digested cover to cover, and anything he read he remembered. Despite being both a quick study and a diligent long-term planner, however, McNair hasn’t had a professional life to speak of, because for almost two decades he’s been incarcerated in various state and federal prisons–that is, when he hasn’t been on the lam. At the moment, he’s thought to be somewhere in western Canada. If the United States Marshals who’ve been pursuing him since April have a more specific idea of his whereabouts, they haven’t said so. His most recent unauthorized furlough, from the U.S. Penitentiary in Pollock Louisiana, made him the first person in thirteen years to escape successfully from a maximum-security federal prison.

McNair is a convicted murderer. The bulletins in the wake of his most recent escape–his third–noted that he should be considered “extremely dangerous.” His encounter with the police officer in Louisiana, however, which lasted about ten minutes and happened to be recorded by a video camera mounted on the dashboard of the officer’s cruiser, hardly suggested this. Within two hours of receiving instructions to be on the lookout for a freshly escaped prisoner, the cop spotted a man jogging along a railroad track who turned out to be carrying no identification and who roughly matched a description of the fugitive. Yet, somehow, the men’s conversation ended with the jogger saying, “You have a good day, now,” and the cop replying, “Be careful, buddy,” and sending him on his way. Only by wrestling the officer to the ground and seizing his weapon could McNair have demonstrated more literally what it means to be disarming. By the time his new friend had grasped whom he’d been talking to, McNair was miles away.

The taxonomy of penology includes various inmate archetypes, among them: the mind-their-own-business majority, who try to remain inconspicuous by complying with the rules; the incorrigibly violent, whose behavior inevitably causes them to be segregated from the main population; the predator and the preyed upon; the perpetually aggrieved and concomitantly litigious; the habitual scammer looking for ways to make his incarceration easier at the expense of other inmates; the snitch; and the pretend snitch, who trafficks in misinformation. Patrick Branson, a deputy warden at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, a maximum-security institution where McNair spent almost five years–and from which he escaped in 1992–told me, “The problem with McNair is he doesn’t really fit any inmate mold. That’s what makes him such a high risk. He is a con man, but he’s very calculating, very patient. Most con men in prison are by definition not very successful or they wouldn’t be here. McNair stands out because of his fixation on escaping. Knowing what I know about him, I can tell you this: If they catch him tomorrow, he’s going to the nearest county jail or lockup. First they’re going to put him in restraints, then put him in a police car, then take him to a processing area. From the time you start step No. 1, his mind is thinking, How do I get out of these cuffs or this car? What’s the weak spot in this facility? When he goes to a new facility, from the moment he arrives, he’s thinking about escaping.”
Around nine-thirty on a November night in 1987, on the outskirts of Minot, North Dakota, Richard Kitzman, an employee of the Farmers Union grain elevator, returned to the elevator to meet a truck driver named Jerome Theis. Minot, the seat of Ward County, is in the central part of the state, a hundred or so miles north of Bismarck, the capital. Kitzman was in his early thirties, had worked for the Farmers Union for more than a decade, and lived with his wife and two children in a mobile-home court across the street, which was convenient because trucks often had to be loaded at odd hours. Theis, himself a father of three and stepfather of five, lived outside Minneapolis, five hundred miles to the southeast. He’d called Kitzman from a pay phone and told him that he was ready to fill up–with whatever, flax or wheat or durum–for transport to a grain processor near the Twin Cities. He parked his tractor-trailer rig on the entrance ramp to a loading bay. From inside its cab, where he was fortifying himself with a carton of vanilla ice cream and a Pepsi, he wouldn’t have seen Kitzman entering the elevator business office, around the corner.

Nor had he laid eyes on McNair, who had trespassed an hour or so earlier and got busy rifling desks and trying to pry open a small safe. This was an avocation that McNair had pursued that fall in and around Minor–burglarizing businesses that lacked security alarms, thus allowing him ample time to grab whatever seemed valuable, which, over all, hadn’t amounted to much: a few hundred dollars (including change from vending machines), tools, postage stamps, a videocassette recorder, rolls of tape and tape dispensers, doorknob assemblies. Invariably, he left drawers and doors open, and he often left behind footprints of wavy-patterned soles.

Kitzman unlocked the front door, noticed that a retractable gate separating the office clerks’ desks from the grain-handling operation was raised, didn’t think much of it, stepped through a pair of glass doors into an area called the shaker room, turned on the lights, and was confronted with the aftermath of a ransacking.

McNair came out of the back room where he’d hidden upon hearing Theis’s truck arrive. Though his burglary had been interrupted, he still could have walked out the front door unnoticed. Instead, he focussed upon Kitzman, who stood with his back to the shaker-room doors, aimed a .38-calibre handgun at his head, and fired through the glass. Kitzman hit the floor, gazed and bleeding. There’s no evidence that McNair had killed before, but he proceeded without hesitation into the shaker room to finish the job.

Kitzman lay on the floor. Looking up, he saw a gunman who had assumed a two-handed firing posture. He screamed and rolled into a fetal crouch as McNair began emptying his five-shot revolver, point blank. One bullet hit Kitzman in the wrist, another passed through both of his legs, and the last two–the kick from the gun must have thrown off McNair’s aim–pierced a couple of wooden drawers. Retreating to the rear office, McNair reloaded his gun, slipped the five spent shells into his pocket, placed in a small duffel whatever he still felt like stealing, and went back through the shaker room, retracing the path of his break-in. Later, it emerged that McNair suffered from a chronic nervous stomach and had been in the bathroom when Theis and Kitzman surprised him. He hadn’t flushed then and he didn’t now. In his haste, he also failed to register that Kitzman was still alive.

Lying on the floor, playing dead, Kitzman got a good look at McNair’s shoes. He waited a couple of minutes (”till I guessed he wasn’t coming back”), then crawled into a foreman’s office and dialled 911. The recording of his conversation with the dispatcher captured five more gunshots. McNair initially assumed that the person he’d shot inside the shaker room was the driver of the truck, but he realized otherwise when, outside, he saw the rig’s running lights switch off. He crept around the cab and stepped up on the running board. If Theis experienced the same terror that Kitzman had, it didn’t last long. McNair shot him between the eyes; a coroner later determined that at least two other wounds would also have been fatal. Police cars and an ambulance arrived within a few minutes, but McNair had disappeared.
The murder of Jerome Theis was one of only two homicides in Ward County in 1987 and one of only eleven that year in North Dakota. The authorities pursued their investigation in a thorough and methodical manner. A drawing based upon Kitzman’s description of the suspect was circulated, and an eighteen-thousand-dollar reward was announced. For a long while, the investigators made little progress; then they got lucky. McNair, who was born and raised in southern Oklahoma, had been living in North Dakota because he was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at a base in Minor. In February, three months after the murder, he had carelessly fallen behind on his rent to a local storage facility where, under an assumed name, he stashed many of his stolen goods. Less than a week before he would have completed his tour of duty, a manager at the facility had removed the lock from his unit and decided that the cache of merchandise looked suspicious: a sealed box of computer equipment had a label bearing an address at the Minot Air Force Base, and several rolls of carpeting had price tags from a Minot store still attached. She contacted the police and the airbase’s security force, who, along with Ward County sheriff’s detectives, established that McNair–who was making plans to leave town–was the storage-facility customer and that he matched Kitzman’s description of the killer.

McNair had apparently not been too worried about being pinpointed. After his arrest, an Air Force captain who had worked with him came forward and told how he had joked, “The drawing looks like me, so you should turn me in and we can split the reward money.” Whatever frisson that gave McNair was probably exceeded by the thrill of his occasional visits to the Minot Police Department. About a year before he began moonlighting as a burglar, he’d volunteered as a confidential informant who could set up buy-and-bust drug arrests.

“If I had somebody I was interested in, I’d call him,” Clint Wolf, who was then a Minot P.D. narcotics detective, told me. “Or if he had someone he’d call me. He had the gift of gab. He knew how to make friends, how to work ‘em.”

Another detective, Mike Knoop, added, “McNair worked out really well. Had he not committed crimes, he probably would have been an excellent investigator someplace.”

Wolf wasn’t always impressed by McNair’s judgment; he had to stop him from carrying a gun during drug buys, for instance. But, on balance, Wolf said, “he seemed like a pretty good guy. He wasn’t a shithead, like a lot of snitches.”

Later, Wolf and Knoop and other Minot cops recalled how McNair had asked offhand questions about the progress of the investigations of his crimes. While plotting burglaries, he’d taken into account where the city line was and where patrol surveillance might be spotty. He also carried a portable police scanner with him.

“McNair would steal your car and sell it back to you, and you’d think you’ve got a hell of a deal,” Knoop said. “Those kind of people will play a game with you–trying to outwit law enforcement. He’s very intelligent. For him, it’s one of those catch-me-if-you-can situations. And we did.”

Catch-me-if-you-can-and-then-catch-me-again is more like it.

The day after the search of the storage locker, McNair went to the Minot police station because Don Schneider, the chief of detectives, had summoned him under the pretext of discussing his work as an informant. Once the conversation got under way in Schneider’s office, however, McNair knew he was in trouble. Schneider and another detective, Boyde Galgerud, described searching the locker and finding the stolen goods.

“I think I need an attorney,” McNair said.

“If you think you need one, you need one,” Galgerud replied. Schneider handed him a phone directory.

“And I need to go to the bathroom,” McNair said.

Before he could relieve himself, Galgerud frisked him and came up with a .380 hidden in his underwear. So they had one more reason to place him in custody. Now what? The murder case was officially within the jurisdiction of the Ward County sheriff; tactical choices had to be made, the state’s attorney had to be consulted, and it was time for lunch. Schneider and Galgerud headed for a restaurant a few miles away, where they were joined by the state’s attorney and other officials.

Before food was delivered to the table, word arrived that McNair had escaped. Back at the station, he’d been handcuffed to a chair and left in the care of Knoop and two other detectives. As the lunch group dashed to their cars, Schneider said of McNair, “He’d better be carrying a chair.”

He wasn’t. While the attention of Knoop and his colleagues was somehow elsewhere, McNair had reached into his pocket for a tube of lip balm, greased the inside of his handcuff, and slipped out. When he bolted, he slammed a door on the hand of one of the detectives. Knoop was recovering from knee surgery and, when he got outside, jammed his leg on the ice. The third detective stepped the wrong way on a curb and fractured his heel. “So it was like Moe, Larry, and Curly trying to chase this guy,” Knoop recalled. “Pretty entertaining, if you want to look at it that way.” McNair went through the station parking lot, up a steep stairway built into an embankment, past a couple of municipal buildings, and within five blocks found a parked car with the keys in the ignition. He drove three blocks, the car stalled, he jumped out and started running again. About an hour later, a reporter for the Minot Daily News alerted the police that he had spotted McNair entering a small apartment building near the county courthouse. When McNair climbed out of a third-floor window, he had an audience of half a dozen law-enforcement officers, including Knoop, whom he later told, “Nothing against you, Mike, but yours was the last face I wanted to see up there.” He jumped for a tree limb, fell to the ground, and was back in custody.

The evidence against McNair–items removed from the murder scene that turned up in a search of his home; spent shells from the murder weapon that turned up in the storage locker; footwear that matched the prints left at the scene of the murder and at the scenes of several burglaries; Kitzman’s identification of him in a photo lineup; the evidence from the grain-elevator toilet–obviated a trial. With his plea bargain pending, McNair started trying to dig his way out of the Ward County jail. He had freed two cinder blocks from inside his cell and stored a flashlight and some tied-together sheets and towels in the crawlspace by the time his handiwork was uncovered. On another occasion, as he was being transferred in handcuffs from a state hospital back to the county jail, he was found to be carrying a tube of lip balm; according to an incident report, he “smiled when it was discovered.” Upon pleading guilty, he received two life sentences–one for murder and one for attempted murder–plus thirty years on the burglary charges, in the North Dakota State Penitentiary, in Bismarck, where he matriculated in July, 1988.
As maximum-security penal facilities go, the North Dakota State Penitentiary doesn’t emanate an especially forbidding aura. To enter the main administration building, a single-story orange brick structure that’s the portal to the cellblocks, you pass through a remote-controlled gate in an eighteen-foot chain-link fence crowned with razor wire. On my first visit, a jackrabbit that had sidestepped ground-level coils of razor wire was inside the fence, nibbling impatiens in a flower bed. Outside, less than a hundred feet away, is a Victorian mansion where the warden resides. The first prisoners arrived in 1885, during territorial days, and the most recently completed cellblock opened in 1987. The cellblocks flank a yard large enough to accommodate a jogging track, a vegetable garden, a sweat lodge, athletic fields, and, until a decade ago, an annual rodeo. The maximum-security complex is adjacent to a medium-security treatment center for chemical addictions, and its north windows face a dairy farm that stopped operating long ago, for budgetary reasons. A still viable enterprise, Rough Rider Industries, employs inmates to manufacture office furniture, Dumpsters, work uniforms, sheets, towels, and (it’s a prison, after all) license plates. The windows of the Rough Rider building and of the cellblocks are barred, of course, and until the early nineties the exterior walls constituted the perimeter of the institution. The provenance of various retrofittings since then–the chain-link and razor-wire fence, sensors that trigger an alarm when the fence is shaken, infrared motion detectors that do the same can be traced, more or less directly, to McNair’s exploits as an inmate. The only thing missing is a commemorative plaque.

The particulars of McNair’s crimes and punishment mandated that he serve at least twenty years before he’d qualify for parole. When he entered prison, his file included a memorandum from the Ward County Sheriff’s Department to the effect that he was “highly manipulative, persuasive and personable,” with a “talent for gaining people’s confidence by talking smooth.” Another referred to him as a “very high escape risk.” Whether or not he was aware of these appraisals or familiar with one of the cardinal protocols of prison management–that corrections employees should never befriend convicts or share details of their personal lives–he quickly set out to ingratiate himself with the prison staff. He was determined to establish a reputation as a model inmate, not as a goal in itself but as a means to an end (which, if attained, would render him anything but a model inmate). His first job was in the laundry room but his sights were on the Rough Rider Industries building. Exemplary behavior could make that possible, and before too long he had a job there.

He was instrumental in starting a monthly newspaper, The Inside Times, and regularly contributed articles. During the murder investigation, detectives had found among his belongings fragments of short stories–inchoate scenes of mostly cops-and-robbers stuff that suggested literary ambitions but no real aptitude. McNair’s writing for The Inside Times was comparably pedestrian, but it served one important purpose: it provided a cover for him to scrutinize various corners of the penitentiary that he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to explore. Over several months, he conducted interviews with the production supervisors at Rough Rider Industries–in the upholstery shop, the sign shop, the metal shop, the license-plate factory–and he wrote about the substance-abuse-treatment and crisis-intervention-program personnel. His prose had the toadying blandness of a heavily vetted high-school newspaper. From an item headlined “FEMALE OFFICERS IN THE CORRECTIONAL ENVIRONMENT”: “If being an officer is a difficult job, can you imagine the difficulty of a Female Officer in a mainly male prison? I tried to base my interview on that concept, but as I visited with each individual I found every officer to have so many flesh ideas and motivations. The article became more of a way for them to share their ideas and show that they are as human as the next person.”

McNair’s actual curiosity about the lives of his interview subjects was, most likely, next to nil. He wanted to know whether, in whatever niche of the institution they inhabited, any permeable seams in the security system existed. The employee assigned to supervise The Inside Times happened to be the executive assistant to the then warden, Thomas Powers. In October, 1989, when McNair had been in the penitentiary for fifteen months, Powers wrote a letter commending him and two other inmates for their “professionalism” and “dedication” to their work on the paper. The following year, McNair petitioned for a reclassification of his sentence. After that was denied, and after his appeal was denied, he wrote directly to Powers, who reaffirmed the decision but wrote, encouragingly, “Without a doubt you are doing a super job here. I have been impressed with both your maturity and attitude… Reputations are easy to make and hard to break. You made one in Ward County, and are on the way to breaking it here.” McNair reciprocated a few weeks later with a “quick note to thank you for the time you took out for my family”–a reference to his parents and whichever of his three brothers had come from Oklahoma to visit him–”and the chance to show them our facilities.” (Did Warden Powers ask himself from which prison-etiquette handbook McNair had gleaned lines such as “It really put them at ease to see their son is in such a caring and progressive environment”?)

The guided tour for McNair’s family presumably omitted the administrative segregation (A.S.) unit of the west cell house–the destination for a prisoner who, say, is discovered to have misappropriated a cutting torch in the metal shop of the Rough Riders Industries building and has managed to remove all but two of the security bars from an air vent that he’s planning imminently to escape through, along with two other inmates. In April, 1991, when McNair was a day away from learning whether such a scheme would succeed, one of his confederates–troubled by the news that the driver of the group’s getaway car would be showing up with loaded weapons, just in case–tipped off the prison staff.

For McNair, the consequence was a year of round-the-clock isolation (except for five hours in a recreation yard and five twenty-minute showers each week); meal trays shoved through a slot; no work assignment other than janitorial tasks on the A.S. tier. Early on, he wrote notes of apology to Warden Powers and his executive assistant and offered to have twenty dollars a month deducted from his spending account to pay for the damage he’d caused with the torch. If he imagined that contrition might lead to amnesty, he was disappointed. By the time he was allowed to return to the general population, in the spring of 1992, Powers had departed, and The Inside Times had suspended publication, which meant that McNair wouldn’t be in a position to spend a lot of face time with the new warden, Tim Schuetzle, who, in any event, was immune to his schmoozing skills. Still, the thwarted escape represented an opportunity to learn from his mistakes and refine his methodology. He was soon ready to try again.
The window nearest McNair’s cell in the isolation wing had offered a less than scenic view–a sliver of sky but mainly the roof of the adjacent education building, whose classrooms were a venue for college-level courses, Bible-study groups, Native American culture groups, and gatherings affiliated with outside organizations like the Jaycees. He would have focussed most intently upon the education building’s only promising fixture: a rectangular vent on the west wall.

In the early evening of October 9, 1992, McNair went to watch a film-well, not actually–in one of the classrooms with two other inmates, William Holland, a murderer doing a life sentence, and Rondal Heitsch, whose original fifteen-year term for attempted murder (with a ball-peen hammer) had been extended by three years after he’d participated in McNair’s foiled escape the year before. (It was Heitsch’s unfortunate girlfriend who’d agreed to drive the getaway car.) The room had windows with blinds that could be drawn when movies were shown. That night’s screening was “The Ten Commandments.” Perfect, McNair must have calculated: everyone in the joint either had watched it several times or had no desire to see it in the first place. Naturally, when questions were later asked, not a single convict acknowledged having been present. (Guards were patrolling the hallway, but not the room itself.) So, officially, no one witnessed McNair, Holland, and Heitsch as they removed a pair of acoustic tiles from the ceiling and broke through a vent. They subsequently crawled through ductwork, kicked out a security grate, and emerged from the vent on the side of the education building. No guard tower existed on that side of the prison, nor was it likely that a sentry in the east tower would spot them, because at that hour he would have been looking directly into the setting sun. The prisoners shimmied up a fencepost and dropped fifteen feet to the roof of the visitors’ room. Another fifteen-foot leap, a soft landing on a patch of lawn, no chain-link fence or razor-wire impediments, and they were off.

A captain, alerted by a guard inside the visitors’ room, looked out the front door of the administration building in time to see three men in a hurry, heading south, toward the Burlington Northern railroad tracks. Heitsch had twisted an ankle and was lagging behind. As McNair sprinted away, never looking back, it dawned on Heitsch that they were in this together only up to a point. Holland Was captured within three hours, Heitsch within two days. The searchers surmised that McNair had hopped a freight train, but in fact he left Bismarck by burglarizing a plumbing supplier and stealing a truck, which was later found in Arizona.

He stayed at large and on the move for nine months. He mailed notes to staff members at the prison. The messages weren’t explicitly taunting but had that effect anyway. Because he omitted a return address, no one wrote back to mention that a hacksaw blade had been found inside the laptop computer he’d left behind and another beneath the insole of one of his tennis shoes. At liberty, McNair enjoyed posing as a journalist (though not, one assumes, as a staff member, active or erstwhile, of The Inside Times). In West Virginia, where he insinuated himself into a group of guys who had gone to college together and were having an informal reunion, he explained that he’d come to the state on a magazine assignment to write about rural poverty. The magazine, he told them, was The New Yorker.

On July 5, 1993, he drove a Chevrolet van that had been stolen in Minnesota to the parking lot behind a car dealership in Grand Island, Nebraska. He broke a door lock to get inside the showroom, which was closed for the July 4th holiday weekend. He might have been planning to trade the van for a different vehicle, but he didn’t get that far. A manager of the dealership and his wife, who were passing by, told a police officer who was serendipitously cruising through the lot on a routine patrol that they’d spied an intruder. Cornered, McNair expended his best effort, as ever. He came out of the dealership, pointed west, shouted “He went that way!” and started running east. It was too cursory an encounter to charm the cop, who began a foot chase while radioing for backup. McNair zigged and zagged for several minutes, twice crossing a state highway, before he was apprehended. In his pockets were a handheld police scanner and an electric stun gun.
After spending three weeks in a Nebraska jail, McNair was extradited to North Dakota, where he became reacquainted with the mind-numbing customs of administrative segregation. A year had been added to his life sentence, but under the circumstances it didn’t make much difference: his latest adventure had virtually guaranteed that he’d be locked up for the rest of his existence. The question was where. North Dakota has agreements with other states and the federal government whereby prison authorities swap prisoners in a manner resembling player trades by sports franchises. (Ohio, say, sends three convenience-store robbers, two drug dealers, and a parole violator to Illinois in exchange for a couple of auto thieves, an arsonist, and a kidnapper.) While awaiting transfer, McNair burnished his reputation as a selective slow learner. His jailers in Nebraska had accused him of possessing escape materials–two pieces of wire that were considered contraband. Within a month of his return to North Dakota, Warden Schuetzle received a handwritten note from an inmate who reported that McNair had approached him (and, of all people, Rondal Heitsch) asking for help in obtaining hacksaw blades. A month after that, three thirty-inch pieces of wire were confiscated from the binding of a book (”1992 Writer’s Market”) in McNair’s cell. His escape-risk status was upgraded from “very high” to “extremely high,” and he was denied access to a computer. Finally, in March, 1994, he was moved to the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park. Heights, in Stillwater.

It took McNair seven years to wear out his welcome in Minnesota–or, maybe, for Minnesota to wear him out. He maintained habits that he’d acquired in Bismarck: he read, exercised rigorously, worked at various industrial jobs, wrote for the prison newspaper, and accumulated college credits (some for courses in criminal justice). At one point, he was officially cited for his “positive attitude”–an appraisal that evidently didn’t take into account his Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the manhunt following his escape. Which is to say that he made periodic stabs at reëscaping. In November, 1996, he lost his job after being caught trying to fabricate an identification card. Two and a half years later, he waived a hearing and pled guilty to possession of escape materials (a four-yard length of canvas, acrylic paints, gloves, shoe polish)–good for ninety days in solitary.

The severe constraints of Oak Park Heights, a super-maximum-security institution, forced McNair to reconsider his strategy. If he couldn’t break out, maybe he could render himself persona non grata. In 2001, he participated in a sit-down strike, an infraction deemed tantamount to inciting a riot, and his reward was a disciplinary transfer back to North Dakota. Not that North Dakota wanted him. Within weeks, he was on his way again, this time to the federal correctional complex in Florence, Colorado.

F.C.C. Florence has three main prisons: medium, high security, and supermax (a.k.a. ADX, a.k.a, the Alcatraz of the Rockies). Since the supermax opened, in 1994, it has housed many of the most notorious criminals in the country: Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Zacarias Moussaoui, the September 11th conspirator; Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers; Ramzi Yousef and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the 1993 World Trade Center bombers; Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, the Gambino family hit man and squealer. No one has ever escaped from a Florence prison.

No matter where McNair was imprisoned, the North Dakota Department of Corrections retained jurisdiction over him, which meant that out-of-state institutions would file occasional status reports. During his third year in Florence, a treatment counsellor recounted McNair’s successful participation in a twelve-month program called CODE (Challenge, Opportunity, Discipline, Ethics). Specifically, he had fulfilled the–no irony intended–”Living Free, Breaking Barriers and Commitment to Change portions of the program.” He’d also “completed journals on Personal Change, Rational Self-Counseling, Living with Others, Criminal Lifestyles, Relapse Prevention and Wellness.” After McNair’s escape last April in Louisiana, the Bureau of Prisons became extremely reticent about him and his history within the federal system. The inspector general of the Department of Justice, which oversees the B.O.P., is investigating the escape. One provocative question concerns whether prison officials were privy to rumors, allegedly circulated three months before McNair escaped, that he was planning to do just that. And how, exactly, did his transfer from Florence to Pollock come about? The official reason was that the move placed McNair closer to his family–in regulatory parlance, “nearer the release destination.” Perhaps; by car, Pollock is a hundred and twenty-five miles closer to Duncan, Oklahoma, than Florence is. What’s striking is the presumption that McNair would someday be released–hardly an imminent prospect. Given McNair’s history, the logical inference is that he recognized–first in Oak Park Heights, and then in Florence–that he was trapped in escape-proof cages. Arguably, he sprang himself from both (albeit in handcuffs and leg restraints), redefining “escape” to mean getting shipped somewhere, anywhere else, on the chance that the next destination would prove more porous. He arrived at Pollock from Florence in September, 2005, and, sure enough, within seven months he was on the loose, jogging down a train track.
For the same reason that last April 5th qualifies as the unluckiest day in Carl Bordelon’s twenty-year law-enforcement career, it was also probably his luckiest. Bordelon is one of five members of the police department in Ball, Louisiana, a semi-rural suburb in Rapides Parish, about halfway between the city of Alexandria and the much smaller town of Pollock. Shortly after four o’clock that afternoon, as Bordelon cruised through a railroad crossing, he saw a man running toward him wearing baggy cotton shorts, a white tank-top undershirt, cotton gloves, white socks, and tennis shoes.

That morning, McNair had reported to his job in the factory building at Pollock, where he earned forty-six cents an hour repairing U.S. Postal Service mailbags. Refurbished and inspected bags were neatly placed atop pallets, in stacks about four feet high. Each pallet was then shrink-wrapped, forklifted, and loaded onto a truck. In a meticulously wrought ploy reminiscent of “The Count of Monte Cristo”–one that might well have required an accomplice or two–McNair configured the cargo aboard one pallet so that he could hide in a cavity that, even after shrink-wrapping, allowed him to breathe, with the aid of a snorkel-like cardboard tube. Once the truck had moved the pallets to a warehouse on the prison property–but beyond the fence–he broke through the shrinkwrap and slipped away.

The guards at Pollock conduct multiple head counts a day, including five while prisoners are locked in their cells. On April 5th, McNair’s absence became apparent during a morning count, but police and sheriff’s departments in the vicinity didn’t begin receiving phone calls and faxes from the prison notifying them of the escape until almost two o’clock. At that hour, David Covington, the Ball police chief, gathered his staff and distributed copies of a one-sheet alert that included a pixellated, high-contrast, indistinct image of McNair and a rudimentary physical description. The mayor of Ball, Roy Hebron, who also attended the briefing, later said of the picture, “We all laughed about it looking like two or three different people we knew. I told ‘em not to go arrest a boy that worked for me just because he fit the description.” In search of a better photograph or new information, Covington drove to the prison, where an employee told him that nothing more was available, nor was it certain that McNair had even left the grounds. A little over an hour later, Officer Bordelon, with a copy of the fax in his car, began his conversation with McNair.

The dash-cam video recording of that incident has become an often watched offering on YouTube and similar Internet sites–the police released the video to a local television station-accompanied by viewer comments disparaging Bordelon’s professionalism. The general drift is that Barney Fife would have made the collar. It’s easy to imagine the recording being appropriated as police-training instructional material, a concise depiction of how to be bamboozled by a sociopath: cop stumbles upon fugitive, has good reason to take him into custody, yet, astonishingly, lets him go. Having watched it now more than twenty times, I find myself at moments talking back to the screen (”Hey! Carl! Eye on the ball!”) while inclined toward sympathy for Bordelon. Even more, I marvel at McNair’s ability to stay in character.

Before McNair steps into the frame, we see and hear Bordelon, a blond-going-gray fellow in his early forties, of average height and build, the hood of his car in the foreground, a forked road and an approaching pickup truck in the background: “You live around here, buddy?”

“Nope,” McNair says, as his hand, holding a bottle of what looks like an energy drink, and then the rest of him–lean and athletic–comes into view.

“Where you live at?”

“Down the road, by, uh, Pineville.”

“Pineville? O.K., do you have any form of identification on you?”

They’re standing about three feet apart. McNair says, “No, man.”

“What’s your name?”

“Robert Jones.”

“Robert Jones?”

“Why? Am I not supposed to be on the tracks?”

“No, that’s not the problem right now. What’s your address?”

“I don’t have an address. I’m at the hotel. We’re working on, uh, houses and stuff like that, and roofing.” He sips from his bottle.

“Roofing?” Bordelon says, flipping away a lit cigarette.



“For my brother.”

“All right. Um, what it is, we’ve got an escapee.”

“Oh, shit,” McNair says, shaking his head empathically–as if Bordelon had just told him he has a couple of flat tires–and eliciting from the cop an involuntary chuckle. “Where from?”

“A prison.”

“There’s a prison here?”

McNair looks down the tracks toward where’s he just come from, sips again, swings his arms, stays loose. Forty-five seconds have gone by, and, for a guy carrying no identification, with no address and a patently made-up name, he has acquitted himself shrewdly. As the interrogation progresses, he never loses his poise, never threatens, never protests too much. Meanwhile, Bordelon never catches on and never catches up. (”Pineville.” “Pineville?” “Robert Jones.” “Robert Jones?” “Roofing.” “Roofing?”) In Oklahoma, McNair’s native inflection and idiom were basically the same as in Texas, Arkansas, and central Louisiana. Prison authorities describe McNair as articulate and precise about grammar. With Bordelon, his diction is pure chameleon ole-boy–”supposed” is “spozed,” “Pineville” is “Ponville,” “where from” is “wur frum”–and his body language is that of an innocent, pleased-to-meetyuh out-of-towner.

On a cell phone, Bordelon calls the sheriff’s office of a neighboring parish, hoping for a more detailed description of McNair.

“Hey, this is Carl… Subject wear glasses? … Nothing about glasses… Can you find out? I’m out with a white male on the tracks.”

Bordelon inspects McNair’s hands for tattoos (”Naw, he’s clean,” he tells the dispatcher); McNair volunteers his age (”Jesus, I’m fifty years old”), adding three years to the truth; Bordelon asks McNair his eye color without getting quite dose enough to see for himself, eliciting the “turquoise” response.

“Want to give me some more?” Bordelon says to the dispatcher, chuckling again, betraying his ambivalence; he both does and doesn’t want the man standing next to him–now pacing in a relaxed fashion, looking down, extending his arms, then letting them hang at his sides–to be a murderer.

“Call my little brother, man,” McNair suggests.

Bordelon listens to the dispatcher for about a minute. Then: “No, short short hair. My guy’s got skin-cut hair. He’s got a beard, well, uh, goatee-like… How old’s that picture?” Another chuckle. “Yeah, I know, I got the same thing. You can’t see shit on it.”

McNair now understands that neither the cop nor the dispatcher really knows what he looks like. Wrapping up the phone call, Bordelon all but capitulates. “O.K., let me just verify. He says his brother’s staying at the motel. Let me verify that and, if so, I’ll just cut him loose.”

McNAIR: “I guarantee you I’m not…”

BORDELON: “You know the bad thing about it?”

“What’s that?”

“You’re matching up to him.” (Chuckle.)

“That sucks, doesn’t it.” McNair says, as if discussing a third party.


Bordelon proceeds to ask purposeful questions–”Where you staying at? Who y’all work for?”–but doesn’t quite process the replies.

McNair places his hotel in “Titusville. Titus Inn … little ole, little ole town.” In fact, the hotel and the town are so little they’re invisible; McNair has conjured them.

“Where’s that at?” Bordelon asks, but doesn’t follow through. He seems to have lost interest in the phantom little brother. The dialogue turns almost desultory–McNair’s jogging routine, working conditions for roofers.

BORDELON: “Um, where you from?”

McNAIR: “Where originally? Dallas, Texas.” (A judicious grace note: Dallas, Texas–definitive, coöperative.)

BORDELON: “I mean, that’s where y’all stay?” (You still awake, Carl?)

“That’s where we’re out of.”

“Out of Dallas, Texas? What’s your name again?”

“Jimmy Jones.” (Wait. Hold everything. Five minutes ago he was Robert Jones. Unholster your gun, Barney! Get him down on the ground! Slap the cuffs on him! … Oh, never mind. You two are old pals by now.)

McNair opens his arms wide, palms up, tilts his head pleadingly. And somehow Bordelon becomes defensive, apologetic: “Put yourself in my position.”

McNAIR: “Well, yeah, but I’m not…”

BORDELON: “I know. I’m not. I’m not. I’m not throwing you against…”

McNAIR: “I’m not no prison escapee.”

BORDELON: “Hey, you wouldn’t believe what them guys do. I mean, they got years and years to think about how they gonna do it. When I crossed the tracks down there I saw you running I said, ‘Well, how lucky can I be?’”

McNAIR: “Nope nope nope nope. I’m not no prison escapee.”

After another exchange about McNair’s fictitious “little ole tiny hotel,” he’s back to “I promise you I’m not no damn prison escapee.”

“You’da done run by now,” Bordelon says, and they share a laugh. “You know that yourself. You’da done run by now.”

Game, set, match.
A charitable interpretation of this episode is that Bordelon inadvertently saved his own life. Had he been more aggressive or skeptical, McNair might well have reacted violently; one man wore a gun, but the other was plainly in a superior state of readiness. “I think he was really lucky,” Lieutenant Clay Brister, of the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Department, said of Bordelon. “Knowing what I know now about McNair, I think he would’ve killed him. He’s just a cool, calm guy. He used everything to his advantage.” (During the consequent inconvenience–the most ambitious manhunt in memory in that part of Louisiana-Brister was a field commander.) Within twenty minutes of assuring McNair that he’d be on duty “till we find this son of a gun,” Bordelon, back in his patrol car, happened upon a pair of B.O.P. employees, told them about his conversation, showed them the tape, and–dang.

For the next two weeks, a mobile command center operated out of a Wal-Mart parking lot. A hundred and fifty law-enforcement officers were deployed, including municipal police, deputy sheriffs, SWAT units, Louisiana State Police, and U.S. Marshals, plus U.S. Forest Service personnel. Roads closed, traffic jammed, unsolicited volunteers materialized, cars were searched, helicopters swarmed, boats patrolled the Red River and Bayou Rigolet. Teams on foot and on horseback or riding all-terrain vehicles scoured the railroad rights-of-way and combed the woods, a bonanza for the resident mosquitoes. Children were kept indoors, windows were nailed shut. The Marshals Service placed McNair on its “15 Most Wanted” list, and a twenty-five-thousand-dollar reward was offered. A car got burglarized here, someone broke into a trailer and stole food and clothing there, laundry vanished from a clothesline, and the ensuing buzz made McNair’s capture seem at hand, despite the likelihood that he had long since left the vicinity. Bloodhounds had lost his scent the first day, about a mile from the railroad crossing. No matter–fevered McNair sightings accumulated at a rate that would have amused Elvis. In the end, the last citizen of Louisiana–and, for that matter, the United States–to lay eyes definitively on Richard McNair was the outfoxed Officer Bordelon.

McNair was next heard from, in a manner of speaking, ten days after the escape: a letter bearing a Corpus Christi postmark reached his mother, in Oklahoma. She shared it with the U.S. Marshals, and, for several days, the focus of the manhunt shifted to South Texas. Once McNair’s name found its way into the headlines there, more imaginary sightings proliferated–at a McDonald’s on South Padre Island (where McNair, in his letter, had said he was hiding out); on a street in Brownsville; in a bar in San Antonio. Brownsville, on the Rio Grande, made sense if you believed that McNair had gone to Mexico, which the letter to his mother indicated that he planned to do. What made even more sense–what, predictably, turned out to be the case–was that the South Texas hubbub was a diversion, an echt-McNair maneuver. (”He went that way!”) Hadn’t he spent eighteen years working on his game?

Whatever he learned along the way has, thus far, given him more leverage than any intelligence the U.S. Marshals gathered when they went to McNair’s home town to try to get a fix on whom, exactly, they were looking for. McNair wouldn’t qualify as the most celebrated son or daughter of Duncan, Oklahoma (those distinctions belong to the filmmaker Ron Howard and the former Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick), but, thanks to his recurring appearances on the Fox television series “America’s Most Wanted,” he’s the leading candidate for most notorious. Except that no one there has much to say about him. The Duncan Banner, a daily, devoted a hundred and thirty-one words to his escape, including this elliptical reference: “McNair reportedly has family living in the Duncan area.”

The family–Rick, as he was called, was the oldest of the four McNair boys–moved to Duncan from Altus, ninety miles to the west, during the sixties, when he was in grade school. His father, Jim, managed a jewelry store downtown, and his mother, Willene, babysat for preschoolers in the family’s home, a modest brick tract house in an other-side-of-the-tracks quarter of an unassuming little city. (Duncan, population twenty-two thousand, owes its existence mainly to the oil boom that hit in the early nineteen-twenties, when what eventually became the Halliburton Company set up shop there as an oil-well-servicing contractor, decades before it moved its headquarters to Texas.) The McNairs were well regarded (”real good people,” one business owner told me); they were churchgoers in a community with a remarkable abundance of churches, and civically active. (Jim has spent many years as an auxiliary policeman.) Today, the McNair name is known mainly because two of Rick’s brothers operate a tire business and a small used-car lot at the north end of town. In the eighties, Jim and Willene divorced, and she stayed on in the house. When I knocked on the front door early last summer, a car was parked in the driveway, but no one responded. When I later phoned, Willene said that she didn’t want to talk. Her former husband was equally unforthcoming. One of Rick’s brothers politely told me, “It’s been twenty-five years since he left here. People here don’t even know we’re related. And this is just stirring the pot.”

The Duncan High School yearbook for 1977, McNair’s senior year, lists no extracurricular activities for him. The only photograph other than his graduation portrait shows him at a flower shop, then owned by a woman named Carole Brymer, where he had an after-school job. It was Mrs. Brymer, now retired and living in Oklahoma City, who recalled for me his “outgoing, lovable personality.” The most detailed lode of biographical information I came across was a report from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to the North Dakota Bureau of Investigation in the spring of 1988, when McNair was being held in the Ward County Jail. According to the report, McNair, while still in high school, was a d.j. at a local radio station. In both Duncan and Edmond, an exurb of Oklahoma City, he sold new cars for various dealerships (and learned things about automobiles that no doubt came in handy later, whenever he needed to steal one). For a couple of years, he attended a state college in Edmond. At twenty-one, he married a woman three years younger who lived across the street and had also worked at the flower shop. The marriage lasted a year and a half. His ex-wife bore him no animosity. Though they often fought, he never hit her. (”She described him as a good husband,” the investigator wrote.) He liked guns. Occasionally, he would browse in a pawnshop, and he once bought a small pistol. As a boy, he’d learned from his father how to shoot, first with a .22 and then with a .38. The teen-age McNair “never had any problems with the law,” his ex-wife stated, a symptom either of forgetfulness or obliviousness. Similarly, Mrs. Brymer told me that “Rick had never been in any trouble that I knew of, and in Duncan you’d hear those things.”

Unless you didn’t. During his senior year in high school, after he and a cohort stole a siren and a red light from the car of an auxiliary cop named Tiny Duvall, McNair was charged with burglary. Another time, they stole a car in a nearby town, brought it to Duncan, and burned it. He was a suspect in the theft of a safe and a truck from a utility company; despite ample evidence, the local district attorney didn’t file charges. The sum of these transgressions sounds like an advanced case of juvenile delinquency, mitigated in the eyes of prosecutors, perhaps, by the delinquent’s affable persona and ostensible capacity for shame. (McNair’s ex-wife recalled that he described the auto-theft-and-arson stunt “as something stupid that he should not have done, and added that it was wrong.”)

How to extrapolate from these relatively minor offenses to serial burglary-for-the-hell-of-it and impulsive, cold-blooded murder? McNair’s subsequent behavior suggests that what he really thought was wrong was getting caught. When that happened, it surely made Duncan seem even smaller than it was. (A life defined by confinement: a town where too many people know your secrets, a premature marriage, a seven-by-ten cell? Not at all what he had in mind.) Enlisting in the military, which he did soon after his divorce, offered an expeditious way to leave a place and a past behind. During the years before he became a killer, his return visits were infrequent. Now it would logically be the last place on his itinerary from Louisiana to wherever he was headed next. Someone in Duncan who knew the family well assured me that if he came to town they’d “do the right thing” and “turn him in.”
By the time I visited Duncan, I believed that I knew where McNair was as well as anyone (except McNair himself). The previous week, I’d flown to Vancouver, British Columbia, rented a car, and driven away from the coast, toward the Rockies. Just east of Vancouver I passed through Surrey, a suburb where, on April 20th–five days after the postmark date of the letter mailed to McNair’s mother from Corpus Christi–he had stolen a Pontiac Grand Am. Eight days later, he was parked in a cul-de-sac on the shore of Skaha Lake, in the town of Penticton, in the Okanagan Valley. The car had license plates that he’d stolen in Kamloops, a hundred and fifty miles to the northwest. I drove five hours, through the Lillooet Range, expecting Penticton to be an outpost in wild, inhospitable terrain, and found instead a busy, densely settled tourist destination, popular with retirees (and that particular weekend-hmm–a convention of Elvis impersonators), in a rich agricultural region: apple, peach, apricot, and cherry orchards, and fields of strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. The Okanagan Valley (”Canada’s Napa”) is a temperate glacial basin that runs north-south and extends into Washington State. The nearest border station is on its main artery, Highway 97, at Osoyoos, British Columbia-Oroville, Washington, an hour away. (In the opposite direction, Highway 97 eventually becomes the Alaska Highway.) Wherever McNair had crossed into Canada, he’d almost certainly done so by hiking through the bush.

At 10 P.M. on April 28th, two members of a citizens’ patrol, swinging through a parking lot next to a sandy lakeside beach and a paved walkway, saw the Grand Am, punched its license number into their Palm Pilot, learned that it was stolen, and notified the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Two Mounties arrived and approached the car; a man was inside and they asked him to step out. Within seconds, McNair took off running. It was dark, and the lodgepole pines and cedars along the shore provided cover. A police dog helped with the search, but McNair was McNair. A more intensive hunt wasn’t mustered because the Mounties assumed that they were dealing with nothing more than a fleet-footed middle-aged car thief. They impounded the vehicle.

The next night, one of the officers happened to watch that week’s installment of “America’s Most Wanted” and recognized McNair. Time to take a much closer look at the Grand Am. Inside, the R.C.M.P. found three laptop computers (two stolen, one paid for), Canadian currency, receipts that delineated the path of McNair’s travels, fingerprints, and a digital camera storing head shots of a clean-shaven McNair–perfect for a fake I.D. They also found a cell phone that McNair had bought using the name Tim Schuetzle (the North Dakota warden). It took a week for a forensic lab to confirm that the fingerprints–copies of which it had received from the U.S. Marshals–were his. Bulletins about McNair were sent to the Canadian media and posted on the R.C.M.P. Web site. Again, sightings multiplied, all over the map. A surveillance camera in a Wal-Mart in Penticton had recorded a clear image of McNair. More speculative reports came from Bella Coola (nearly six hundred miles to the northwest) and Anahim Lake (not far from Bella Coola). That same week in late May, a difficult-to-reconcile alleged sighting originated near Kananaskis, Alberta, three hundred and fifty miles to the east. Glenn Belgard, a deputy U.S. Marshal in Louisiana, said, “We’re looking for Santa Claus, but if we see a man in a red suit with a sleigh and reindeer we’re not going to say it’s him until we’re sure beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Michelle Sigona, a correspondent for “America’s Most Wanted” who has followed the McNair case, told me in midsummer that she had accumulated a six-inch-thick file of tips from viewers, all of which she’d shared with Belgard and the R.C.M.P. “I look at the details in the tips,” she said. “People say they’re a hundred and ten per cent sure that this was a great sighting. Some are very genetic and they give theories. But we’ve gotten a lot of tips that I think look good from people who truly believe they’ve seen him.”

What the Canadian sightings have in common is that, in each locale, the coming winter will be far less tolerable than in the Okanagan Valley. Hypothetically, the easiest place to hide out in North America might be the Yukon Territory; the farther north you go, the fewer questions get asked–the upside of frostbite. Explaining the low crime rate in North Dakota, Vern Erck, the sheriff of Ward County and the lead investigator of McNair’s original crimes, said, “We have a saying: ‘Forty below keeps the riffraff out.’” Which suggests that before McNair was fingered in pleasant Penticton he might well have been planning to stick around.

After McNair’s most recent escape, Sheriff Erck received a visit from an Air Force veteran named Ray Miller, who, after a varied career, now has a civilian job at Minot Air Force Base. Miller recounted to Erck–and later to me–his experiences with McNair, whom he thought he’d known well until the instant it became obvious that he didn’t know him at all. He recalled being astounded by the news of McNair’s arrest in 1988. They’d been working together for a few months and had immediately become, in Miller’s mind, friends.

“He was the nicest kid,” he said. “He was so much fun to be around. We’d go to lunch, joke around. I invited him to the house, but I don’t think he ever came. I’ve been a high-school teacher for about eight years, and I have never, with the exception of two other students, felt that somebody had as high an intellect as him. I’ve been wrong about people, but I can’t quite believe I would be that wrong. This was the biggest what-the-heck in my life. ‘Come on over, meet the wife and kids…’ You don’t invite somebody over if you think they’re gonna kill your family. So I was mistaken. His whole relationship with me was a lie. But he was that good at being a multiple personality. It’s as if he picks up on what you’re thinking and becomes what you want him to be.”

For a couple of years, while a student at Minor State University, in the early nineties, Miller drove a grain truck part time and made pickups, for delivery to the Twin Cities, from the Farmers Union elevator: “When I loaded over there, I would always think–every time–Yep. Hey, that could have been me. Thinking about him lately, I come back to that. I couldn’t believe that someone who was that great a guy could do what he did. Then I have to ask: what was real?

“When he got away this last time, I realized they’re never gonna catch him. Because he’s so good. He can become someone completely different than who he was. The way he wins is by not being caught. At the same time, he has nothing to lose–he’s only going to wind up in the same spot as before. It’s like when you’re playing blackjack and you’re ahead, so now you’re playing with the house’s money. You can split some crazy cards. And when you do that crazy stuff you usually win.”


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