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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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Gay's exploits are headed for legend, set first to song and now to film. Indeed, after this latest escape, the Hollywood director Craig Brewer ("Hustle & Flow," "Black Snake Moan") will have to go to rewrite for his upcoming movie based on Gay's exploits.

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Cheatham County Assistant District Attorney Bob Wilson isn't so awe-struck. "He's a little thief, a little con," says Mr. Wilson, who has an outstanding warrant for equipment theft ready to serve to Gay. "I'm just looking forward to seeing him."

In Pleasant View, Tenn., one of a handful of little towns and backcountry burgs where Gay grew up and still seems most comfortable, Police Chief Michael Douglas credits Gay with "being pretty good at what he does."

Pleasant View is where this tale really began. In 2006, Gay conned a Nashville towing company, convincing them to pick up a bulldozer at a local construction site. Over his career, Douglas says Gay stole millions of dollars worth of equipment, part of a fencing ring that would misappropriate heavy equipment, scratch out the VIN numbers, and paint them to look like new.

After being nabbed for stealing an RV in Alabama, Gay was being extradited to Tennessee to face the bulldozer charge when he escaped the first time, using a paper clip hidden in his mouth to unshackle himself from both handcuffs and leg irons.

During his 2007 run, he stole Gayle's tour bus not by hotwiring it, but by walking into the management company's office and asking for the keys. "He hasn't gotten through life killing people, but outwitting them," says Prof. Mihm.

Indeed, even Tennessee law enforcement officials view Gay's coolness and lock-picking skills with begrudging respect. Police, in fact, gave him the nickname "Little Houdini." Touched by Gay's attempt to see his mother. Coopertown, Tenn., police chief Dave Barrera made it known that Gay could see Annie one last time if he turned himself in, a reunion that never happened.

This week, Gay did what he has always done: Greet opportunity when it walks through the door. Perhaps aware that Capt. Thomas didn't know his reputation, Gay started working on his escape after Thomas stopped to eat at a Waffle House in Kennesaw. When Thomas returned, Gay asked to use the restroom. When the deputy opened the door, Gay, suddenly unshackled, bolted.

Though police have never known Gay to be violent, and Georgia media described him as "not dangerous," college officials locked down the Kennesaw State University campus on Tuesday, as unconfirmed eyewitness accounts described Gay walking through a dining hall as cool as a Sunday breeze.

Though there's no evidence that Gay has a gun, authorities have labeled him as "armed and dangerous."

"If a guy is wanting to escape as much as he is, we feel like he's going to try to do anything to get out," says Chief Douglas in Pleasant View.

Capt. Thomas, a 35-year-veteran, almost refused to come back to Tennessee until he caught up with Gay, says Coffee County Sheriff Steve Graves. In response to the escape, the sheriff's department has already mandated more intense background checks on prisoners lined up for transport.

"[Thomas] definitely wants to be the one who goes and picks [Gay] up when he gets caught," says Sheriff Graves. "But this time I'll send someone with him."