Lip Balm, Air Vents & Mail Bags: Inside Richard Lee McNair’s Infamous Prison Breakouts

‘He is about the smartest person I’ve ever met,’ his brother once said.

October 06, 2021
Richard McNair

Richard McNair

Photo by: Discovery, Inc.

Discovery, Inc.

Richard McNair

By: Aaron Rasmussen

A creative and quick-thinking criminal, Richard Lee McNair, somehow managed to invent new ways to escape the confines of prison time after time. McNair was first arrested for a 1987 botched robbery and murder in North Dakota and sentenced to serve two terms of life — but prison bars seemed to be no match for him as his feats grew more and more daring each time.

February 1988

McNair’s first escape from a county jail in Minot, North Dakota, in the late-1980s was fleeting. While handcuffed to a chair, he managed to get ahold of a detective’s lip balm and use it as a lubricant so he could slip from his restraints. He then jumped from a third-floor window, but he was caught soon after. “He is about the smartest person I’ve ever met,” McNair’s brother, Phil, once said.

October 1992

The escape artist got his first long stretch of freedom on the lam after he broke out of the North Dakota State Penitentiary. According to reports, McNair and two other prisoners shimmied their way through ventilation ducts. He was recaptured in Nebraska nearly nine months later, in July 1993, and sent to a maximum-security prison in Louisiana.

April 2006

During his last and most daring escapade, McNair managed to elude authorities not once, but three times. During the early spring 2006 breakout, he hid among mailbags and got out of the federal prison in Pollock, Louisiana. When a police officer in Ball, Louisiana, spotted and stopped McNair, who was running on train tracks in shorts and a tank top, the convicted murderer claimed he was out for a jog. The policeman called dispatch for a description of the prisoner and even told McNair he was “matching up to him.” In a video of the incident, smooth-talking McNair is seen keeping his cool, and the officer lets him continue on his way with a warning: “Be careful buddy.” McNair was so careful he made it all the way into Canada. Weeks after he escaped, Canadian law enforcement stopped him in a stolen car, but he managed to flee and again elude capture. His luck ran out in October 2007 in New Brunswick when Royal Canadian Mounted Police stopped him in a stolen van. McNair tried to bolt, but an officer tackled him to the ground and took him into custody for what may or might not be the last time.

To hear the true story of Richard McNair's infamous escapes, in his own words, stream The Prison Breaker now on discovery+.

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