A new TV streaming service, Discovery+, has released a docudrama series on US prison escape artist RICHARD LEE MCNAIR.
As author of the book on McNair [The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail] — plus the ‘gatekeeper’ for much of the intel on him — I was an obvious choice to ‘showcase’ the four-part series.
Program credits list more than a dozen people, including a few Executive Producers. I was one.
Because of an unusually high number of geographical gaffs and poor editorial control, this executive producer is giving the series 1.5 stars out of 5.
WHO IS RICHARD MCNAIR?
In April 2006, Richard Lee McNair, a one-time killer and many time thief, pulled off a Houdini-like escape from a state-of-the-art penitentiary in Pollock, Louisiana. It was the first time in decades a prisoner had bolted from a federal joint.
The dramatic escape grabbed the attention of people around the world — for two reasons: Hidden in a pallet of old mailbags, the Oklahoma native, serving time for murder, shipped himself to freedom. And just hours later, he smooth-talked his way out of an encounter with a policeman.
It was Richard McNair’s third escape from custody. That’s right. His third.
And so began McNair’s wild, 18-month journey across the US and Canada. In late October 2017, one of America’s Most Wanted was tackled by a rookie RCMP officer in a forest near my hometown of Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada.
While on the run, McNair committed numerous break-ins — mainly at car dealerships where he helped himself to new wheels and petty cash.
According to law enforcement on both sides of the border, the fugitive did not physically hurt anyone while on his unauthorized furloughs. There were no armed robberies, muggings or grabbing cash from people at ATM’s. That’s an important point, because that’s not how most prison escapees behave.
After McNair was collared by the Mounties, he was sent packing to what is described as the world’s most secure penitentiary in Florence, Colorado — ADX, the Supermax. The ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies’ is home to some nasty characters: the Unabomber, Doctor Death, the Shoe Bomber, turncoat FBI spies and, now, kidnapped drug lord El Chapo.
I began to write to Richard Lee McNair in late 2008, about a year after he stepped off a prison bus at ADX. I was soon getting many letters from the prisoner, revealing stuff that no one — especially law enforcement and crime reporters — knew a thing about. That led to me travelling across the U.S. and Canada [just as the fugitive did] as I researched a book on the con’s three escapes plus his time on the lam.
From McNair’s letters, I also became privy to details of the 1987 killing that put him behind bars, an inside look at how he pulled off his escapes, his childhood in Oklahoma and his time in the US Air Force plus, of course, how and where he spent his time on the lam. All interesting stuff. Gold!
It took more than a year to conduct dozens of interviews, collect documents, family photos, plus fact-check both the fugitive’s and law enforcement’s version of events. Mind you, that didn’t include the time it took to write hundreds of letters to McNair, and to keyword and catalogue whatever he sent my way.
When the dust settled, I had more than 350 hand-written letters from the world’s greatest prison escape artist. The stuff was beyond fascinating … and when the book came out, it included a truck load of proprietary [as in copyrighted] information. The revelations first led to an ‘ebook,’ then to an updated paperback. If you’re wondering which one to buy [provided you’re into true crime], go with the paperback.
Keep in mind that Richard McNair writes half the book.
Both books are available on Amazon. I haven’t included any hyperlinks because the links vary, depending on the country one is ordering from.
BEHIND THE CURTAIN …
Tracing Richard McNair’s journey was a journey in itself. Along the way were dozens of interviews that led to two reporting awards — including a national citation for the top newspaper series in Canada.
I was also featured on History in a two-hour special on prison breakouts. And now, a TV series called The Prison Breaker on Discovery+.
Because of McNair’s spectacular escape from a federal joint in Louisiana, the con has been featured in a number of TV documentaries about breakouts. Richard Lee McNair is to prison escape artists what Babe Ruth was to baseball and Wayne Gretzky to hockey.
The Discovery series is being shown not only in the US and Canada but in a number of countries around the world. My recommendation? Avoid it.
[Image courtesy of GOtv, Kenya]
For my on-camera contribution, I was interviewed in the fall of 2020 at a beautiful chalet overlooking Fiddle Lake in the Laurentian Mountains, 45 minutes’ drive north of Montreal, Quebec. Shooting took place over three days.
The rustic setting was to give the impression I live in a log cabin in the Canadian wilderness. I’m not making that up. Perhaps that’s how Americans see Canadians, I don’t know. For the record, I live in a regular house in a quiet subdivision in the west end of Edmonton, Alberta. And my pet isn’t moose or a beaver, it’s an opinionated American Yorkshire terrier.
I arrived for the interview — not carrying a hockey stick or wearing a toque — but sporting an Aussie Akubra hat. I also had a copy of the paperback on McNair, his letters, coins and fake driving licences.
It’s been quite a journey for the Author because of the many twists and turns — plus bumps, red flags and wake-up calls. I dealt with some well-meaning people, but also with shady media outlets, unscrupulous lawyers in the US … and producers short on talent and originality but big on industry buzz terms. Wannabes.
The smoke-and-mirrors was often way over the top. From producers, the BS ranged from, “Who do you want to play your part in a movie?” … to “I got your back!” When media people tell you they have your back, check to see if they’re holding a jar of vaseline.
Sleaze, of course, is not a crime. But unfortunately to some it’s as natural as breathing.
Hate to say this, but I will: I saw far more integrity in killer Richard McNair than most media people I dealt with who were after this story. Read that again.
However, I learned some valuable lessons … and for that, I am grateful.
WHY A THUMBS DOWN?
The four-part series featured some precious archival footage and great videography. Hats off to those who made that happen.
But in my view, the series failed for three reasons: 1] it was disjointed … 2] contaminated with fake talking heads … and 3] not accurate owing to poor editorial control.
It came across as a superficial high school production that followed a predicable, cookie-cutter format. In other words, not a lot of original thinking. And that was ironic because the ‘sizzle reel’ which the TV production company distributed to help sell the series, was A-1.
I realize the need for things to be exciting and entertaining, I get that. But it should also be accurate.
What is Richard Lee McNair known for? And why does the Wikipedia write-up on him sometimes have more views than its write-up on Elvis Presley? Was it a fatal shooting in Minot in the 1980s? No. How about the time the con slipped out of handcuffs? Not likely. How about the prisoner removing a cinder block from his jail cell? Nope. That’s all interesting stuff, but nothing that would warrant someone getting a highly-viewed page in Wikipedia.
Richard McNair is known for shipping himself out of prison.
The series could have started this way: a man trapped in a dark, cramped space … struggling to breathe … etc. Ya gotta grab viewers’ attention in the very first episode. This production doesn’t.
Let’s get into the geographical boo-boos of The Prison Breaker. You might want to pour yourself a stiff drink because these are stunning …
The beautiful scene below is not as advertised. This isn’t Penticton, British Columbia, Canada where Richard McNair was nearly captured by the RCMP in 2006. The setting is actually a different Canadian city … Campbellton, New Brunswick — 3,100 miles away.
Someone with the TV production company did not label their resource material properly, and it sure looks like the fact-checkers at Discovery may have been asleep at the wheel as well. O, perhaps they didn’t care if it was accurate or not [because they were sure told about it] .
According to The Prison Breaker, the highway shown in the image below is in West Virginia, USA. False. This is actually Highway 11 in New Brunswick. Locals will recognize Sugarloaf Mountain on the left. The road sign indicates Atholville and Campbellton … but there’s no Atholville or Campbellton in West Virginia.
Two other scenes were also mistakenly identified as Penticton, BC. There’s no need to post them; by now, you get the point.
Are these gaffs critical? Most media people would say they sure are, not to mention being unprofessional and embarrassing. And perhaps some viewers, especially non-Canadians, couldn’t give less. Well, I care.
I brought the errors to the attention of Discovery, hoping these mistakes would be corrected. Maybe they were. Maybe they weren’t. The last three emails to Debbie Sullivan, head of Communications at Discovery, whom I questioned on errors, have gone answered. That’s ‘communication by silence.’
I also asked Sullivan if Discovery would review the raw interview tapes to see if interviewees were told what to say. Not a terribly difficult thing to do, just check out the raw tapes. Plus Discovery’s position on plagiarism. Haven’t heard back. The silence says all one needs to know.
Episode One focuses on McNair’s attempted breakout from Ward County Jail in Minot, North Dakota in early 1988. In one scene, McNair writes: “I concentrated on my military training and thought about how difficult our military fighters had it in Afghanistan …” Great quote and given the pickle he was in, it seemed appropriate. However … in 1988, the US did not have troops in Afghanistan.
So those are McNair’s words all right — but he’s actually describing a breakout he did 18 years later.
The production company was aware of the gaffe, but chose not to correct it. That’s code for: no one is going to notice.
Another gaff: When McNair ‘mailed himself out of jail,’ he was encased in a shrink-wrapped pallet of mailbags destined for a warehouse just beyond the prison fence in Pollock, Louisiana. In the Discovery+ docudrama, McNair is shown breathing through a tiny plastic tube attached to the top portion of a two-litre plastic pop bottle. That never happened. Large pop bottles weren’t available to prisoners at USP Pollock.
Showing McNair breathing through a tiny plastic tube is pure Hollywood. The prisoner was able to get air because of a larger tube [from pressed cardboard]. Mr. Escapee had poked that tube through an opening in the bottom of the pallet. If he’d been trying to breathe through a tiny plastic tube, he would not have made it. It’s unfortunate editors didn’t consult with the Author before shooting started because it’s all there in the book …
Mind you, according to the owner of the TV production company, she and the Author were to have “final say.” Maybe she did, but I sure didn’t.
A number of corrections were made to the initial drafts. At one point, producers had prisoner McNair laughing when his letters showed he wasn’t displaying that characteristic. How could something like that work its way into a script? It’s my guess the cynical laughter was deliberately added, then ‘overlooked’ by agenda-driven producers who wanted the con to appear more sinister than he was. Better for ratings, I guess.
The most distressing part of the series was the continued use of so-called talking heads … particularly a former CNN reporter and a former journalist with the Calgary Herald [who now works public relations for the City of Calgary]. Both interviewees had intimate details of McNair’s escapes which — for some strange reason — were never included in their stories on McNair.
Now how does that happen? Here’s a clue: their insight matches information from the book on McNair. Some would say that’s plagiarism, even if the production company had a contractural right to my material. Whatever. It’s certainly nothing to be proud of. There’s a difference between an expert and a talking head.
Was this a case of “Say this, say that … now you’re an expert?” I suspect it was. The answer, of course, lies in the raw interview videos. I suspect the director who interviewed the talking heads did not say, “Wow! Where did you get all this exclusive information? You sure didn’t have it in your reports!”
Instead of holding a pad of notes, it would’ve been more transparent had the former CNN lady been reading straight from the book.
When viewing the series, take note of the facial expressions of the talking heads, especially after they finish speaking. They’re looking for approval, as in “Did I get that right?” You won’t see approval looks on those who were truly connected to the McNair story — police officers, McNair’s former girlfriend, McNair’s father, the North Dakota reporter who first covered the crime, the Author, etc.
Note to talking heads: Stick to material of which you have first-hand knowledge. And don’t play up for the camera … this isn’t a tryout for the Jerry Springer Show.
Turns out, the Calgary ‘crime blogger’ has posted only a single blog story [of 103 listed] on Richard McNair — and that was 14 years ago. Her story is based on a Calgary Police news release that the US fugitive could be hiding out in the Alberta city. At the time, McNair was thousands of miles away, on the other side of the country.
A producer later conceded that choosing this individual was a ‘mistake.’ Fine. No one’s perfect, although I wonder about the screening process. In any case, thank you for the honesty. But what corrective action was taken? None. The individual remained an integral part of the series. Appeasement 101.
I’m now asking Discovery to view these raw videos so it can determine if those being interviewed were told what to say. As owner of the series, I’m sure Discovery wants to know if its product is not up to scratch.
It would have been useful if the TV production company had talked to these former reporters about what it was like to follow false police tips because it happened a lot with the McNair saga. This was no fault of police, nor the reporters … it just illustrates how false sightings helped the fugitive stay on the run. McNair was, of course, delighted when the media reported he was somewhere when in fact he was three time zones away.
This is precisely why Richard Lee McNair became a big fan of the TV program, America’s Most Wanted.
The ex-CNN reporter was described by the owner of the production company as a long-time friend. That explains why she went from being ‘Susan’ on the screen credits to ‘Susie’ on the production notes.
What I came across on the Internet on the reporter blew me away. I’ll let you make that discovery yourself. Watch the series, get her full name … then Google it.
The shrink had some great one-liners. Trouble is, they were so generic. The good news is that if the TV production company gets to do another true crime doc, they can still use the doctor’s quotes because his insight applies to most prisoners.
The shrink based his opinion of Richard Lee McNair — not by going through the prisoner’s files, nor by meeting with him, even talking to him on the phone — but from reading some of his letters. So this is the basis of his prognosis? Hmmm. I can’t see that being credible. [Full disclosure: I was not able to access McNair’s medical files … and when I was handed his dental file in British Columbia I was not permitted to view it.]
Again, if one were to view all the raw interview tapes from the talking heads, they would see how much these people actually knew … and if they were told what to say. Were they coached? I’m not talking about directors asking to cut back a 3-minute clip to 15 seconds, that’s a different matter. Being told what to say so your comments fit a set narrative is not journalism.
PROMISES, PROMISES …
I’m stating the obvious here, but promises that are honoured instill confidence and contribute to a trusting work environment. Broken promises, just the opposite.
When the owner of the TV production company assured me that she and I had final say, that’s HUGE. I would not have agreed to hand over all my material on McNair without that kind of assurance.
According to a key producer of the series, Seth Porges, the owner confirmed this with him as well. So the pledge wasn’t a big secret. I brought up the promise in numerous emails — to half a dozen production staff — but no one seemed to think much of it. Nobody phoned or fired off an email or a text for clarification. Why? They knew the promise was nothing more than a ploy to get someone to sign over their material.
Another producer assured that if I had any questions, I was to phone her right away! I did have questions and so I called … several times. Silence.
If you can’t keep your promises, don’t make ’em.
Then there’s a pledge by Porges [whose company played a major part in the production] that he wouldn’t back the series if I didn’t give it a thumbs up. That promise lasted about a day or so, then he reneged. I mentioned that to the Discovery exec and she SCREAMED in the phone, “He said that???” Ahem, yes he did.
You were had, lady, although your silence indicates you’re not too bothered about it.
SHOULD YOU WATCH THE SERIES?
Yes, by all means. And I hope you find it “entertaining.”
Just don’t get tricked into thinking it’s accurate. You might not pick up on the gaffs, or you might. That’s not the point. You’ve now read this blog piece, and you know more about how the series on Richard Lee McNair came about.
I categorize the production as a ‘docudrama’ instead of a documentary, and for good reason.
REACTION FROM DISCOVERY
Since the fall of 2021, I have been in touch with an executive at Discovery. We’ve talked on the phone a few times and exchanged emails. Debbie Sullivan is well aware of my concerns.
Here’s the news release from Discovery on The Prison Breaker series. In a separate news release, a Discovery Communications person was named as a contact, along with her email and phone number. Turns out, the phone number was bogus. How weird was that? In my 35-plus years of handling news releases, can’t say I ever came across a wrong phone number.
I will leave with this: Given my experience with the McNair project, I will forever view TV documentaries with scepticism. I’ll always wonder what was omitted, why people were chosen for interviews … and I will seriously doubt if what I’m seeing on TV is accurate.
Perhaps you will as well.
STEVE BUJOLD’S PODCAST
Click here to hear Steve Bujold’s interview with former US Air Force Police Officer Sam Bell Jr. and myself on the McNair series. It runs just under an hour.
Take note of the host’s comments at the very end.
ON A LIGHTER NOTE …
A reader in Eastern Canada — who has better skills with Adobe Photoshop than I — sent this image of my ‘cabin’ …