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Tennessee's 'Little Houdini' revives the outlaw legend

Supporters say Chris Gay is a modern Robin Hood. Lawmen call him "a little thief, a little con."

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2009

Courtesy of Cobb County, Ga.

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ATLANTA

Wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans and sporting a compact moustache, Chris Gay, fully shackled in the back seat of a sheriff's cruiser, stayed mostly quiet as his home state of Tennessee – and the likelihood of a long prison sentence – drew ever nearer.

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Coffee County, Tenn., Capt. Donnie Thomas didn't know the diminutive prisoner in the back was one of America's most notorious cons, a man one Tennessee police chief calls "the Cool Hand Luke of the 2000s." The deputy made it back to Tennessee. His prisoner didn't.

Mr. Gay's much-publicized prison-break in 2007 to reach his dying mama's side failed, but only after he led authorities on a five-state, five-day chase that ended with him being arrested driving the country singer Crystal Gayle's stolen tour bus in Florida. Now police around the flyspeck burgs of northern Tennessee are back on full alert after another audacious escape by Gay in Kennesaw, Ga., on Tuesday.

"How people portray him, he's an outlaw," says Michael Douglas, the police chief of Pleasant View, Tenn.

The details of Gay's Houdini-like escape – a wily thief up against a veteran small-town Tennessee deputy – is remarkable for its "Smokey & The Bear" allure at a time when outlaws are found mostly online.

Indeed, with the US firmly entrenched in the Homeland Security era, Gay's criminal, but non-violent, exploits and escapes have made him an unlikely figure: The latest in a long tradition of American counter-heroes, a modern-day Pretty Boy Floyd.

"After 9/11, law enforcement has kind of become omnipotent, but there's a yearning, perhaps stronger than ever, for someone to thumb their nose at authority, and that's why [Gay] is very appealing in his own kind of curious, if somewhat perverse, way," says Stephen Mihm, a historian at the University of Georgia and author of "A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States."

"Law-abiding folks view these people with perhaps misplaced admiration, but one that has a lot to do with whatever resentments ordinary people might nurse against authority, whether it be a bank or the local sheriff's department," he says.

The Gay story has as many twists and tragedies as the best country song, which is what songwriter Tim O'Brien picked up on when he first read about the case in a small paper in Telluride, Colo., in 2007. The Grammy winner turned the tale into a popular bluegrass song, "The Ballad of Christopher Daniel Gay."

Knowing his mom was dying, the 5-foot-5, 140 pound Gay escaped from a prisoner transport in January 2007 at a welcome center on the Alabama line, exploiting a sodden rain that stymied a team of tracking dogs.

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