Dakota Datebook

McNair Escapes

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Infamous escape artist and murderer Richard Lee McNair escaped along with two other inmates from the North Dakota State Penitentiary at Bismarck on this date in 1992. The escape was the second of three.

In 1988, McNair pleaded guilty after being charged with the murder of Minneapolis truck driver Jerome Theis and the attempted murder of Richard Kitzman of Minot. Born and raised in Oklahoma, McNair, a sergeant with the U.S. Air Force, had been stationed at the Minot Air Force Base. On a November night in 1987, he attempted to burglarize the Farmer’s Union grain elevator on the outskirts of Minot. During the burglary, he was surprised by Kitzman, the operator of the elevator. After shooting Kitzman five times, he rushed outside and fatally shot Theis between the eyes as he waited in his semi to load. Miraculously, Kitzman survived the attack and was able to provide testimony that resulted in McNair’s capture. The murderer was sentenced to two terms of life in prison at the Bismarck State Penitentiary.

He initially escaped from the Minot municipal police station in 1988, shortly after being arrested. Then in 1991, he and a cohort of prisoners planned another elaborate escape. However, one of the prisoners tipped off a guard and the group was placed in isolation. Afterward, McNair became a model prisoner and even participated in a youth crime prevention program.

Then on October 9th, 1992, McNair and two other inmates went to the prison’s education room to watch a screening of the Ten Commandments. As McNair expected, no other inmates showed up for the film. As guards only patrolled the exterior halls, the three men had the room to themselves. They removed some ceiling tiles and crawled into a large air duct. From there, they made their way outside, shimmied up a fencepost, landed on the roof of the visitor’s room, and dropped fifteen feet to freedom.

The first prisoner was captured within three hours, and the second two days later. McNair, though, would not be captured for another nine months. He made his way across the country, burglarizing from Arizona to West Virginia, and posing as a journalist. He was caught in Grand Island, Nebraska, in July of 1993 and extradited back to North Dakota.

Deemed a problematic prisoner, he was moved to a federal prison in Louisiana. There, he hid himself in a shrink-wrapped pallet of repaired mail bags. A forklift took the pallet out of the prison, he cut himself free, and he spent another year and a half on the run, before being recaptured in 2007.



Dakota Datebook written by Jayme Job



Singer, Mark. October 9, 2006.“Escaped: A Killer Who Can’t be Kept in Prison,” The New Yorker.

Vallis, Mary. October 25, 2007. “Murderer, Serial Escaper, Captured in New Brunswick,” National Post.





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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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