The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail is the incredible, true story of the world’s greatest prison escape artist: Richard Lee McNair.
Many know the story of McNair’s spectacular escape from a Louisiana penitentiary in April 2006 when he shipped himself out in a pallet of empty mailbags … and his near capture shortly after by a policeman on railroad tracks.
But for the first time, we get the complete story of not only that escape but his two previous escapes.
We also learn of how McNair avoided bloodhounds, helicopters, and a huge police dragnet.
After 18 months of living on the lam, the native of Duncan, Oklahoma was captured in October 2007 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police [RCMP] in Campbellton, New Brunswick.
McNair, 59, is in the world’s most secure penitentiary, ADX-Florence, Colorado, where he spent the first five years in solitary confinement. From his prison cell, he penned more than 300 letters — in excess of 3,000 pages — detailing his three escapes, time on the run, the murder that put him behind bars, his regrets, all that.
→ UPDATE: Richard Lee McNair was featured on the Canadian version of History [‘America’s Greatest Prison Breaks’] on Saturday evening, 9th January 2016. The program has since been broadcast more than a dozen times on History’s channels in the U.S., Canada, and Britain.
After five years of research and writing, the book was released on Amazon, through Kindle Direct Publishing.
It’s an electronic book which means to read it, you’ll need a Kindle e-reader or a tablet [such as an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy]. You can also read the book on a laptop or desktop — but to do any of that, you will first have to install the Kindle app.
And of course, to purchase the book you’ll need an Amazon account.
The book has 26 chapters [168,000 words]. Not a quick read.
“The author has put together a very accurate account of the crime scene and escapes. This book also gives a rare look at the mind-numbing existence at ADX-Florence.” — Vern Erck, lead investigator in the 1987 murder case.
LP8 Media, an award-winning TV production company based in Montreal, Quebec, produced a one-hour documentary on escape-artist McNair, which was released in the fall of 2015.
Two years later, the History Channel broadcast a two-hour special on America’s greatest breakouts. The segment on Richard Lee McNair was based on The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail.
Here’s an August 2013 book review from the Minot [North Dakota] Daily News.
A one-time murderer and many-time thief, Richard Lee McNair is the only person ever to break out of a jail, a state penitentiary and a federal penitentiary. Three escapes.
Some have described McNair as a folk-hero.
McNair has chosen to communicate with one journalist, Canadian reporter Byron Christopher. In The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail, Christopher reveals McNair to be a man whose personality and morality are as complex as his prison breaks.
Richard McNair was 47 when he shipped himself out of a Louisiana penitentiary on the 5th of April 2006. His escape within a whisker of failing just hours later when he was confronted on railroad tracks by a policeman, an event recorded by the officer’s dashcam. The encounter became a famous video clip on YouTube. Month after month, McNair was featured on America’s Most Wanted and led newspaper and television newscasts in the United States and Canada. Nevertheless, for a year and a half, he managed to travel freely between the two countries. He broke into the occasional car dealership — but never robbed a person or home. In fact, McNair comes out of this book a rather honorable man, albeit one who committed murder when he was in his twenties.
Through more than 250 letters and 3,000 handwritten pages from his solitary-confinement cell at the ‘Supermax’ in Colorado, Richard McNair, now 54, provides the never-before-known details on how he pulled off his three escapes, his encounters with police, and what can be best described as a semi-paranoid life on the run.
His clever escape in 2006 was the first from a federal prison in 13 years and there hasn’t been one since. Is McNair the world’s greatest escape artist? The reader can decide.
No writer has ever had such access to an escape artist and to the thought process and planning behind the escapes. Byron Christopher has painstakingly checked out McNair’s story, including much of his escape route. He has traveled to a number of places including Louisiana, Oklahoma, Colorado, North Dakota, Ontario, British Columbia and New Brunswick. The author also spent hours on the phone with police and many days writing letters to McNair, getting information from him. Christopher chronicles Richard Lee McNair’s incredible journey, telling readers everything they could possibly want to know. The author comes to see for himself why so many friends and family of McNair’s still have trouble believing he ever killed a man.
The book is written with proprietary information straight from prisoner McNair and exclusive information and material pulled from police files on both sides of the border. Readers will find out what police knew, and what they didn’t know. It’s extremely rare the R.C.M.P. would hand over evidence on a high profile case but for long-time crime reporter Christopher, they agreed to do it. The author also had rare interviews with McNair’s victims and with Carl Bordelon — the Louisiana police officer who briefly detained McNair on railroad tracks.
Christopher also had extensive communication with the lead U.S. Marshal on the McNair file, Glenn Belgard. What emerges after years of emails is that Belgard has a strong, curious respect for the man he was chasing. And, perhaps even more surprising, that McNair looks up to Belgard. Readers will be there when the two men finally meet. They’ll be fascinated at the exchanges between the chaser and the chased, capped off with an act of kindness by the U.S. Marshal that leaves his prisoner in tears.
Christopher does not make McNair out to be a hero, but through letters and phone calls from the prisoner and many interviews with police, Air Force personnel and McNair’s family members, it’s clear there is far more to the man than a murderer on the run. And through McNair’s letters, readers get a rare look at life in solitary confinement in the most secure part of the world’s most secure prison, ADX Florence, the Alcatraz of the Rockies — home of the Unabomber, Terry Nichols, Al-Qaeda bombers, rogue F.B.I. agents, killers of prison guards, Mafia dons and escape-artist Richard Lee McNair.
This is a real-life escape story that will take readers on a wild ride. There is no nonfiction reader, no true crime reader, no watcher of Law & Order or CSI, no policeman or student of criminal justice, no citizen of North Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska, British Columbia and New Brunswick — where McNair has been front-page news for years — who will not long to know the story behind the story. [Foreword by Edmonton Broadcaster Randy Marshall]
Here’s Chapter One, which deals with McNair’s daring escape from a federal prison in Pollock, Louisiana in 2006.
CHAPTER 1 : ESCAPE!
Wednesday, 5th of April 2006, was shaping up to be another scorcher in the Union, Justice and Confidence State. It was only 8:00 a.m. but already hotter than a Finnish sauna in July.
All was quiet and peaceful — except on the southern outskirts of the town of Pollock, in the central part of the state. There, in an original gated, adult community — home to a thousand — emotions were pent up.
The residents — all males — were pissed. They were also dangerous, which was why they were surrounded by a tall steel mesh fence crowned with hoops of shiny razor wire.
At United States Penitentiary Pollock there was always tension, an unsettling nervousness.
And things were about to get worse. Trouble was brewing.
Confined to a dark, cramped space, a 47-year-old prisoner fought to keep from passing out. The heat was incredible, and it was sucking the life out of him. Beads of sweat trickled down his face.
As desperate as things were for the con, he refused to cry out for help.
Guards and inmates alike had no idea that a history-making event — one so dramatic it would capture the attention of people around the world — was unfolding right before their eyes.
Cocooned in a shipment of old, dirty mailbags, Richard Lee McNair was trying to accomplish something that hadn’t been done before at USP Pollock — escape.
If he could pull this one off, it would be his third breakout.
McNair was doing time for a burglary and shooting in North Dakota in 1987 that left one man dead and another wounded.
At maximum security USP Pollock, McNair’s job was to repair mailbags for the U.S. Postal Service.
The Oklahoma native was different from other prisoners. For starters, he looked more like a Boy Scout leader than a con. McNair was also well-spoken, he did not smoke or drink, had no piercings and he was ‘tattoo-free.’
The con owed no favors and kept to himself. In other words, McNair didn’t belong to a gang. He didn’t long for that security blanket.
McNair was in excellent shape, often working out in the gym. And every day in the prison yard — rain or shine — he sprinted like a rabbit.
The former Air Force sergeant also didn’t do drugs. Just the opposite; McNair railed at dope and those who peddled it. Few convicts knew, but before he became one of them, McNair worked undercover with police to bust drug dealers who sold dope to military personnel.
During his more than 15 years behind bars, Richard McNair had no write-ups for violence. When it came to escapes, though, it was a different story. He had two breakouts and one failed attempt under his belt.
In the fall of 2008 I began to write to McNair — incarcerated at the Supermax in Colorado — knowing that a number of journalists had already written him but got nowhere. It seemed that the man featured a dozen times on the TV show, America’s Most Wanted, just wasn’t interested in talking.
To my surprise, he wrote back and continued to write. And write. McNair has now sent about 300 letters.
I’ve chronicled our dialogue that reveals the intrigue and secrets, plus the incredible story of his escapes. His letters also gave me a superb account of what life is like behind bars.
“Byron, much of the last 14 years was spent visiting with prisoners who had either escaped or got busted trying. Somebody once said, ‘Prison is one big college of crime.’ Well, my credits were in Escape 101.”
It takes more than guts to bust out of a federal prison, especially a new one with state-of-the-art security. A prison breakout also takes smarts, meticulous planning — and the observation skills and self-discipline of a Green Beret. Richard Lee McNair, with military training in escape and evasion, had that in spades.
Even so, the odds were still stacked against him. For McNair’s plan to succeed, he would also need some luck — and for prison staff to screw up big time.
Richard McNair would need brains, balls, and breaks.
Entombed and covered in sweat, the prisoner was now facing the first real test of his determination. It was more than 90 degrees in the shade and on the loading dock there was no shade. McNair would have to survive a wait of more than half an hour on a loading dock under a hot Louisiana sun, tightly curled in a pod on a shrink-wrapped, nearly airless pallet.
“The heat was unbelievable. The inside of the pod felt like a furnace. Sweat rolled off me; my head was swimming in the fog. I was afraid I would pass out.
“It was a tight fit. I couldn’t wipe the sweat from my brow; it was running into my eyes, down my neck, dripping from the tip of my nose and everywhere else. I wanted to scratch the itches, wanted to wipe the sweat from my face.
“It was just crazy with the long wait. My fears, every noise amplified. My nerves were just popping.”
It made no sense to bust out of prison only to be discovered unconscious. Or dead.
Every breath was a struggle. Breathe in; exhale. Breathe in; exhale. Breathe in; exhale.
McNair was able to get a limited amount of fresh air, thanks to a homemade snorkel — a rigid piece of pressed cardboard that had arrived in the penitentiary as part of a shipment of cloth. Poked through the bottom of the pallet, the tube became his lifeline.
“The tube was between my drawn-up knees and feet. I drew my breaths and exhaled through the tube.
“I was afraid I’d pass out. To keep my mind focused I concentrated on my military training, and thought about how difficult our fighters had it in Iraq. The trick is to distract the mind, yet focus on the mission. My mission was freedom and that freedom was very close.
“New Hampshire’s motto is ‘Live Free or Die.’ My goal was to be free. Did I want to die? Hell no. Was I going to hurt anyone trying? No.”
McNair needed a distraction, something to keep him from losing his mind. Now was a good time to take inventory and recount events of the day.
Apart from the suffocating heat, things were going according to plan. He’d been able to leave the industrial area undetected. He was still conscious. And — best part — he was halfway to his first destination: the penitentiary warehouse, just beyond the tall prison fence.
Richard McNair woke up around 6:00 that morning in his fourth-floor cell of ‘A’ Building. Without saying boo to his cellmate, Chris, he left for his morning jog.
Security cameras spotted him walking around A-4 Unit and sliding what appeared to be paper under the door of cell A-404.
After a stroll to the dining hall for a breakfast of cold cereal and hot coffee, McNair returned to his cell. But he stayed only a short while, then walked out one final time.
Blast off was now only minutes away.
Every prisoner arrives in the joint with a reputation, and with Richard Lee McNair the rep was ‘escape artist.’ Prisoners and staff alike wondered when the former airman would make another break, and how he’d pull it off.
The guessing game was about to end.
A photo snapped by a security camera showed Richard McNair near some lockers and walking into the prison’s industrial section. He was carrying extra clothing and supplies.
McNair arrived at his work area at 7:20 a.m. Like all inmates at USP Pollock, he stripped to his boxer shorts, stepped through a metal detector, then slipped into his brown jumpsuit.
That morning, security cameras snapped scores of high-resolution pictures of the con. There was little concern because no one knew what the hell he was up to. Even if guards had been closely monitoring the cameras, McNair would have been seen as just another prisoner putting in his time.
Richard McNair was about to experience the first of many speed bumps on his road to freedom.
“I was stopped and asked by the assistant factory manager what I had sticking out of my black work boots, why I was carrying the boots and why I had on my Adidas running shoes. In the boots, I had tuna, smoked oysters, hard candy, etc. It looked like a Christmas stocking filled with goodies. I explained it was my snack for break time. He just looked skeptical and sent me on to my work area.
“He looked skeptical because some of the prisoners run ‘stores’ in the factory. They sell candy bars, coffee, etc. I don’t think he thought I was running a store selling tuna and oysters. Maybe a health store! Anyway, stores are a no-no. Had been caching peanut butter, rice, beans (dehydrated), zip-lock bags, etc. for a week or so in my work area.
“My work area was in a back corner of the factory. I sorted mailbags — nasty, dusty, moldy mailbags.”
Hundreds of mailbags were stacked on pallets on the prison’s concrete factory floor. Their first destination: the penitentiary warehouse.
Thoughts of escape were never far from McNair’s mind. He spent hours in the prison library pouring through books and magazines. He also subscribed to a number of magazines, including Runner’s World, Mother Earth News, Outdoor Life, Field & Stream [“The Best Survival Information”] and Backpacker Magazine [“Your Source for Outdoor Skills Information”].
“I suppose that was my escape.”
The key to McNair’s escape was a keen imagination.
“While working on the mailbags I let my mind play over the possibilities of an escape — slim to none — and came up with the pod idea. I mean, there are only so many things you can do with a pallet and mailbags. The pallets were of such a height and configuration as to give me the idea of a compartment to hide in.
“I wanted to leave on April 1st but that was a Saturday. The reason I wanted to go on April Fool’s Day was that law enforcement would question whether the escape alert was some kind of joke. Anything for an advantage.”
The prisoner hadn’t told a soul about his scheme.
“If you are planning an escape, you don’t talk about it with anyone.”
Keeping secrets was the number one tip of Edmund Pankau, author of Hide Your Assets and Disappear – A Step-by-step Guide to Vanishing Without a Trace. Doris Lively, Director of Libraries for Grant Parish, confirms authorities at USP Pollock had approved Pankau’s book — and that several inmates had ordered it.
One con who signed out the book was none other than the master of prison escapes, Richard Lee McNair.
“Must have read it three times. His #1 lesson was keep your damn mouth shut.”
Surveillance cameras were everywhere — including in the washroom — where at 7:50 a.m., McNair was seen cleaning his hands. Another camera spotted him pulling a pallet jack and returning to the mailbag work area. It would be the last time McNair’s image was captured on a prison security camera in 2006.
“Most security cameras are for after the fact; who assaulted who, who was all involved. That was my hope anyway. As it turned out, this was the case.”
Richard McNair discovered that it truly pays to be a good listener.
“One of the things they teach in the military is ‘operation security.’ It is gathering tidbits of info from numerous sources. With enough info you get a decent, if not a full picture of what is going on.
“I did this at Pollock.
“Most of my Intel came from the Assistant Factory Manager. For some reason, the un-repaired mailbags were being sent to the warehouse to be stored, and eventually returned to the prison factory to be sorted and repaired.
“I learned this during his rants about the un-repaired mailbags needed to be stacked on the pallets and shrink-wrapped. He is how I learned the pallets went directly to the warehouse and didn’t appear to go to a staging area [hot cage] overnight.”
Here’s what the prisoner learned from eavesdropping on conversations between the Factory Foreman and the Shop Foreman:
“Factory Foreman: ‘I want all these used mailbags palletized, wrapped and sent to the warehouse now!’
“Shop Foreman: ‘But they are not repaired or sorted yet.’
“Factory Foreman: ‘I don’t care. Get them out of here by next week.’
“That is how I knew, number one, I only had a week to get my plan done; number two, the bags did go straight to the warehouse and number three, it was a priority.
“Radio traffic from the warehouse to a Shop Foreman told me how long it took from warehouse to factory. Warehouse worker: ‘am leaving the warehouse now, are you ready to load?’”
To build his ticket to freedom, McNair needed some privacy. Easier said than done when in the company of people with a high level of suspicion and mistrust. The clandestine work also had to be done in full view of security cameras.
“I was going to use my brain to come up with a plan that would have a decent chance of success and that plan was right in front of me.
“First, I had to run off all the prisoners working in the section. I accomplished this by being difficult to work with — and as luck would have it, a bonus was offered to prisoners who worked on the new mailbag assembly. Within a week, I was the last prisoner working in my area.
“Pollock was the worst prison I have been at as far as prisoners having the run of things. The attitude was, ‘you don’t cause trouble or do something stupid, then staff left you alone.’ I mean, who ever heard of one prisoner being able to run off a work crew from an area (four in that area) and staff not doing something?
“I literally built a pallet with a hide spot in it — and no one saw it. If you saw the area — completely open — you would be amazed.”
According to the U.S. Marshals, other inmates knew McNair was building something, they just didn’t know what.
McNair kept busy designing his very own escape capsule.
His first model was too small. There was enough space for him, but no room for his supplies. And so he worked on a second model. New and improved, if you will.
“The second pod was larger. I could sit on straps which would prevent officers from lifting the frame off me during the security inspection at the gate.”
To give the contraption shape and support, McNair inserted a frame of metal tubes held together by zip-ties from the mailbags.
“Did I have a master plan on paper? No way. You store it all in your head. Everything has to have its own compartment in the ‘hard drive’: food, water, maps, info on surrounding area, the facility you are in, any info about it you can garner, where to after, ID’s, survival, etc.
“Can you imagine having to memorize all that and keep it straight? You have to want it bad.”
Among the items the prisoner stashed away were food, water, first-aid supplies, toilet paper, an address book — and some clothing, including handball gloves and an extra pair of socks.
To utilize every bit of space, McNair used duct tape to attach supplies to his stomach. He also taped supplies to the inside of a plastic bucket.
In a reenactment of McNair’s escape on The Discovery Channel, an actor tapes a serrated steak knife to his body.
“Are you kidding me? Pollock is a federal prison. Everybody knows the only federal lockup that allows inmates to have steaks and thus serrated knives is the place they send the ex-judges, politicians, bankers and reporters. A serrated steak knife? Might as well had me with a shovel and pickax.
“The reason authorities knew about items with tape, was that I had taped several bags, wet wash cloth, water, food, etc. to the inverted plastic tub. In my haste to exit the pod, I left them behind.
“They assumed, correctly, I had the setup for taping to my body. One reason I did that was in case I had to haul ass, would have emergency and essential items; water (in plastic bags), dry socks, first aid, map.
“Most of my stores of food, water, juice packs, etc. were taped to the walls of the plastic box.
“Also had a couple of wet wash cloths in plastic zip lock bags. They were one-pint, resealable bags, fairly robust plastic — perfect for my needs. The bags were what our hot chocolate and coffee came in.”
Because McNair worked with sewing machines in the joint, he was able to transform T-shirts into long-sleeve shirts. That would give him some protection against the mosquitos and ticks.
He also swiped mesh from the sewing line that produced shorts for the military. The material would become a mosquito head net.
McNair packed something else that was just as important as food and water …
“My map was a page out of an AAA Road Atlas. It was folded and placed in a zip lock bag. As backup, I had a photocopy of the page (vicinity about a 10-mile circumference). The map could be looked at without opening the baggy.”
The prisoner asked a guard for a roll of shrink-wrap and got it. In full view of security cameras, he began to gift-wrap the pallets, including the special one.
Everything was now in place. It was time for liftoff.
McNair shoved his pallet up against a 3’ x 6’ work table. He then ducked under the table and crawled in the pallet through a tiny rabbit hole entrance on the side.
“To assure someone would move the pallet to the loading dock I told my boss and a couple of the prisoners I was going to medical and [the supervisor] wanted the pallet to go out on the next transport to the warehouse.”
The arrival of a female guard who operated the propane-powered utility vehicle, known as a mule, meant it was time for Mr. Escape Artist to get a move on. A sprinkling of talcum powder allowed McNair to manipulate the clinging plastic wrap. The entrance was then covered with a mailbag strengthened with a piece of cardboard.
“The 18” x 18” cardboard panel was wrapped in mailbags and shrink-wrap. It was designed to cover my shoes and of course, seal the opening.”
McNair was now crammed inside an odd-shaped pallet of musty mailbags. His device was even more cramped than the early space capsules. The prisoner was so hemmed in that he couldn’t pull his arm forward to check his wrist watch.
“I was crunched over and every surface was pushing against me; my knees against my chest, my chin on my knees. My plan was to wear my work boots, but there was not enough space. I ended up wearing running shoes, which turned out to be appropriate.”
Pushing a pallet lifter, another inmate made his way to where the shrink-wrapped pallets rested on the concrete floor. At 8:35 a.m. the metal forks slid under McNair’s pallet and it slowly rose in the air. The pallet jack swung around, its cargo gently rocking from side to side.
“The feeling of the pallet being lifted off the floor was exciting as hell. The adrenalin rush was so intense. Everything slowed down and my senses went into overdrive.
“Every crack in the floor the pallet jack rolled over felt like a pothole.”
The large overhead door opened and McNair’s pallet joined others on a flatbed trailer on the loading dock.
It was now about 9 a.m.
Richard Lee McNair was finally on his way. Sort of. But where he was headed, he didn’t really know; it may have been some place other than the warehouse. It could have been solitary confinement. Only time would tell.
For more than half an hour, the escape artist remained in his private sauna, beads of sweat dripping non-stop from his face.
Over the guards’ crackling radio came news that would only benefit McNair: a distraction. There was some excitement in the recreation area. Two cons weren’t getting along and they’d resorted to violence to reinforce their points of view.
“While in the pod and still in the loading area, I thought, come on already. The female warehouse officer had a habit of jawing with inmates working in the factory. I could imagine her in the cool building laughing and joking.
“The voice of one of the officers wishing her a good day, his thick accent sounding like Heaven, washed over me. A new strength also came over me.”
The warehouse officer finally fired up her engine. Mr. McNair was on the move again.
“The mule tugged at the cart.”
To reach the warehouse, the shipment of pallets had to pass through two large, sliding gates in a boxed-in area on the inside of the fence, known as a sally port.
“The double gates are just 100 feet or so from the industry building. The first gate rumbled out of the way.”
McNair was now dealing with two hitches; one attached to the utility vehicle, the other a suspicious guard whose job it was to make sure human cargo wasn’t being shipped out.
“The voice of a male officer asked how it was going. The female guard said something in return …”
McNair’s pallet looked suspiciously different from the others, prompting the guard at the gate to ask questions. According to prison rules, no cargo was to leave the joint without being searched. That was the second regulation not followed. The first was not putting the shipment in a locked, confined area for 24 hours.
“I felt the cart shake. The male officer was pushing on the huge, heavy pallets of mailbags. Then came mine. I distinctly remember him saying the pallet I was secreted in did not look right. He told her it needed to be placed in the hot cage. They argued (good natured).
“Then I felt the cart tugged away by the mule.”
At that point, the prisoner didn’t really know where he was going. Was his pallet headed back inside the prison, to a locked trailer where it would be checked more closely? If so, it would be game over for Richard McNair. His penalty would be a longer prison sentence, kicked off with a stint in the hole.
“Okay, I thought, this is it, a good try, but not good enough. Surely the hot cage is within the prison walls. Then I heard the honk of a vehicle. What the heck would a vehicle be doing in the prison ..?
“When the mule stopped, a forklift could be heard. The cart shuddered as the forklift tapped against it. I was moved quickly.”
Freedom was near. McNair was now just beyond the wire at USP Pollock, but still on prison grounds. He remained crouched in his pallet surrounded by mailbags, shrink-wrap … and prison staff.
“My instincts were to move now — cut out and get this over with, whether that be running like mad, or finding myself contained in some kind of secure area.
“I tried to sense what was happening around me. I could hear voices, muffled by distance and by the pad of mailbags. There were two or more individuals within feet of my pallet, talking and laughing. After 30 minutes or so, they moved away.”
The note should read: USMS Evidence. The FBI is in charge of attempted escapes, but the US Marshals are in charge of actual escapes.
“I took a deep breath and I started getting into position to work my way out of the pod. Should I just force the metal frame and mailbags off me? In the end, I decided to move the panel out of the way and cut myself out. That was the correct choice, though the exit was blocked by another pallet of mailbags.
“The pallet was among other pallets of a similar nature. After removing the cardboard and mailbag panel, I cut the plastic wrap with a homemade knife (razor from a shaver and plastic toothbrush). By pressing my feet against the other pallet, I pushed the pallets apart.”
To make sure all inmates are accounted for, guards conduct regular counts throughout the day, including stand-up counts. When they discovered that someone was not accounted for — especially Mr. Escape Artist — the alarm bells would go off.
“Being missed was a constant fear. I figured I had until after lunch.”
Lunch at USP Pollock was from about 10:30 to 11:30. The main count would usually take place around 4:00 in the afternoon. That was when McNair figured the alarms would go off for sure. Turns out, it would happen a lot sooner — thanks to an observant worker in the warehouse.
The prisoner was dealing with two unknowns. He did not know if staff were nearby, and he had no idea if his pallet was in a secure area.
“I was aware the warehouse crew had moved to an area for their lunch period. Though their voices could still be heard, I had to make my move.
“I cut through the shrink-wrap cocoon, stuck my feet, then my legs through the opening and pressed with my feet against the adjacent pallet of mailbags (hoping I was not on a shelf). When there was enough room, I wiggled out through the opening into the open.
“I didn’t know if someone would be standing there, wide-eyed and slack-jaw, watching a pallet of mailbags give birth to a sweaty, stinky humanoid.”
Richard McNair’s escape was, in a sense, a rebirth. He now had a new lease on life. What would he do with his freedom? Where would he go? How long would his unauthorized furlough last?
“After my eyes adjusted to the sudden onslaught of light, I was relieved to see no one was around and second, I was in an open warehouse — not a cage or a secure area. Exiting the pod, I realized the individuals eating could not see me. I crawled under metal shelves nearby and crab-crawled toward the open overhead door.
“I never saw anyone in or around the warehouse. My fear was people would be relaxing at the bay doors. Did not notice any security cameras, but did not really look. It was get out of there quick.
“I did not run for fear of drawing attention. Guards in the towers at the pen could have seen me. So could staff in the parking lots, construction workers and people driving along the access road to the warehouse.
“Exiting the warehouse, I moved in a southerly direction. Not having all the distraction allowed me to concentrate on each step of the escape.
“The senses are so acute — no way to describe it. Everything is magnified — smell, vision, hearing. It is as if you can sense with the skin.”
Richard Lee McNair was no longer a prisoner, but a fugitive.
“Under the cover of trees, I made my way through the compound but ended up being cut off by a new part of the complex under construction.
“I got hung up for about an hour trying to find a place to cross the construction project. They were building the medium custody facility and there was construction traffic.
The first people McNair saw on the outside were construction workers. Still on prison property, the escapee crouched and hid in trees while two men chatted.
“The two workers stopped their trucks for several minutes, talking. I was about 30 feet from them in bush and any movement on my part would have been seen.”
Traveling west, Richard McNair crossed the narrow paved road that cut through the prison complex, making his way to a wooded area. That’s where he began to crawl on his hands and knees, in large interloping circles, laying a ‘scent trail’ he hoped would fool the hounds and buy him time.
“I had been performing my figure eights. This is a maneuver that consists of traveling in an area, preferably the size of a football field, and moving in the figure eight over and over. What you hope to accomplish is to get the dog tracking in circles.”
It’s not known if his ploy worked.
“There is a small pond on the complex. I went around it a couple of times and then crawled through thick brush to confuse the dogs. In doing so, I lost my address book. Stupid.”
McNair finally hit public property: Airbase Road, a not-so-busy two-lane highway that bordered the southern edge of the prison complex. About a block away, to the runaway’s left — like a prop out of an Orson Wells space invader movie — stood an old metal water tower on tall stilts with ‘Pollock’ painted in large letters.
After crossing a shallow ditch on the south side of Airbase Road, McNair came up against a five-foot wire fence. He began to climb it. That’s when a woman drove by in her car, glancing McNair’s way. When the driver heard the news about the breakout, she got in touch with the police.
“The woman in the brown auto was traveling at a good rate of speed. No chance she would stop. Besides, if you saw someone along the road by a prison, would you stop?”
The fugitive sprinted toward the safety of the trees.
Those penitentiary guard towers were now about half a mile distant.
McNair walked only 40 feet or so and came up against another barrier, a wire fence more than 10 feet tall. The fence enclosed a private game preserve managed by the Louisiana Deer Management Assistance Program.
Back at the prison, a book McNair had signed out was lying on his bunk. The title was a message for law enforcement who’d soon be rummaging through his stuff. The book, by retired Colonel James Kyle and John Eidson, was entitled The Guts to Try, the Untold Story of the Iran Hostage Rescue Mission.
Richard Lee McNair had become the first prisoner to escape from USP Pollock, and the first in 13 years to break out of a federal penitentiary in the United States.
The game of cat and mouse had begun. For both the hunted and the hunters, their skills would now be put to the test.
Satellite photo of Pollock penitentiary and surrounding area. Arrow #1 shows where Richard McNair left the prison. [The large complex to the left of the penitentiary is a water treatment plant]. Arrow #2 shows the point McNair crossed Airbase Road. The private game preserve is just south of there; the fence line the fugitive followed can be seen as a thin, straight white line. Number 3 points to the railroad tracks; #4, a waste treatment plant, near tracks that veer northwest, toward the communities of Dry Prong and Williana.
[Photo courtesy of Google Maps: Imagery © 2013 DigitalGlobe, USDA Farm Service Agency, Map data © 2013 Google]
VIDEO SHOT BY THE FUGITIVE
The following is video shot by Richard McNair on the 18 of October 2007, less than a week before his capture.
The fugitive was on a rural road near Union Corner, 13 miles west of Woodstock, New Brunswick. McNair stops his van and walks over to the U.S. side, returns to his vehicle but nearly hits the ditch while trying to videotape and drive at the same time. The clip runs one minute and 44 seconds.
AUDIO OF LOCALS IN BALL, LOUISIANA
The following is a short audio clip of a group of Louisiana country boys describing the police action following McNair’s escape … and the temporary detention of a man who resembled the fugitive. The clip runs about a minute and a half.
PAROLE HEARING DENIED
In early May 2014, the North Dakota Parole Board heard Richard McNair’s case for a review. That didn’t mean the prisoner would get a hearing, it just meant the ND Parole Board would hear him out and perhaps give him a hearing.
The answer was no. See letter from Patrick N. Bohn, Parole Board Clerk. McNair was told he could re-apply in 2028.In a letter from his cell at ADX Florence, Colorado, Richard McNair described the North Dakota Parole Board’s response as a “form letter.”
McNair says he will appeal “On the basis that ND [North Dakota] didn’t even contact this place for a review.” “How can one do an honest review,” he asks, “if you don’t even know how I have done in [the] past 6-7 years?”
RACHEL MADDOW SHOW – MSNBC – 8 JUNE 2015
In a letter dated 1 July 2015, Richard McNair writes about a television documentary he caught on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show on 8 June 2015. McNair described the program as being about “escapes from max custody.”
The prisoner’s letter arrived at my home on 29 July 2015.
The Rachel Maddow Show begins with McNair’s escape from USP Pollock, Louisiana in April 2006. The actual clip about McNair ran just under 9 minutes.
Here’s McNair’s take on the show …
On Monday, 7th of December 2015, History in the U.S. broadcast a two-hour special called America’s Greatest Prison Breaks [produced by Denise Cavanaugh of NBC’s Peacock Productions].
Escape-artist Richard Lee McNair was featured in the documentary.
The program will be shown on History in Canada on Saturday evening, 9th January 2016. Broadcast time: 9PM Eastern. Four hours later, there will be a repeat of the show.
Here are the good folk who made that interview possible … starting off with producer Cavanaugh of NBC-TV in New York.
And Emmanuel Psihountas … the associate producer. Both Manny and Denise flew in from New York; the others in this photo are from San Francisco.
LIFE INSIDE THE SUPERMAX
For a look at what life is really like inside ADX Florence, Colorado — a prisoner’s first-person account — click here: