The man is a convicted murderer, yes, but if there’s a label that Richard Lee McNair also earned, it’s that of an escape artist. McNair has proved his extraordinary ability to escape from prison, making himself more notorious than the crimes that put him in there in the first place. He escaped from prison not once, not twice, but three times. That alone is impressive. But what makes it all the more interesting is the way he managed to pull each escape off.
Using different devices and methods each time and in different prisons, the convict used everything from lip balm to air ducts to mailbags. McNair was featured on America’s Most Wanted 12 times and made the U.S. Marshals’ Top 15 fugitive list. He managed to make a run for it, which even lasted for a year, but it all came to an end when none other than a Canadian cop caught on to him.
This is Richard Lee McNair’s story…
On the night of November 17, 1987, in Minot, North Dakota, 29-year-old Richard Lee McNair broke into a building that stored grain intending to rob it. But the burglary was botched when two men came out of nowhere. One of them, truck driver Jerome Thies, was shot and killed by McNair. He also shot at the second man, Richard Kitzman, all but four times, but he somehow managed to survive.
McNair, who was, at the time, a sergeant at the local Air Force Base, was eventually found and brought in for questioning by the police. He surrendered a concealed handgun, and in no time, he was sentenced to two life sentences on the charges of murder and attempted murder. Oh, and that’s on top of the 30-year sentence for the burglary alone.
But how did he get caught?
To give you a bit of the bigger picture, the murder of Jerome Thies was one of only two homicides in the area that year, and one of only 11 that year in North Dakota. After the murder, the authorities used Kitzman’s description of McNair to search for him and offered an eighteen-thousand-dollar reward for any information.
Three months after the murder, in February 1988, less than a week before he would have completed his tour of duty, he was caught. He carelessly fell behind on his rent to a storage facility where, under a fake name, he stashed his stolen goods. The manager of the facility contacted the police and the airbase’s security force, telling them that her storage-facility customer matched Kitzman’s description of the killer.
It turns out that McNair wasn’t too worried about being pinpointed. An Air Force captain said how McNair joked around, saying, “The drawing looks like me, so you should turn me in, and we can split the reward money.” Strangely enough, about a year before he began started “working” as a burglar, he even volunteered as a confidential informant who would set up “buy-and-bust” drug arrests.
Most people who met Richard McNair found find him likable; engaging, chatty, and relaxed. When he was younger, women were drawn to him because he was good-looking, tall, thin, and well-groomed. But he would change his looks as quickly as he would change his jeans – hair, glasses, clothes, etc. The man is a master of disguise.
Not only were his constant physical appearance changes an indicator of his abilities, but so were his intelligence and powers of observation. His father, Jim, said, “Anything he wants to do, he would figure out.” But despite being quick and clever, McNair never lived a professional life. He’s been incarcerated for nearly four decades in various states and federal prisons.
Now, when you combine a clever criminal with a faulty prison system, you get a man who escapes – more than once. McNair wasn’t planning on just surrendering and living the rest of his life in prison. He accepted being arrested and put away because he knew what he was going to do. It wasn’t long after his incarceration that he made his first escape…
McNair’s first escape was relatively modest. It came right after his first arrest while still at the Minot police station. He was in a room with three detectives and handcuffed to a chair. He had a tube of lip balm in his pocket. McNair used the lip balm as a lubricant to grease his hands enough to slip out of the handcuffs when he was left alone.
He managed to get out of the building and make a run for it. But he didn’t get too far. He was gone for three hours before the police caught him after McNair ran up three flights of stairs and found himself surrounded by cops. They were at the top of a building, with no other escape routes in sight.
McNair jumped into a tree, but the branch broke, and McNair fell to the ground, injuring his back. After some time in the hospital, he was sent to the Ward County Jail. McNair was going to sit in jail, but it was only a matter of time until he planned his next escape. After he was moved into a new cell that same year, he was found working on something.
The jail’s authorities found McNair chiseling away at two of the concrete blocks in the walls of his jail cell. A portion of those blocks was completely gone. But, his plan didn’t go as smoothly as he would have liked because he was caught in the middle of the process. It would be another four years before executed escape number two.
In October of 1992, when Richard Lee McNair was serving time in a state prison in Bismarck, North Dakota, McNair escaped again. But this time, he had company. He and two other inmates slipped out through a ventilation duct. After crawling out, he was on the loose. While McNair wasn’t caught for months, his fellow escapees didn’t fare as well.
One of them was found within hours, and the other within days. McNair, on the other hand, managed to evade the police for the next ten months. While on the run, he dyed his hair blond and grew a beard and long hair. He also stole cars to survive and travel. But by August of 1993 was he recaptured in Grand Island, Nebraska.
This time, the authorities didn’t want to take any more chances. So, they sent him to a Federal Prison, where he was labeled as a “problem inmate.” McNair was sent to a maximum-security prison in Louisiana. As an inmate, McNair was put to work. But little did the wardens realize that McNair was a true escape artist.
He was given the job of repairing torn mailbags in order for them to be shipped out to external post offices for use. This, for any other prisoner, was a tedious and boring job. But for Richard Le McNair, it was an opportunity and the setting of his next escape plan.
It took McNair a bit longer to plan his next escape, which we can just go ahead and call it “The Great Escape.” It would be 13 years since his last escape, but on April 5, 2006, he was on the run again. And it took him some real-time and dedication to get it just right. This time, it was going to take more than just lip balm and some ventilation units.
On April 5, at 9.45 a.m., underneath a pile of repaired mailbags on a pallet that was destined for the outside, McNair lay hidden inside a kind of escape pod out of the materials available to him. Equipped with a breathing tube pushed through a hole, McNair’s make-shift mailbag was about to literally ship him out of prison.
McNair hid in the mailbag until a forklift carried the pallet (which was shrink-wrapped) to a warehouse outside of the prison. But McNair had to wait for a good time to get out. He waited until around 11 a.m., when the warehouse staff left for lunch, to cut himself out of the package and walked to freedom.
He timed the escape well, knowing that it would only be 4 p.m. by the time anyone would even realize that he escaped. Once he was out, he was literally on the run – he jogged towards Alexandria, Louisiana, and stole a car and all the things he needed to make it on the run. But what’s even more incredible was what happened after.
After a few hours on the run, he was nearly captured when he was spotted by a cop named Carl Bordelon. He was parked in Ball, Louisiana, and saw McNair jogging. Knowing that there a prisoner had just escaped nearby, Bordelon stopped him. His dashboard camera captured the whole exchange with McNair, who was completely relaxed and friendly.
Despite the fact that he had no ID on him and even fit the description of the escapee, McNair was able to talk his way out of it. He told Bordelon that his name was “Robert Jones” and that he was just out for a jog. But Bordelon didn’t notice when Richard slipped up and gave him another name just a few minutes later.
McNair slipped and said his name was “Jimmy Jones,” but the officer didn’t notice. “You know the bad thing about it, you’re matching up to him,” Bordelon said. “Well, that sucks, doesn’t it,” McNair responded. McNair convinced him that he was staying at a local hotel and that he was doing some roofing work in the area.
The officer believed his story and simply advised him to carry ID on him next time. The cop and the prison escapee then shared a laugh before Bordelon said, “Be careful buddy,” and McNair continued on his jog to freedom. And just like that, the man talked his way out of a near recapture.
By the time this officer realized who he just had an encounter with, McNair was miles away. According to Bordelon, the description of McNair didn’t actually look anything like him in person. Despite this embarrassing mishap, Bordelon stayed in the police force for the rest of his life and even worked his way up to assistant police chief.
Eight days later, McNair was still out there, roaming the country in stolen cars and a different appearance. By April 13, 2006, he joined the list of the country’s 15 Most Wanted criminals. He also became the first person to escape a federal prison in 15 years. In the wake of his third escape, the bulletins noted that he was “extremely dangerous.”
For the following two weeks, authorities set up a mobile command center operated in a Wal-Mart parking lot. 150 officers were deployed, including cops, sheriffs, SWAT units, State Police, and U.S. Marshals. Roads were closed, traffic was jammed, cars were searched, helicopters swarmed, and boats patrolled the Red River and Bayou Rigolet.
Children were kept indoors, and windows were nailed shut. Bloodhounds lost his scent on the first day, a mile from the railroad crossing. McNair was now a fugitive, and a $25,000 reward was announced. Tons of McNair sightings were piling up. In the end, the last person who laid eyes on Richard Lee McNair was the outwitted, and surely embarrassed, Officer Bordelon.
McNair was heard from, however, as soon as ten days after his escape. A letter with a Corpus Christi postmark reached his mother in Oklahoma. She ended up telling the authorities, and, for several days, the manhunt shifted to South Texas. Once McNair’s name made to news headlines there, even more, imaginary sightings accumulated.
McNair was the kind of criminal that “would steal your car and sell it back to you, and you’d think you’ve got a hell of a deal,” a detective named Mike Knoop said. “Those kinds 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.” But really, in McNair’s case, it’s more like catch-me-if-you-can-and-then-catch-me-again.
Patrick Branson, a deputy warden at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, where McNair spent almost five years and escaped from in 1992, said: “The problem with McNair is that he doesn’t really fit any inmate mold. That’s what makes him such a high risk.” McNair stands out among the rest because of his “fixation on escaping.”
Branson explained once McNair is captured, sent to the nearest jail, put in restraints, and into the police car – from step No. 1, his mind is working. He’s thinking, ‘How do I get out of these cuffs or this car?’ And ‘What’s the weak spot in this facility?’ From the moment he arrives at a new facility, he’s thinking about escaping.
McNair was on the loose for a year and a half. Two weeks after his escape, he left Washington and entered Canada through the province of British Columbia. On April 28, the fugitive was almost caught again when police found his car, which was obviously stolen, parked at the beach. When he was told to get out of the vehicle, McNair just leaped out and ran away.
The officers didn’t catch up to him. A few days later, one of the police officers saw McNair’s face on ‘America’s Most Wanted.’ But what they did was mark the stolen car for fingerprints, also finding dozens of self-portraits on a digital camera. They figured that they were probably being used to create fake identity cards.
Despite the close call, McNair chose to stay in Canada. He rode a bike into Kelowna, a town in British Columbia. From May 2006, he would go back and forth between the US and Canada, stealing cars to get around. McNair later revealed that he had originally planned to buy a property in Williston Lake, but didn’t like the solitary road that led in and out of the property.
There were no possible escape routes, which was something of a necessity at this point in his prison escaping career. He made his way around America and back to Canada, where he traveled east to Ontario and Quebec, and then back west to Vancouver. And it was in New Brunswick, Canada, that he came across the police again.
While on the run, McNair used the internet to see the coverage of himself in the media. ‘America’s Most Wanted’ was particularly problematic for the fugitive because it featured him all 12 times. Whenever the show aired, McNair would stock up on supplies and gasoline and lay low for a while. After each episode that he was featured on, viewers would call in to say that they saw McNair.
But he always managed to remain hidden. He used a number of laptops to create fake IDs, including a false driver’s license. McNair also drew on his background, working in a car showroom to steal money and cars. He would typically choose brand new white cars without GPS. Why? Because they blended in easily and couldn’t be tracked.
Ultimately, it was McNair’s DIY tinted rear windows on one of his brand new stolen cars that finally gave him away. After an off-duty constable named Dan Melanson reported the vehicle. He said he spotted an expensive-looking white van with Ontario plates and “crappy-looking” tinted windows. He noted the plate number and the police in Nash Creek, New Brunswick, were on high alert.
On October 24, 2007, McNair was caught 100 miles north of the American border in Campbellton, New Brunswick, driving a stolen truck. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that McNair tried to make a run for it, but he was tackled to the ground. America’s most wanted fugitive was finally arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
McNair was then returned to the U.S. Meanwhile, the American authorities wanted to make sure that this time, they hung onto their man. So they placed him in the Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado. The prison, which is also known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies, has a guest list of notorious criminals.
Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, and “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid are all prisoners there. Richard Lee McNair is now serving time in a tiny cell in what is considered to be the most secure prison in America. He spends the entire day (except for a short solitary exercise period outside) in a 12×7 foot cell made entirely of concrete. His only human contact is with prison guards, filtered by steel and bulletproof glass.
But it doesn’t end there…
According to McNair himself, his capture was simply a case of bad luck. Apparently, the man was even cheery when he was finally captured. McNair never answered any questions from the media until a crime reporter named Byron Christopher came around. A year after his arrest, in late 2008, Christopher (from the same New Brunswick town that McNair was found) decided to write to the famous prisoner.
Intrigued, the reporter first wrote to McNair, thanking him for making his hometown famous and sharing the latest news. McNair’s reply, which was published in the local press, spoke of how much he enjoyed New Brunswick and its residents. The two became unlikely pen pals, writing to each other frequently.
McNair’s first letter to Christopher showed just how intelligent and charming he was – just as police described him to be. Christopher kept him up to date on the recently completed World Series and the U.S. election (even asking him if he had voted). It turns out that voting in U.S. federal prisons is allowed in only a few states.
McNair wrote about some of his restrictions, telling his pen pal that he would have to wait three years before he could even get to a phone. He seemed receptive to further Christopher’s questions. As he put it: “I have more questions than George Bush in a sex shop.” Byron and McNair continued to write to each other.
Christopher eventually gathered enough details from all of McNair’s letters to write a book about his time on the run. The correspondence between the two showed McNair in a rather upbeat and generous mood, and despite his ability to learn about the real world being “minimal and very restrictive.”
He has no internet access in prison, but he does get any print-outs that are sent to him. In his first letter to McNair, Christopher mentioned the high-profile criminals in that prison. When McNair wrote back, he said he never got the list of prisoners as it was seized by the authorities. He also added he doesn’t care about 90% of the people there. “Thank God for prisons,” he wrote. “There are some very sick people in here.”
McNair described the kind of people he is surrounded by: “Animals you would never want living near your family or the public in general… I don’t know how corrections staff deal with it. They get spit on, sh*t on, abused, and I have seen them risk their own lives and save a prisoner many times.” Unlike his fellow inmates, he prides himself on his gentle nature.
“[I] am very proud that at no time did I hurt anyone (physically) while on the run. Promised myself that no matter what – would not raise a hand to anyone.” McNair told Christopher that there’s only one other reporter that he wished to share his story with: a British TV journalist. However, the interview never took place.
According to McNair, the authorities nixed it – that he’s being closely watched. In March 2009, McNair wrote a third 22-page to Christopher revealing even more about his life on the run. The letter basically served as a manual on how to escape law enforcement while keeping tabs on their efforts.
Christopher took this informative letter and detailed the highlights of in a story for KALB News Channel 5 (the NBC/CBS affiliate in Alexandria, Louisiana). McNair revealed in his letter that just before he ran into Bordelon (the cop who found him jogging and let him go), he stashed “food, clothes, water, etc.” under a train stand. He wrote that he “Jogged along the tracks not really seeing the cruiser because the trees paralleling the tracks blocked it.”
“My plan was to get back in the trees if he (Bordelon) truly confronted me.” McNair said he was worried that while the officer was chatting with him, that backup was on its way. But that wasn’t the case. He admitted that at that moment, he got a “get out of jail free card.” His reaction to talking his way out of it: “relief, disbelief, and bewilderment.”
McNair knew that “the trail would get hot again” as soon as Bordelon realized the huge mistake they just made. McNair also pointed out that there were things that actually went in his favor. Like the photo of him that the police used was, as Bordelon said, not representative of him in real life.
After he was chased after the cops found him in his car in British Columbia, he fled into a forest. “After the incident in Penticton, rode a bike to Kelowna. Not a bad view, but a bit concerned about Mounties looking for me. Later learned I was safe.” What he didn’t know, though, was that the Mounties didn’t know that the man they had just chased was THE Richard Lee McNair.
McNair disclosed that he snuck back into the United States more than once. “Drove a Subaru Outback from Vernon to the border at Blane, Washington, and crossed into the U.S. on bike.” He said he panned for gold somewhere near the border, in a town about 300 miles north of Vancouver. But all he found was dust.
McNair, a former car salesman, said he only stole vehicles from auto dealers, and always checked buyer information stickers on the windows to see if a GPS-type tracking device was installed. He recalled a time when he was driving in his white van through the Canadian Rockies, and the cars ahead of him came to a sudden stop. He feared it was a roadblock.
But it turned out that some tourists pulled over to get pictures of “some beautiful rams lazily chewing their cud.” McNair also took photos of the rams, and then went fishing. When he wasn’t behind the wheel of a car, he was on his mountain bike. He traveled everywhere on his bike, especially through Jasper and, later, through Quebec.
McNair recalled the day he was finally captured, which followed a low-speed car chase and an even slower foot chase. “I just turned left instead of right, and an observant officer got me. Just one of those days.” Canadian Mounties told reporters that McNair was actually very co-operative and even joked with them.
McNair told Christopher that one of the officers wanted to know what the reward was for him. McNair told him: “25,000. To which the cop said: “That’s not much.” McNair then said it was because “all of the government money is tied up in Osama Bin Laden’s reward.” In the end, the fugitive described the RCMP in Campbellton as “good men doing their job.”
Richard Lee McNair was definitely one of America’s most wanted criminals, but after he was arrested and put behind bars, it was reporters who wanted him most. Dozens of media outlets were trying to get in contact with the prisoner. Luckily for Byron Christopher, and for whatever reason, he was first to get the felon to talk.
And for a reporter like Christopher, the details of McNair’s get-rich-quick scheme were golden nuggets, eventually putting them all into a nice pretty package. He wrote a book about McNair called “The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Prison.” Before that, Campbellton’s local newspaper, The Tribune, covered their correspondence, in detail, as it went on. They published his award-winning series of articles about McNair under the title “The Running Man.”