The bizarre story of Richard Lee McNair, the man who escaped by mailing himself out of prison

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Oct 24, 2022 at 09:12 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

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We’ve all read stories about the most bizarre ways people have escaped from prison. Be it bulldozers, make-believe shopping trips, or a terrifying amount of laxatives, several inmates have previously tried to Shawshank Redemption their way out of jail at least once during their sentence. In the case of convicted murderer Richard Lee McNair, however, his extraordinary list of prison escapes has made him more notorious than the actual crimes that incarcerated him.

It all began back in 1987 at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota when a robbery gone wrong saw McNair shoot and kill a man and injure a second. After the police brought McNair in for questioning, he was seated in a room with three detectives, handcuffed to a chair. It was at this moment that the to-be convict had his first brush with getaways.

Managing to get ahold of a detective’s lip balm, McNair lubricated his hands enough so that he could slip out of the handcuffs when the officials left him alone. Although the escape resulted in a foot chase around the town, the man was quickly cornered into a building where he reportedly jumped from the third floor, landed on the ground, and injured his back—making it much easier for the cops to detain him.

McNair was then given two life sentences for murder and attempted murder, on top of a 30-year sentence for burglary. But this was just a warm-up session for the inmate, whose prison break attempts grew more daring over time.

In October 1992, McNair was held at the North Dakota State Penitentiary when, along with two fellow convicts, he pulled an Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption and slipped out through a ventilation duct. While the other two men were nabbed quickly, McNair was recaptured in Nebraska over nine months later in July 1993 and shipped to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Oak Park—a Level 5 prison that no one has ever managed to escape from.

The bizarre story of Richard Lee McNair, the man who escaped by mailing himself out of prison

After a number of years at the facility and the realisation that he would not be able to jump the secure cell, McNair participated in a sit-down strike that witnessed his return to North Dakota and his later transfer to the Florence High Penitentiary in Denver, Colorado—before being moved again to a maximum-security federal prison in Louisiana.

Here, McNair’s job was to repair torn mailbags so that they could be shipped out to post offices for use. After months of plotting yet another escape plan, the inmate jumped prison for the third time on 5 April 2006 after hiding in an “escape pod” he DIY-ed out of the materials available to him—complete with a breathing tube. Buried under a pile of mailbags, McNair’s pallet was shrink-wrapped and forklifted to a nearby warehouse outside of the prison fence. When the staff left for lunch, the escape artist merely cut himself out of the pallet and walked free.

“He is about the smartest person I’ve ever met,” McNair’s brother once said, adding, “He was a good guy that I always admired—until he made bad choices.” What McNair didn’t know at the time was that perhaps the most astounding part of his getaway was yet to come.

Hours after his prison break, a cop saw McNair jogging on a railroad track near Ball, Louisiana. Briefed about an escape nearby, the officer halted and questioned him about his whereabouts. Despite not having any identification on him and matching the description of the escapee that the officer had received before stopping the inmate, McNair still managed to talk his way out of the confrontation. He convinced the officer his name was “Robert Jones” and that he was just a man in town to help with a post-Katrina roofing project. When he slipped and said his name was “Jimmy Jones” five minutes later, the officer didn’t notice the change in his alibi.

“You know the bad thing about it, you’re matching up to him,” the cop said, referring to the description of the escapee. “Well, that sucks, doesn’t it?” McNair replied. The officer then advised him to carry some ID next time and the two shared a laugh before McNair jogged on to freedom. What’s more is that the officer’s dashboard camera captured the entire exchange:

McNair went on to use a number of fake names during the year and a half that he was free and even went as far as to send Christmas cards to the jail he was supposed to be locked up in. However, he was later recaptured on 24 October 2007, 100 miles north of the border in Campbellton, New Brunswick.

Today, the 63-year-old resides in a concrete cell at the super-maximum security prison ADX Florence, which also houses notorious criminals like the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, and “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid. He has also described his new home as the “most secure section of the most secure prison in the world.”

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