Welcome to every reporter’s conundrum: who to believe when confronted with different versions of events. And so it is with the saga of Richard Lee McNair, the convicted killer/escapee. Should one trust the fugitive — or police?
The obvious choice would seem to be law enforcement — the authority figures we have always trusted. [Well, many of us anyway.]
But hold on. The McNair file contains about a dozen conflicting accounts. The hard truth — are you sitting down? — is that those in authority weren’t always accurate — or honest.
CASES IN POINT …
Here we go:
1] Let’s begin with a biggie. A senior police officer could not believe a reporter was getting mail from ADX prisoner Richard Lee McNair. The officer took it upon himself to contact a television news director about a series her station was running on McNair sending letters to a journalist in Canada.
That reporter was me.
I then got a phone call from an agitated editor who demanded to know what the hell was going on. Even though I’d given her copies of the prisoner’s letters [and envelopes], she still believed the officer. Such is the hallowed respect some have for those who wear a badge.
[click on image to enlarge]
The news director contacted ADX Florence — only to discover that McNair was indeed corresponding with a reporter. The officer apologized — but not before I suggested he quit his job and donate his pension to charity.
2] Richard McNair claims he was able to breathe in his shrink-wrapped, air-tight escape pod — thanks to a long cardboard tube he poked through the bottom of the pallet. Not so, says one officer. He told a TV production crew that McNair used a tiny plastic tube — just a few inches long — attached to the top part of a plastic pop bottle. Turns out, the cop was describing a homemade snorkel the escapee left behind when he left the pod.
The officer later conceded McNair had been breathing through a cardboard tube.
3] According to police, McNair got help from fellow cons at the Pollock pen who helped him seal his escape pod with shrink wrap. McNair denies this, challenging doubters to check the high-resolution images taken by prison security cameras.
4] Louisiana police initially claimed Richard McNair eluded their massive dragnet by hopping a freight train, which brought him safely north to Monroe, LA. That never happened. However, a TV production company in Australia fell for it — hook, line and sinker. It’s all there in its one-hour doc for Discovery. Nice try, but no freight trains pulled out of Alexandria for Monroe that day.
The story about the freight train was media manipulation. Law enforcement wanted people to think their manhunt would have been successful had it not been for that train. This had nothing to do with the search for a prison escapee … and everything to do with police covering their butts.
5] “Oh yeah?” remarked a senior officer when confronted with McNair’s claim that, to beat the police dragnet, he walked up train tracks at night through the heart of Kisatchie National Forest. “So where’s the van he stole?,” the officer demanded. Fair question.
McNair’s detailed account of his two break-ins at the northern edge of Kisatchie National Forest — plus his theft of an old van — were both verified, thanks to a local sheriff who willingly shared crime scene information with the Canadian reporter. Two ‘cold case’ files were closed when the sheriff read McNair’s letters.
The runaway had driven the van east to Monroe where he stole a second vehicle, a Dodge Charger. McNair abandoned the muscle car in Brownsville, Texas, mere blocks from the Mexican border.
6] Police claim McNair had fed them some BS about how he crossed Rainy River in a rubber raft to get from International Falls, Minnesota to Fort Frances, Ontario. McNair was spot on with his description of the crossing, Fort Frances, a certain apartment building there … and the town’s small bus terminal. There was no doubt that one of America’s Most Wanted had been in town.
7] Just a minor point, but still worth a mention … McNair says he removed ONE cinder block from his holding cell at the County Jail in Minot in 1988, shortly after he was arrested for murder. A senior officer, however, claims that two blocks were removed. Police photos show only one block had been chiseled out, backing up the prisoner’s account. But as I say, not a big deal.
8] While on the run during his 1992 escape, police claim McNair sent a Christmas card to the Warden at the Bismarck Pen — presumably to intimidate him. There’s no evidence of this in a comprehensive Federal Bureau of Investigation report on the escape. The FBI listed the cards McNair had mailed to both prisoners and guards — but there’s no mention of the warden getting a card. McNair called the warden’s claim a ‘fairy tale’ … but who believed him?
9] Police claim McNair scribbled, “Won’t do that again” in his copy of the heavily redacted FBI report. I’ve seen those same papers — and there’s no such hand-written quote [or anything like that] by McNair. The “Won’t do that again” quote can be found in various media reports, as if it was legit. Hell, it was even in early editions of the book [The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail] until I got my hands on the document.
10] Police initially claimed McNair shot and killed trucker Jerry Thies at point-blank range, leaving powder burns on the victim’s clothing. Maybe that happened; I don’t know. However, neither an autopsy report nor an official police report on the shooting mentions powder burns. This doesn’t take away from the fact that the senseless murder was a mob-like hit.
11] Consider the hundreds of tips given to the TV program, America’s Most Wanted. How many were valid and how many were bogus? Turns out, all tips that were broadcast helped the runaway.
At a time when McNair was hiding out in Eastern Canada, police informed reporters the fugitive could be in the Calgary area — several thousand miles away. According to a tipster, he was supposedly seen on the city’s transit system. It soon became a national story, which McNair discovered when he jumped on the Internet.
Police news releases are always easy to write up — but when it comes to intel that’s suspect, everyone ends up rolling the dice — officers, reporters and the public.
Here’s a delicate question: After McNair was captured, how many scribes filed stories to reveal their previous reports were a bust? How many tried to contact an imprisoned McNair for a comment?
Journalists will rarely admit they were used by the police. Most know their place; those who don’t are the very last to snag PR jobs.
12] An RCMP news release about McNair’s capture in Campbellton, New Brunswick omitted an important detail: once the fugitive was handcuffed, he fessed up immediately that he was Richard Lee McNair — one of America’s Most Wanted, an escaped convict from a prison in Louisiana serving a life sentence for murder. McNair’s fake Alaska drivers licence looked so authentic that it fooled a veteran cop. He didn’t believe his prisoner, telling him to f-off. The RCMP later confirmed McNair’s version of events.
The point of this chapter is that reporters, especially, should always be cautious when taking the word of anyone in authority. Maybe they’re getting the straight goods, maybe not.
TRUTH CAN BE STRANGER THAN FICTION …
Some officers have been known to embellish … to either make themselves look good, or to put a positive spin on things. In the case of Richard McNair, we see law enforcement — again, people we’re supposed to trust — manipulating the media so they can be seen in a more favorable light.
Speaking of trust, how about those in the media who willingly turn a blind eye to police inconsistencies? “It’s not the story we want to tell …” they say, or, “we don’t have the time.” It’s not time they don’t have. Try journalistic integrity.
Far too many in my profession accept as gospel whatever people in authority tell them — including well-paid spin doctors and PR flaks. It’s an easy way for reporters to do a story. And safer.
When all is said and done, is the public ever well-served when reporters become stenos? They’re not, of course. It leaves the public handcuffed with people not knowing where to turn for accurate information.
I share these accounts — not to ridicule law enforcement — or to prop up an escapee — but simply to get the truth out. In today’s world, transparency is more critical than ever. Another way of looking at it is, shouldn’t the facts win out?
Police, of course, worked hard to capture Mr. Fugitive — but it should be noted they also worked hard to minimize bad press. Some would make great PR flaks. Not unlike the criminals they chase, officers themselves can be masters of deceit.
This is a cautionary tale — for everyone. The next time you read something online, in a newspaper, book or magazine, or watch a movie or TV documentary, know that things aren’t always as they seem. Don’t be afraid to question the truthfulness or accuracy of the material.
In a partisan, fake-news world, the truth can be stranger than fiction.
Image Credit [handcuffs] – istock