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Richard Lee McNair: The Escape Artist

If you enjoy nothing better than indulging in movies like ‘The Great Escape’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ or a box set of ‘24′, then this outrageous tale of the world’s greatest real-life escape artist, is the perfect story for you.

Read on to find out how one man managed to escape from prison three times and went on the run for almost a year!

richard lee mcnair police photos

It was November 17th, 1987, in a small town called Minot, North Dakota, where the story began. Richard Lee McNair was a sergeant stationed at the local Air Force Base. Overcome with debt, McNair decided to rob a nearby grain storage facility. However, the burglary went tragically wrong.

Startled by two workers at the grain facility, McNair panicked and shot at them. Truck driver, Jerry Thies was murdered, while the other was hit four times.

McNair fled the scene but was soon called in for police questioning. Upon surrendering himself to the local authorities he yielded his handgun. He was soon convicted of his murderous crimes and received two life sentences. One for the murder of Jerry Thies and another for the attempted murder of his colleague. He also received an additional thirty years in prison for burglary.

It was at this point that Richard McNair’s escapology career began.

Macgyver Style Escape #1

Handcuffed to a chair at the Minot Police Station, with three detectives present, McNair managed to loosen his handcuffs with lip balm that he had in his pocket- and escape from the police station.

On the run across Minot for three hours, the police eventually managed to capture him after he ran up three flights of stairs and found himself surrounded by police. At the top of the building, with no other escape routes left, Richard jumped into a tree.

However, the branch broke and McNair injured his back as he fell to the ground. After a spell in hospital, he was sent to the Ward County Jail in Minot.

However, it wasn’t long before Richard hatched a plan to escape again.

richard lee Mcnair

Richard Lee McNair

Escape #2

When moved to a new cell, in February 1988, McNair was found to have been chiselling away at two concrete blocks in the walls of his cell. A portion of the blocks were gone completely. But, unlike the successful escape seen in the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ McNair was caught in the act.

It took another four years before he could get another plan into action.

In the style of too many television and film characters to name, Richard Lee McNair escaped from state prison in Bismarck, North Dakota in October 1992. Alongside two other prisoners, McNair escaped through a ventilation duct.

After crawling through the ventilation system, he was free. The other two prisoners didn’t last long on the outside – one was found within hours, the other days. McNair on the other hand, evaded the police for the next ten months!

On the run across America, he changed his appearance by dying his hair blond and growing a beard and long hair. Stealing cars to survive and travel, he was eventually found and arrested, in Grand Island, Nebraska, in August 1993.

This time, the authorities were taking no chances, so they sent him to a Federal Prison, labelled as a problem inmate.

The Escape to End all Escapes #3

In a higher security prison, it took a lot more time for Richard to formulate his next plan – The Great Escape.

Thirteen years on from his last escape, Richard was on the run again, and this time he had it all planned out.

Working in the factory room in the U.S. Penitentiary in Pollock Louisiana, McNair used his job repairing used mailbags as a way out. On the 5th April 2006, at 9.45 a.m., hidden underneath piles of repaired mailbags on a pallet destined for the outside, Richard lay hidden inside a specially-built tube, with a breathing straw pushed through a hole.

Shrink-wrapped and forklifted outside of the prison walls to a warehouse nearby, Richard cut his way out of the package at 11 a.m. and walked out of the warehouse. He was on the run – once again.

He had escaped from USP Pollock, a federal prison! The first person to escape a federal prison in fifteen years.

Richard McNair had timed the escape knowing that it would be 4 p.m. before anyone would realise that he had escaped. He set off at a jog towards Alexandria, Louisiana, to steal a car and everything else he needed to survive on the run.

After a few hours, he was almost captured when he was spotted by a police officer on patrol, Carl Bordelon, who was parked out of Richard’s line of vision. Bordelon reports that McNair was completely relaxed and friendly when he questioned what Richard was doing on the tracks.

Carl Bordelon didn’t even notice when Richard slipped up and gave two different false names during the conversation (Bordelon had a dash cam in his patrol car that recorded the full conversation).

Although he had no I.D., McNair managed to convince Carl Bordelon that he was staying at a local hotel while doing some roofing work in the area. It beggars belief – but Bordelon believed him and let him go!

Watch the whole amazing interaction in the video below.

Carl Bordelon always maintained that the description of McNair that was in circulation, did not look anything like McNair when he saw him. Despite this mishap, Bordelon remained in the police force for the rest of his life, working his way up to assistant police chief. It’s hard to believe his colleagues ever let him forget about this moment for the rest of his career though!

Eight days later, Richard McNair was still on the run, criss-crossing the country in stolen vehicles. He joined the list of the 15 Most Wanted criminals in the U.S. on the 13th April 2006.

On the run – again

Two weeks after he escaped U.S.P Pollock, Richard Lee McNair left Washington and entered Canada via British Columbia. On the 28th of April he was almost discovered again in British Columbia when police found his stolen car parked at the beach.

When instructed to get out of the vehicle, Richard leapt out and ran away. The officers were unable to catch him. It was days later that one of the police officers saw Richard on America’s Most Wanted.

Returning to the secured car, they found his fingerprints and dozens of self portraits on a digital camera that he was probably using to create fake identity cards.

Despite the incident, Richard stayed in Canada, and rode a bike to Kelowna.

richard lee mcnair wanted poster

Mcnair’s ‘wanted’ poster

From May 2006, Richard Lee McNair moved back and forth between America and Canada, always stealing cars to both travel and survive. Initially he left British Columbia, Canada, travelling first to Washington. Richard made his way round America – returning to Canada after some time from Minnesota. Back in Canada, he went to Ontario, then on to Vancouver.

Originally, McNair had planned to buy a property in Williston Lake, but was put off by the solitary road in and out of the property. It didn’t have the choice of escape routes that a man with his reputation would need.

In 2007, Richard spent his time in eastern Canada, mountain biking in the Laurentian Highlands of Quebec, travelling around Lac Saint-Jean and through Halifax, Nova Scotia then finally New Brunswick.

But it was in New Brunswick he came across the police again.

How he lived on the run

Whilst on the run Richard used the internet to track the coverage of himself in the media. The programme, America’s Most Wanted, was particularly problematic because it featured him twelve times.

Whenever the show was scheduled McNair would stock up on supplies and petrol, then lay low for a while if he was featured. After each show, viewers would ring in to say that they had seen McNair but he was never found.

Richard also used a number of laptops to create a fake I.D, including a false driver’s licence.

For food and money, McNair drew on his background working in a car showroom to steal money as well as cars from car showrooms whilst he travelled. He always chose brand new white cars without GPS, because they blended in easily and could not be tracked.

Tinted windows

It was his DIY tinted rear windows on a brand new stolen car, that finally gave him away. After off-duty constable Dan Melanson reported the vehicle, police in Nash Creek, New Brunswick, were on high alert. Following a brief car chase, McNair was arrested the next day by Constable Stephane Gagnon.

Richard McNair describes his capture as a simple case of bad luck, and was said to be rather jovial when captured.

Richard Lee McNair is now serving out the rest of his time in a tiny cell, in a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

Known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies, his fellow inmates are some of the most dangerous criminals in America. With no internet access, screened mail and only five fellow inmates in his block, one wonders what may be next for the infamous Richard McNair?

If you can’t get enough of this tale, you can read the full details in his book: The Man Who Mailed Himself out of Jail.

Recounted from prison via letters to Byron Christopher, a resident and crime journalist from the town where McNair was found.

Intrigued, he first wrote to McNair in prison, thanking him for making the town famous and sharing the latest news. Byron was the first member of the press that McNair replied to.

His reply was published in the local press, and shared details of how much he had enjoyed certain parts of New Brunswick and its residents.

Byron and McNair continued to write to each other. Christopher Byron eventually amassed enough details from Richard’s letters to compile a book about his time on the run.

Incredible escapologist or a man with too much time on his hands? What do you think? Let us know in the comments section down below.

And what do you make of the motives of Christopher Byron – altruist or opportunist?


If you enjoyed this story about a famous criminal who kept managing to evade the authorities then you’ll love our piece on Pablo Escobar’s wife too.

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