MINOT, N.D. — Every time convicted killer Richard Lee McNair landed behind bars, he dreamed up a new way to escape.
He once used lip balm to squeeze out of handcuffs. Another time, he crawled through a prison air vent. Last year, he slipped out with bags of mail.
On the lam, he found time to send a prison warden a Christmas card and used his name to apply for a cell phone. McNair seemed to be taunting his former captors.
All the while, McNair became one of the nation’s most wanted fugitives — and an Internet star. Tens of thousands watched a 10-minute police dashboard video of him talking his way out of an arrest.
His latest stint on the run ended Thursday when he was captured in Canada.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Ward County Sheriff Vern Erck said.
Described as keenly intelligent
Long before anyone knew of McNair, he seemed destined for a career in law enforcement, rather than one in evading it.
The son of a reserve police officer and oldest of four brothers, he grew up in south-central Oklahoma, a brother, Phil, said. “He is about the smartest person I’ve ever met,” he said.
Authorities agree. They say he has a knack for sizing up people and setting them at ease through idle banter, and can think quickly on his feet. McNair once served as an Air Force military police officer, and was a police informant.
“He was a good guy that I always admired — until he made bad choices,” Phil McNair said.
On the night of Nov. 17, 1987, McNair armed himself with a snub-nose .38 and broke into a grain elevator building in this north-central North Dakota city for a robbery.
He shot and wounded Richard Kitzman in an office, then went outside to a rig waiting on a load of grain. The driver, Jerome Theis, of Circle Pines, Minn., was eating ice cream in the cab.
Kitzman called 911, then heard gunshots outside.
“I remember telling them, ‘I think he’s shooting Jerry,”’ Kitzman said. Theis was dead.
Months after his arrest, McNair began his legendary escapes.
In February 1988, he used a tube of lip balm to slip out of handcuffs at the Minot police station. He was captured after he jumped from the third floor of a building.
The second escape came from the North Dakota State Penitentiary. Officials said McNair and two other prisoners escaped through a ventilation duct on Oct. 9, 1992, and was on the lam until the following July 5, when he was captured in Grand Island, Neb.
Eventually, with North Dakota authorities unable to hold him, McNair was shipped to a maximum-security federal prison in Louisiana.
On April 5, 2006, McNair smuggled himself out in a pile of mailbags.
A Ball, La., police officer spotted him running across train tracks that day.
McNair, wearing a tank top and shorts, could be seen in an online video telling the officer that he was out on a run. The officer told him a man had escaped from prison.
He called on his radio to get a description of the escapee.
Laughing, the officer said: “You know the bad thing about it, you’re matching up to him.”
“Well, that sucks doesn’t it,” McNair replied.
A few minutes later, the officer explained why he stopped McNair: “When I crossed the tracks down there, I saw you running. I said, ‘Well, how lucky can I be.”’
“No, nope, nope, nope,” McNair said. “I’m not no prison escapee.”
The officer decided McNair was not his man, then offered him some advice: “If you do jog again in the future, carry some ID with you.”
They exchanged a laugh, and McNair took off running.
“Be careful buddy,” the officer said.
Arrested after brief chase
Somehow, McNair got all the way to Canada.
On Thursday, police captured him about 100 miles north of the border in Campbellton, New Brunswick. He had been driving a stolen van, Erck said.
“In typical McNair fashion, he jumped out of the van and took off,” the sheriff said.
An officer tackled him about a quarter-mile down a gravel road. McNair, 48, had grown a full mustache and beard and had several fake IDs, but admitted his real identity, Erck said.
North Dakota state prison warden Tim Schuetzle called the capture “great news.” He had always figured one day he would again see the man who sent him the Christmas card.
The warden plans to make McNair the first state prison inmate to be placed on indefinite lockdown, allowing him to leave his cell for one hour a day and only in restraints.
“He’s our inmate and our responsibility,” Schuetzle said recently. “I don’t know of any other state that will accept him now with his escape history.”