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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."

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The first leg of the pursuit ended just 50 yards from his mother's trailer in Coopertown, Tenn., north of Nashville, where he crashed a stolen Walmart tractor-trailer into a field and headed for the woods once again. An accomplice picked him up on a nearby back road and took him to Nashville, where he stole Ms. Gayle's tour bus and drove it to a NASCAR track in Florida, littering it with chip bag wrappers and empty bottles.

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"What he done was wrong, but he knows his mama don't have long," his mother, Annie, had told the press, after her wayward son had come within 50 feet of her front door. Two weeks after Gay's arrest, Annie passed on.

His mother's death isn't the only tragedy in Gay's life of crime. According to a Maxim magazine article about Gay, he grew up in an alcoholic family and learned to subsist on his own, once as a kid catching and boiling a couple of roosters for sustenance. As his sister, Leann Newman, told Mr. O'Brien, "If you want, he's got stories for songs for days."

Poor, sidelined, and one of millions of witnesses to a world of riches beyond his legal grasp, Gay made use of his diminutive anonymity with brazen cons. A sometime roofer, his thefts grew more audacious as he settled on his preferred targets: heavy construction equipment.

But at the same time, he had a desire to finally break out of his anonymity, to become someone bigger.

"Truth told, Gay didn't particularly want to be invisible any longer," Stephen Russell writes in the Maxim article. "Underneath the need to see his mother, another urge was bubbling up: to finally stand out from the crowd."

With Tuesday's escape, Gay has sealed that wish, becoming what Prof. Minh calls "a classic trickster legend."

"Here it looks like it's curtains for this guy, and what do you know? He outwits his pursuers yet again," he says.

According to published accounts, including those of his wife, Erica Tapola-Gay, Gay is seen by friends as a Robin Hood-like criminal who has given $100 bills to homeless people and cooked dinner for hungry neighborhood kids, even mowing his mother-in-law' s grass and watering her roses.

Unlike Eric Rudolph, the convicted Olympics bomber who eluded a massive FBI dragnet in the western North Carolina mountains for five years, Gay's favorable reputation is heavily tied to his nonviolent demeanor.

"What he has done is definitely wrong, and he is a criminal, but I am still proud of him as a person," Ms. Tapola-Gay wrote in a letter to a Nashville TV station after his arrest in 2007.

Poor people, especially, are sympathetic to Gay's plight, chiefly because he uses his country smarts and Broadway-caliber talents to outwit "the man," says O'Brien, the songwriter. "He's kind of the wild and crazy guy meets 'Dumb and Dumber,' though it's not that he's dumb, maybe just foolish," he says. "I think the justice system wants us to believe that they can get everybody, so you kind of want him to see his family and escape somewhere and live happily ever after somehow. The only way to do that is to be an outlaw, and maybe it's still possible. I think it is."