SAN DIEGO -- To those who remember losing their last quarter down the gullet of an unyielding pay telephone, James Clark and his seven-year odyssey across America may bear the mark of Robin Hood. He is a bandit to be sure, matching wits with a heartless corporate machine.
Even to the telephone company security officers and police he has eluded for so long, Clark has become almost a legend, an inventor who developed a lock-picking device no one has been able to duplicate, a criminal cautious and clever enough to stay one town ahead of his pursuers.
Now thought to be robbing telephone coin boxes methodically in Arizona and southern California, Clark, 47, a former machinist and die-maker from Ohio, has set the world record for pay-phone thefts -- an estimated $500,000 since 1980. Favoring western garb, baseball cap, cowboy boots, gold-rimmed glasses and ponytail, he has been identified by telephone company officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as the only person in the United States capable of picking the tough locks on America's 1.8 million pay phones.
Clark has a sense of humor. He often identifies himself as "James Bell" when checking into the cheap motels that are his favorite lodging. He drives a blue van and frequents auto races and country-western bars.
Investigators following a trail of telephones with his distinctive scratch marks have tracked him through at least 24 states, including Maryland, where he allegedly robbed phones in Baltimore and Hagerstown.
"Unless somebody gets lucky, he'll probably never get caught," said Robert Cooperider, an Ohio Bell security official who has become an expert on Clark's methods. "He's well organized, he's smart, and he's not greedy. He only hits a few widely spaced spots each day. He's always looking over his shoulder, to see if there is a police car, or a telephone company vehicle."
An informer in Ohio identified Clark as the pay-phone bandit years ago, and police have some very old snapshots and an artist's sketch, based on an eyewitness description in California this summer. But that may not be enough.
For at least a decade before Clark began his remarkable journey, pay telephones were invulnerable to all but the clumsiest, noisiest thieves. Some penetrated to the coin box by cracking the phone open with a sledgehammer. Some shoved the entire booth out of the ground with a tractor.
But for this generation of coin-box locks, shared by almost all the pay phones in the country, no other thief seems to have found a way to operate with Clark's quiet efficiency. Telephone company officials have been unable to determine the precise nature of the tool he uses or how he disposes of the coin boxes once he has taken them away and emptied them.
Pacific Bell security director Monte Richardson, based in San Francisco, noted that Clark's ability to open the phone's coin drawer, remove the box and close the drawer again means that his crime often goes undiscovered until a company coin collector comes around. Most of the burglarized phones are near highways, and Clark appears to need daylight to handle his tools, but that has not slowed him down.
"If you looked at him, you'd think he was just some guy making a phone call," Cooperider said. "He has the receiver cradled in his ear, he's got some coins out or a newspaper." Some witnesses have remarked on Clark's habit of wearing his sports shirts unbuttoned with the shirttails out, which may help cover his lock-picking and hide the coin box when he leaves the booth.
This month, seven Bell companies offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. After his marks were discovered on five empty phones in nearby Escondido and Oceanside in late August and early September, the San Diego Police Department put him on its list of the top 10 local fugitives.
Clark is believed to have stopped at the recent Grand Prix auto race in Del Mar, just north of here. He went to Arizona for a while, according to Pacific Bell spokeswoman Doreen Sera, but is thought to be back in California.
"We try to keep in touch with each other," Richardson said of his fellow Bell company security officials. "We'll call and say, 'It looks like he's going into your territory.' " This summer, Clark left a clear trail from Nevada through Sacramento to the Bay Area, then south to Los Angeles.
Authorities distributed "wanted" posters to several cheap motels and 7-Eleven stores, where he often buys his food. They thought they were close to catching him, but he managed to stay at least 24 hours ahead of his pursuers.
With the national telephone system decentralized into so many different companies, security officials are uncertain whether an extensive effort will be mounted to modify the phone locks. Because Clark's annual booty, about $70,000, is taken from several companies, some telephone executives think they may decide it is cheaper to keep the old locks and continue their periodic efforts to find the culprit.
The wanted posters describe Clark as 5-foot-9, armed with a .38-caliber revolver and dangerous. So far he has shown no fondness for violence.
Investigators say he sometimes pays for his food and lodging with coins wrapped carefully in rolls. At other times, he counts and rolls the stolen money in his motel room, then visits a local bank and exchanges the coins for bills.
And they say he appears to have cut himself off from whatever family he once had. "Maybe he likes it that way," Cooperider said. "Maybe he likes being out on the loose."