Two years ago, Anthony J. Zavosky joined the check and fraud squad of the D.C. police department as a detective. He was assigned to investigate flimflam schemes. It took only a few days for him to receive his first complaint about The Boot Man.

Zavosky has since gotten dozens. The Boot Man, Zavosky soon learned, is one of Washington's more remarkable and more relentless characters. He has tried to con money out of hundreds of Washingtonians -- possibly thousands -- in the last few years. He has been successful countless times.

Perhaps you're one of The Boot Man's victims, or intended victims. He always approaches when you're alone, usually on a downtown Washington street corner. He feigns friendliness and claims to be a neighbor. He says his car has just been booted for nonpayment of parking tickets and all he needs is $50 in cash (or sometimes more, if you look as if you're good for more) to get the police to release his car. He swears he'll stop by your house tonight and return the money. Of course, he never does.

According to Tony Zavosky, The Boot Man has nailed many prominent Washingtonians over the years. "A couple of judges, a police officer, two deputy U.S. marshals, one defense attorney, and those are just the ones I know about," Zavosky said.

The Boot Man even tried his luck with a certain newspaper columnist a couple of years ago, outside The Washington Post's offices on 15th Street NW. The columnist was more amused than persuaded. The Boot Man went away empty-handed.

But Tony Zavosky's war with The Boot Man took a new turn on Jan. 22. That morning, a man answering The Boot Man's description was arrested. A case that has become a crusade for Zavosky may finally be closed.

For several years, The Boot Man plied his trade chiefly in and around D.C. police headquarters, Superior Court and U.S. District Court. "We'd get calls: 'He's down here right now!' " Zavosky recalled. "But by the time we got down there, he'd be gone." It was as if The Boot Man had a sixth sense for danger.

But three weeks ago, a mug shot that Zavosky had left with a U.S. marshal bore fruit. A man was begging a "neighbor" for $50 near an entrance to Superior Court. The marshal on duty overheard the discussion and recognized the suspect. He arrested the man on a fugitive warrant.

Police identify the suspect as Willie James Hill Jr., a 37-year-old maintenance worker from Germantown. Hill was charged with seven counts of theft involving sums of less than $250 and two counts of attempted theft. His case is before the U.S. attorney, who will decide later this month whether to prosecute him.

For Zavosky, a bright-eyed man with a black mustache, Hill's arrest was the triumph of a policeman's pride over a con man's skill.

"It got to be an ego thing with me; I admit it," said the detective, as we sipped coffee in the squad room. "It wasn't personal. But he was so good. I told him so. If he told me the sky was blue, I'd have to look. Nobody better. Mr. Smooth. And I'd been chasing him so long."

Why did the suspected Boot Man do it? "For beer money, he told me," said Zavosky. "But also for the thrill of it. He had the {courage}. And you've got to have {courage} to do this in a courthouse, to do it to police officers in uniform."

Was Hill contrite after his arrest? "Not exactly," Zavosky replied. "He tried to smooth me. He stood over there in the corner and cried his eyes out, said he'd never do it again if I let him go."

But the suspect had not reckoned with Bill Mendez, a check and fraud detective who arrested Hill in 1986 on similar charges and who sits three feet away from Zavosky. "That's the same {expletive} you fed me in 1986," Mendez told the suspect. The tears stopped very abruptly, both detectives recall.

Zavosky broke the case through "old-fashioned police work." He sat and read through approximately 300 "case jackets," each of which described a Boot Man scam. "The 300th jacket I looked at, there was the information about who he was," based on the 1986 arrest and conviction, Zavosky recalled. Hill still lives at the same address and has the same phone number he had then. The rest was a question of spreading mug shots around -- and waiting.

Zavosky does not have any illusions about how big a dent he has put in Washington's con racket by arresting the suspect. "Look at this," he said as he yanked open a jampacked file drawer. "I got enough other stuff in here to last for years." Besides, said Zavosky, "I guarantee you he'll be back doing this again in a few months."

Any advice for the public if they are confronted by The Boot Man, or another scam artist? "It sounds trite," said Zavosky, "but don't give your money to a stranger." If you do become a victim, or if you haven't reported a previous flimflam, Zavosky urges you to call him at 202-727-4159.

"This guy fooled a lot of people," The Boot Man's pursuer said as he poured another cup of coffee. "But I got him."