This wily murderer knows no bounds

June 10, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

Refurbished bags 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 outside the prison walls.

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

And he was free again.

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 Supermax in Florence, Colo.

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

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

"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 from the prison.

Several weeks later, he jumped from a stolen car and ran off after the Mounties pulled him over in northwest Canada. Inside was a digital camera full of photos he'd taken of himself, along with a travelogue of sites he'd visited.

He was caught on video in April at a honky-tonk in San Antonio, sipping a beer. And he mailed, or had someone else mail, a letter to his mother. It was postmarked Corpus Christi, Texas.

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 is that he once worked in law enforcement. He is so methodical he used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the FBI records on his last escape so he could study how authorities tracked him.

The county prosecutor in Minot, N.D., John Van Grinsven, said, "If you were to meet him, you'd probably like him. But there is a dark side."

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

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

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.

"I thought I was a goner, you betcha," Kitzman said.

McNair did not want to leave the trucker as a possible witness. So he reloaded the revolver, hurried outside, 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 before being cornered.

Awaiting trial in 1988 in the county jail in Minot, he hustled up a hammer and flashlight and began loosening two cinderblocks in his cell before being spotted.

McNair pleaded guilty to the shootings and received two life sentences.

In 1988, he was dispatched to North Dakota's maximum-security prison in Bismarck. Three years later, McNair was about to bust out again before another inmate snitched on him.

A year later, he pulled off the escape - crawling through another ventilation chute. 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, a stun gun and a police scanner.

With each escape and each attempt, McNair received more prison time. Under a prisoner exchange program, North Dakota Prison Warden Tim Schuetzle 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 in September and was assigned to the prison shop in December. "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."

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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