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 McNair — I was a natural choice to showcase the four-part series.
Program credits list more than a dozen people, including a few Executive Producers. I was one of those.
Because of an unusually high number of geographical gaffs and poor editorial control, this executive producer is giving the series a thumbs down — 1.5 stars out of five.
Here’s why …
AND JUST 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 got the attention of people around the world — for two reasons: Hidden in a pallet of old mailbags, the Oklahoma native essentially shipped himself to freedom … and just hours later, the con smooth-talked his way out of an encounter with a policeman on railroad tracks.
It was his third escape from custody. That’s right. Third.
And so began Richard McNair’s wild, 18-month journey across the US and Canada. Following a low-speed car chase and a high-speed foot chase, one of America’s Most Wanted was tackled by a rookie RCMP officer in a forest near my hometown of Campbellton, New Brunswick. That happened in late October 2007. More than leaves were falling that day.
While on the run, Richard McNair committed numerous break-ins — mainly at car dealerships where he helped himself to new wheels and petty cash, plus whatever was in the safe.
According to law enforcement on both sides of the border, McNair didn’t physically hurt anyone while on his unauthorized furloughs. There were no armed robberies, no muggings, no grabbing cash from people at ATM’s, etc. That’s an important point, because that’s not how most killers usually behave.
After McNair was collared by the Mounties, he was sent packing to what many say is the world’s most secure prison — ADX, the Supermax — in Florence, Colorado. The ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies’ is home to some nasty characters: the Unabomber, Doctor Death, the Shoe Bomber, turncoat FBI spies and, now, drug lord El Chapo.
I began to write to Richard McNair about a year after he arrived, shackled, on a prison bus at the Supermax. I was soon getting two letters a week from him, revealing stuff that no one — especially law enforcement and crime reporters — knew a thing about. That led to me travelling across the continent as well — just as McNair did — except I was researching a book on his three escapes and his time on the lam [and I wasn’t driving a stolen vehicle].
From McNair’s letters, I became privy to details of the 1987 killing that put McNair behind bars, an inside look at how he pulled off his three escapes, his childhood, time in the US Air Force and, of course, how and where McNair spent his time on the lam. All interesting stuff.
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 all the hours it took to write hundreds of letters to McNair — and to keyword and catalogue whatever the prisoner 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, much improved 600-page paperback. If you’re wondering which one to buy [provided you’re into true crime], go with the paperback. Keep in mind, too, that 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 so many revealing interviews that led to two reporting awards — including a national citation for the top newspaper series in Canada [given to The Tribune of Campbellton, NB]. I was also featured on the History Channel in a two-hour special on prison breakouts.
And now, a TV series called The Prison Breaker.
Because of McNair’s spectacular escape in Louisiana, the con has been featured on many docs on prison breakouts. Don’t want to sound cutesy about this, but Richard Lee McNair is to prison escape artists what Babe Ruth was to baseball and Wayne Gretzky to ice hockey.
The Discovery series is being shown not only in the US and Canada but in Britain, Australia and India … with more countries set to come on board.
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, don’t know. For the record, I live in a regular house in a quiet subdivision in the west end of Edmonton, Alberta.
My pet isn’t a moose nor a beaver, it’s a small American Yorkshire terrier. And I arrived for the interview — not wearing a toque or carrying a hockey stick — but an Aussie Akubra hat, with the paperback on McNair, all his letters … and a few mementos of the prisoner’s journey, such as his 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 California] … and wannabe, light-weight producers who were short on talent but big on industry buzz terms.
The bullshit and smoke-and-mirrors was often way over the top. From producers [supposedly with a background in journalism] the BS ranged from, “Who do you want to play your part in a movie?” … to “I got your back!”
Sleaze, of course, is not a crime.
Hate to say this, but I will: I saw far more integrity in a killer than most media people I dealt with. Read that again.
However, I learned some valuable lessons and for that, I am grateful.
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: it was 1] disjointed … 2] contaminated with fake talking heads … and 3] poor quality editorial control. It came across as a superficial high school production that followed a predicable, cookie-cutter format. In other words, there wasn’t a lot of original thinking. And that was ironic because the ‘sizzle reel’ which the TV production company distributed to 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 Wikipedia’s write-up on him sometimes have more views than its page on Elvis Presley? Could it be a fatal shooting in Minot more than a third of a century ago? No. How about the time McNair slipped out of handcuffs? Not likely. How about him removing a cinder block from his jail cell in ’88? Nope. 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.
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, BC, where McNair was nearly captured by the RCMP in the spring of 2006. The setting is actually Campbellton, New Brunswick — 3,100 miles away. [Civic officials in Penticton and Campbellton have been given the heads-up.]
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.
According to The Prison Breaker, the highway shown in the image below is West Virginia, USA. False. What viewers see is Highway 11, which is in New Brunswick, CANADA. People from Northern New Brunswick will recognize Sugarloaf Mountain on the left. The road sign indicates Atholville and Campbellton … and 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 unprofessional and embarrassing. But perhaps some viewers, especially non-Canadians, couldn’t give a rat’s ass because, after all, it’s still Canada, eh?
Well, I care.
Now that they’ve been brought to the attention of the good folk at Discovery, I’m hoping these mistakes can be corrected.
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.
In 1988, the US didn’t have troops in Afghanistan. That’s the first red flag. The second is that McNair was actually describing a breakout that happened 18 years later, in 2006. The producers were well aware of the mistake, but chose to let it slide. 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 the Discovery+ docudrama, the con is shown breathing through a tiny plastic tube attached to the top portion of a two-litre plastic pop bottle. That didn’t happen. Far as I can tell, large pop bottles weren’t available to prisoners at USP Pollock then — and they’re still not.
Showing McNair breathing through a tiny plastic tube is pure Hollywood. The prisoner was able to get air because of a wider tube [made from pressed cardboard, which arrived at the prison with a shipment of fabric]. Mr. Escapee had poked the 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. Producers were told about the error, but still kept it in. It’s unfortunate they didn’t consult with the Author before shooting started because it’s all there in the book …
A number of corrections were made to the initial drafts. At one point, producers had prisoner McNair laughing when his letters clearly showed he wasn’t. How could something like that work its way into a script? It’s my guess the malicious laughter was deliberately added, then ‘overlooked’ by agenda-driven producers who wanted the con to appear more sinister.
More Hollywood again.
The most distressing part of the series was the continued use of so-called talking heads … particularly the former CNN reporter and a former journalist with the Calgary Herald [who now works public relations for the City of Calgary]. Both 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: the insight they shared with the audience happens to match 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.
Was this a case of “Say this, say that … now you’re an expert?” I suspect it was. The answer, of course, lies in those raw interview videos. Perhaps the director who interviewed the talking heads remarked, “Where did you get all this exclusive information? You sure didn’t have it in your reports!”
It’s more ammunition for those who believe the media cannot be trusted.
Instead of holding a note pad, 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. [“Did I get that right?”] You won’t see expressions like that on those who were truly connected to the McNair story — the police, McNair’s former girlfriend, his father, the North Dakota reporter who first covered the crime, etc. Hell, even me.
Note to talking heads: PLEASE stick to material of which you have first-hand knowledge. And don’t play up for the camera. This is not a tryout for Jerry Springer.
Turns out, the Calgary ‘crime blogger’ posted only a single blog story [of 103 listed] on Richard McNair — and that was 14 years ago after her newsroom got a news release from Calgary police that the US fugitive could be hiding out in the city. In fact, McNair was on the other side of the country, thousands of miles away. Ooops.
A producer later conceded that choosing this individual was a ‘mistake.’ Fine. No one’s perfect, although I seriously 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 tainted. [FYI — I repeatedly asked to view those raw videos, but got nowhere.]
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 evade capture. 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. Perhaps 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, or 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? I have no medical training, but I hardly see that as credible.
[Full disclosure: I was not able to access McNair’s medical files and when I was handed his dental file I was not permitted to view it.]
Again, if one were to view all the raw interview tapes from the talking heads, they’d 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 different.
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, the owner confirmed this with him as well. So I suspect the promise wasn’t a big secret. I brought up the pledge 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 darn well 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 about why certain talking heads were selected, and so I called … several times. Silence. We’re now talking about ‘communication by silence’ since April 2021.
If you can’t keep your promises, don’t make ’em.
SHOULD YOU WATCH THE SERIES?
Yes, by all means. And I hope you find it entertaining. You might not pick up on the gaffs — or you may. That’s not the point. You’ve read this blog piece, and you now know more about how things came about.
I categorized 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. She’s 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 number didn’t work. How weird was that? In my 35-plus years of handling news releases, can’t say I ever came across a bogus phone number.
The gong show continues.
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 doubt if what I’m seeing is accurate.
Perhaps you will as well.
STEVE BUJOLD’S PODCAST
Click here to hear Steve’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 Steve’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’ …