The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

He announced it was his birthday and that he was from London. Drinking at the bar at the Willard InterContinental hotel, police said, he was overheard plotting — perhaps in a boozy swagger — to jump the White House fence.

At the Old Ebbitt Grill, the manager said the man with the crew cut blended in like a “regular kind of guy” and made quick friends ordering rounds at a bar once patronized by presidents.

And at the Ritz-Carlton, police said, he topped a dinner of grilled octopus and rack of lamb with a $156 bottle of cabernet sauvignon and a $1,200 shot of a rare 34-year-old single-malt Irish whiskey kept under combination lock in a vault.

Police and the bartenders at some of Washington’s swankiest hotels, which attract a clientele of pols, scribes and lobbyists, say that for at least two recent weeks, the man with the British accent has come in. He orders from the expensive side of the menu — then skips out without paying the bill. (Though police said he did once try to bill the room of a professional basketball player.)

An informal network has kept tabs on the man’s travels, and photos of him are circulating. Managers or spokesmen for two of three targets — the Willard and the Ritz-Carlton — declined to comment.

The Willard InterContinental hotel in 2011. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Police have arrested a suspect, Nicholas James Cooper, 21, three times, yet he has routinely been released pending his next court date, on April 12.

A motive remains unclear, though court documents say Cooper has been combative when confronted by police, at least twice begged officers to shoot him and has tried to harm himself while in custody. His attorney, Teresa G. Kleiman, declined to comment, and neither Cooper nor relatives could be reached by The Washington Post. Authorities said he is a British citizen, and they have been in contact with the consulate; officials there did not respond to interview requests.

James Swanson and Michael F. Bishop, longtime friends who frequently gather over a drink, were discussing the issues of the day when they met a man who fits Cooper’s description at the Hay-Adams bar on Monday evening.

Swanson, the author of the bestseller “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” said he recalled the man bragging about a $1,200 shot he drank at the Ritz-Carlton and about having celebrated his birthday with a three-week trip to Las Vegas. He recalled the man talking about London, and living in the exclusive Kensington neighborhood.

Swanson and Bishop said the man was dressed casually — jeans and a sweater. Bishop, the director of the National Churchill Library and Center at George Washington University, said he talked to the man for a few minutes before the man turned his attention to two young women.

“It was amusing watching him drink expensive drink after expensive drink over the period of a couple of hours,” Bishop said. “He appeared knowledgeable.” He said the women “seemed mortified. . . . They were obviously trying to have a pleasant conversation between them, and he kept insisting on talking to them and taking photographs with them.”

Police said they are looking into the possibility that the man Swanson and Bishop saw, who later absconded without paying his bill, could be Cooper. Cooper has not been charged in that incident.

Hans Bruland, the vice president and general manager of the Hay-
Adams, declined to comment. “I’d rather not be rude or mean,” he said. “I’d just rather not speak about it.”

Cooper first attracted the attention of authorities on March 13, when police officers responded to a report of two thefts — from the Willard, where authorities said the man signed his $68.20 bar bill with a fake name and hotel room — and then the Old Ebbitt Grill, where they said he tried to pay $67.91 with a closed credit card.

One of Old Ebbitt’s managers, Ezra Riggs, described the man as “relatively friendly and offering to buy drinks.” He said bartenders can often recognize a customer who may not be able to pay, but he said with this customer “there wasn’t any red flags, at least at the beginning.”

Cooper was arrested and charged with two counts of theft, and he was released pending his April court date. He told the arresting officers, according to an affidavit, “I have nothing.”

Three days later, Cooper was back in custody. Authorities said he was charged with destruction of property after he allegedly pulled on the glass doors of the Embassy Row Hotel so hard that they shattered. Police said he mistook the hotel for the one he was actually staying at across the street.

Court records show that Cooper was again released after a hearing.

On March 23, police said, Cooper showed up at the Ritz-Carlton in the West End, where a report says he rang up a $2,200 bar bill, which included the $1,200 shot from a limited-edition bottle from the Teeling Whiskey Co. Police said in an affidavit that Cooper charged the $2,220.40 bill to the room of Trey Lyles, a forward for the Denver Nuggets. Hours earlier the team had beaten the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena.

Police confronted Cooper in the hotel lobby. An officer noted in an arrest affidavit that he is “known to officers for previous incidents at hotels in the area.” The officer said in the affidavit that in previous incidents the suspect had asked officers to “just shoot him.”

Police said Cooper put his hands in his pocket and refused orders to take them out. Fearing he had a weapon, the officer tackled Cooper, the affidavit says. It was not a gun or knife that fell out, however, but a bottle of alcohol, which broke on the floor. Police arrested Cooper, who for a third time since March 13 was released on his own recognizance.

On Monday evening when Swanson and Bishop were at the Hay-
Adams, a customer was accused of absconding on a $500 bar bill of wine and oysters by signing a check to an empty room.

This time, police arrived too late to make an arrest. Swanson said the bartender chased the man they had met into the street but “could only get a glimpse as he watched him run off into the night.”

On Wednesday, Cooper was entering a hotel a block from the White House when he caught the attention of authorities. Court documents say that Cooper had been flagged by the Secret Service as acting suspiciously near the executive mansion and that a judge had barred him from the surrounding area.

Authorities arrested Cooper and charged him with unlawful entry and violating the stay-away order, court papers show. He was released from custody Thursday.