The impostor pulled the million-dollar tour bus into USA International Speedway at dusk. He wore a NASCAR hat and new white sneakers. He was calm and collected when he stepped inside the front office and lied through his teeth.
He said he was on superstar Tony Stewart's advance team and that Mr. Stewart was planning a surprise visit. He said he'd need a generator for the bus.
"What did you say your name was?" the manager asked.
"Good racing name," the manager said later, "but I knew something was wrong."
Lawmen across the South had been searching for the man who escaped a prison transport and outran 19 cops and two canine units in South Carolina, stole a Freightliner in Georgia, stole a Walmart trailer in Tennessee.
Authorities there nearly caught him when he showed up in the little town of Pleasant View, trying to see his mama, Annie, who lay on her death bed, eaten with cancer and clutching his picture. A half-dozen or more police trailed the semi and the brash white-knuckled fugitive at the wheel as he ran the big rig down twisting Tennessee two-lanes at 70 mph, then up and over a red-dirt berm and into a field, hammer down, 100 yards from his mama's trailer, then 75, then 50, then stuck in the mud. His sister watched from the back porch, saw him pop out, a little man silhouetted against the headlamps struggling over the berm as dogs barked and cops hollered.
Stop or we'll shoot!
But then he was gone.
And now, two days later, as the manager at the Lakeland racetrack phoned police and learned the tour bus was stolen from Nashville and that it belonged to country music star Crystal Gayle, the outlaw was gone again, just tail lights and diesel fumes and unanswered questions.
• • •
Christopher Daniel Gay has been gone so much they call him Little Houdini.
At press time, he had escaped police custody 13 times in ways lucky and ingenious. He had been running for 20 years by January 2007, when he pulled the stunt with the tour bus and for a brief moment grabbed a handful of the nation's admiration for entertaining outlaws. Even some of the police seemed to be pulling for him.
"You can understand why he did what he did," said Coopertown, Tenn., police Chief Dave Barrera, who promised to let Gay visit his mother if he turned himself in.
Gayle was sympathetic, too.
"I feel for both of them," she said on the phone. "I just want everyone to be safe."
Gay was busted a day later near the Daytona International Speedway, where he had again gone to the races in Gayle's bus, but his legend was already taking root. Someone built him a Wikipedia page and a Facebook Hero page. Maxim magazine published an account of Gay's escapade titled "The Last Outlaw." Memphis native Craig Brewer, who directed Hustle & Flow, announced he was bringing Gay's story to the big screen with an action comedy called Mother Trucker.
His appeal is clear as moonshine. Here's a modern Southern rebel with a 17-page criminal record, outrunning the bumbling cops in a semi, brash enough to show up at a NASCAR event in a star's tour bus and turn himself into a country song. Not long after the tale hit the papers, a Grammy award-winning bluegrass picker wrote The Ballad of Christopher Daniel Gay.
Come all you good people and a little story I will tell
Of Christopher Daniel Gay, we Tennesseans know him well
His mama said his heart was just as big as his head
And he became a car thief just to keep his family fed
His song makes him sound renegade, heroic even, but something's missing. Slow it down and strip away the cliche. Explore the liner notes, the circumstances of life that leads a man to make the choices he makes, that leads a man to steal and to run and to even hurt his own family. That's when the questions cut deep.
Why does Chris Gay run? And now that his family needs him most, can the last outlaw make a stand?
• • •
Buckeye Bottom Road cuts through the lowlands west of Murfreesboro, between the east and west forks of the Stones River in the hills of central Tennessee. Back when the road was chip and tar, there wasn't a person between LaVergne and Walter Hill who didn't know the Gays. They were either family or they were victims, and sometimes they were both.
The Gays of Buckeye Bottom lived in a trailer with drop-cord electric, sometimes, and well water. They did laundry in the creek and ate wild plums for breakfast. Leann, Chris' older sister, remembers dividing a single boiled potato four ways for dinner for the kids: Tarre, Leann, Eddie and Chris. She remembers all four of them shared a bed, and she remembers complaining one night that her stomach hurt.
Here, her brother Tarre said, tearing off a piece of notebook paper. Chew this up real good and swallow it. It'll make that pain go away.
Their mama loved them dearly, Leann says, and sent them running into the woods when the state came around.
When Leann was old enough to leave, she did. Tarre, too. Then their mother left their father for the company of another man. She left Chris, whom they called Murdock, and Eddie, called Cotton, in his care. Their father, a washed-up moonshine runner, raised goats and was a sometimes mechanic, but mostly he was gone.
Cotton and Murdock relied on the charity of their grandparents, who lived up the hill and did not favor them. Their grandfather hit them with his cane. The boys ate after everyone else.
Nobody is sure how the stealing started.
• • •
Deputy Ed Luther, who patrolled the area for the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office, showed up on Buckeye Bottom Road one evening to investigate a report of stolen poultry. He found Cotton and Murdock boiling a rooster over a tire fire in the hubcap of a '55 Chevy.
"Those boys grew up with really hard lives," says Luther, a thin and wrinkled deputy who still works for the sheriff.
Their mama wasn't around, says their brother Tarre, and their daddy, when he was, didn't discipline.
Soon, Little Debbie snack cakes went missing from Ed's Bait Shop. Bicycles vanished from front porches. The brothers' uncle started giving them beer and a little pot if they'd steal power tools from storage sheds.
They quit going to middle school and took to hiking down to Interstate 40, to sit on a bluff overlooking the river of asphalt and dream of driving a big rig away from Buckeye Bottom.
They graduated from stealing bikes to motorcycles to ATVs to cars. Soon, there was nothing they couldn't steal. They wanted a go-cart, so they stole a pickup truck to get it home.
"That Murdock," says half-blind Ray Shull, 63, who married their mama, "he never had nothing, and he always wanted something."
• • •
With so much stealing, the boys got good at ducking deputies. They built a hideout from tree limbs and strung barbed wire through the brush to snare police.
"They would run," says J.D. Driver, a former sheriff's deputy who chased the boys for years, "and they would run very effectively."
Once, Chris cut a hole in the floor of his trailer, under the kitchen table, then dug a hole in the dirt beneath. When the deputies gave chase, he ran into the trailer, locked the door behind him and jumped through his escape hatch. The deputies busted in and searched the house, but they couldn't find Chris.
The boys graduated from stealing cars to trucks to those semis they used to cast dreams upon from the bluff above Interstate 40, each theft adding more charges to their records, putting more pressure on the law to lock them up for good.
Occasionally they would get caught, but you couldn't hold them, especially Chris, on account of his small hands and wrists.
Deputy Luther hauled Chris once to the juvenile detention center in Nashville, 40 miles away. When Luther got back to Murfreesboro, he stopped at a convenience store. There stood Chris, getting a cold drink out of the cooler.
"He beat me back," Luther says.
Shull drove Chris' mama to a prison in Georgia to visit him. When they showed up, Chris was gone. When they got back home, he was sitting on their couch watching TV.
"We sort of expected him," Shull says.
Chris had saved pepper packets from the jailhouse cafeteria. The day he ran, he sprinkled pepper on his clothes to throw the dogs off.
His Southern manners disarmed the guards. He safely faked suicide attempts then bolted. He opened handcuffs with a paper clip, a zipper tab and the spring of a ballpoint pen. He hid among the air ducts on a college campus for two days.
Of course, there's a problem with someone who has escaped 13 times. That means he's been caught at least a dozen.
• • •
The Turney Center Industrial Complex is a 1,500-bed prison in Only, Tenn. Inmate 290581 sits at a small table in the big cafeteria. He's wearing a white ball cap and prison jeans and he smiles big when he shakes your hand. His voice is high-pitched and Southern and he seems a little nervous.
He has been here since he was caught after his 2009 escape from a Waffle House in Kennesaw, Ga., where the deputy transporting him had stopped to eat. Now here he sits, small and unimposing, serving a sentence that expires in 2016.
He keeps to himself, talking to a God he has negotiated with for a long time now. Help me escape, he'd say, and I'll feed a homeless person.
He once escaped and gave a sack full of Big Macs and a large coffee to a homeless man sleeping on a bench by the Grand Ole Opry. The last time he broke out, he volunteered at the Nashville Rescue Mission, putting slices of wheat bread on plates.
He feels like God blesses him on his escapes. How else can you explain finding the keys and $1,110 in cash in one of the semis he stole? How do you explain a complete stranger giving him the gate code to the lot from which he took Gayle's tour bus?
He has a new prayer. God, help me get out of this prison in two years, and I'll drive a semi from coast to coast, teaching children about how to make the right decisions.
"Before, I've made promises to him, you know?" he says. "But I knew I wasn't going to change."
Part of what makes Chris Gay's life of crime palatable is the fact that he has never been violent. Nobody can remember a time when he hurt anybody physically. Nor is there evidence he broke into any houses, or stole to support a drug habit. He just stole.
It started with Little Debbies and the neighbor's chickens, because they were hungry. But stealing also gave the boys something else they were missing: power. It became a game and you had to be good, and what else could a poor kid say he was good at?
The kids at school made fun of him. Teachers, too. He and Cotton used to pretend they were throwing paper away and snatch food out of the trash can. You try to eat out of the trash in middle school.
Then the stealing mutated, became addictive, a high.
"Like drugs," he says. John Deere tractors, bulldozers, even a CSX truck, the kind with steel wheels that ride the rails.
Same with escaping.
But his criminal record poses a big question. None of his sentences were longer than a few years. If he had stayed, if he'd hunkered down and eaten the awful food and counted the days, he could have broken the loop. He knows this. Why, then, does he keep running?
"I just hated being locked up," he says. "Then after I got my kids, I didn't want to be away from them and Missy. Then my dad was dying, I didn't want to be away from him. Then my mom had cancer . . ."
Could he get out of here?
He smiles. There's something keeping him here, and it's not bars and razor wire.
• • •
Missy is Melissa Cline, 37. She met Chris, also 37, when she was working as a waitress and living in a little campground. He called her over to sit by the fire. She threw rocks at him with her toes. He bought her a sterling silver band from Walmart.
She and Chris have two daughters, 15 and 13 now. They don't know their daddy, Missy says.
When he was home, he was a good man. He took them to the park and bought them a puppy named Blackjack. He gave Missy all his money and she used it to buy a trailer. But he has hurt his family more than he knows.
"It's been nothing but a heartbreak since 1994," Missy says. Waking up with a sheriff's deputy standing over you. Being surrounded by police outside a motel, your baby in her car seat, Chris nowhere in sight.
Her oldest has a memory. She was 4. Chris had taken her to Walmart and bought her a witch costume. On Halloween morning, Chris told his daughter he would take her trick-or-treating in Nashville when he came home from work. At the time, Chris was wanted, so he always hid his car. He said goodbye and walked into the woods.
Afternoon came and the little girl sat outside on the steps, staring at the forest.
What are you doing? Missy remembers asking.
I'm waiting on my daddy, her daughter replied.
There the little witch sat as afternoon turned to dusk and dusk to night, waiting for a ghost.
"That was the last time she saw him," Missy says. Missy keeps the newspaper clippings in a cardboard box. Someday, when the girls are older and curious, she'll hand them that box. "He's going to have to answer for that."
Still, she loves him. Always will. She knows a story that helps explain why Chris is the way he is. It's a story few people know. It's one Chris can't forget.
• • •
Down in Buckeye Bottom, on a cold night in the mid 1980s, two brothers walked out behind an old barn. They were hungry and dirty and desperate. They wore shoes held together by tape and twists of wire and stood close enough to a tire fire to feel its warmth. They held their father's .22 rifle and a tube sock full of rusty bullets. They'd need only two.
This would be their last hungry night.
Charles Eddie, 10, raised the rifle and touched the tip of the barrel to his brother's forehead, north of his brow. He would shoot his brother, then himself. This was their pact.
Christopher Daniel, 11, closed his eyes tight and waited. Then he heard a whimper, and when he opened his eyes he saw that his brother was crying.
I can't do it, Cotton said.
Then I'll do it, Chris said.
He took the rifle and put it to his little brother's forehead and slid his finger over the trigger. All it took was a pull to end their pain, a pull he couldn't muster.
• • •
Chris Gay, if you believe him, is different.
"I'm a changed man," he says.
He's older. He has seen Cotton's state of mind deteriorate. Cotton's last arrest was for stealing a truck from Tarre's son, a sin against his own family. Chris says he doesn't want to plow the same ground. He doesn't want to sleep in trees anymore. He wants to be a father.
"Right now, I could be at home with my kids and Missy," he says, "instead of being laid up in here. It's not worth it."
Is that kind of change even possible? Can a man who has stolen from others his whole life just decide he's going straight?
"No," says Ed Luther, the sheriff's deputy. "That's the way they was brought up."
"Your past," says J.D. Driver, the deputy turned public defender, "dictates your future."
"He'll never straighten up," says his stepfather Ray Shull. "Stealing is just a way of life."
This time, says his sister, will be different.
"He knows that our childhood, we've got to just let it go," says Leann, sitting in her living room between a picture of Jesus and a WANTED poster for Bonnie and Clyde that her mama gave her before she died. "He's got two pretty little girls waiting for him."
If he wants to be a part of his kids' lives, says Missy, he's going to have to change. That, for now, means sitting still. The prison offers a nine-month program that teaches inmates how to make that transition, how to work 9 to 5, how to behave.
Chris will be eligible for parole in a few months. The last outlaw is going to stand before a parole board, and, for the first time in his life, ask them to let him stay.
Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.