The ‘pay phone bandit’ who baffled the FBI within the ’80s

Quite a lot of the sightings had been the the same. Standing in entrance of the motel clerk or consolation store worker used to be a man, roughly 5 toes, 9 inches grand, carrying a baseball cap pulled low and nearly touching a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses. A ponytail stuck out from the abet of the hat. A button-down shirt used to be left untucked. Cowboy boots protruded from below his pant cuffs.

Most significantly, the actual person loved to pay for his food or his room in quarters—rolls and rolls of quarters.

In the 1980s, police in Ohio as neatly as the FBI spent years chasing the actual person with the ponytail. Unlike reasonably a few criminals, he didn’t brandish a gun, resort to violence, or set innocent of us in his crosshairs. What he did as an various used to be turn out to be basically the most prolific safecracker nowa days, in a role to breach what used to be as soon as believed to be the impenetrable, unbreakable strongbox housed within the country’s 1.8 million pay phones. The use of skill that baffled even security experts, the “pay phone bandit” or “phone bandit” eluded take. Quarter by quarter and yr after yr, he collected an estimated $500,000 to $1 million from these tiny safes. The demand used to be how anybody used to be ever going to search out him.

“Except any person will get lucky, he’ll maybe never fetch caught,” Ohio Bell Phone security legitimate Robert Cooperider suggested The Los Angeles Instances in 1987. “He’s neatly-organized, he’s neatly-organized, and he’s no longer greedy. He handiest hits a few broadly spaced spots daily. He’s continuously taking a detect over his shoulder, to search out if there’s a police automobile, or a phone firm automobile.”

Though it’s laborious to factor in this present day, there used to be as soon as a time when making a phone name meant going house, asking to use any person’s phone, or plunking a quarter correct into a freestanding pay phone. (Or a few, reckoning on where you had been calling and for the methodology long.)

The first public pay-to-use coin-operated phone debuted in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1889. It relied on the honor machine, with customers depositing cash owed after their name used to be done. Over the next century, they seemed all around the obtain, from consolation stores to diners to bus stations. Some had been freestanding; others had been positioned within of a sales role to give callers some privateness.

While the phones varied significantly in carry out, virtually all of them took care to affect the coin box virtually impregnable. Bell, then the arena’s ideal phone provider, reportedly spent years refining a lock on their box that used to be life like unpickable. If a would-be thief wished to even be pleased a shot at getting into into the box, they’d have to are attempting smashing it open with a sledge hammer or knock it out of the bottom with a tractor. On condition that the packing containers handiest held about $150 when paunchy, few criminals notion it used to be price the hassle.

A pay phone is pictured

A same outdated pay phone within of a phone sales role. / Marie Hickman/Stone by Getty Photos

James Clark wasn’t life like one of these of us. The Akron, Ohio, native used to be a machinist by commerce, but he had a nebulous ancient previous. In step with the Associated Press, in 1968 he used to be arrested for making an are attempting to put together a big inaccurate cash deal with contacts in Europe that would possibly maybe well be pleased set $50 million phony bills into circulation. He used to be caught and sentenced to three years in penal complex.

Roughly a decade later, within the early 1980s, Clark devised a unusual plot. In step with authorities, Clark obtained locks like these stumbled on on pay phones and created a residence of unquestionably excellent locksmith tools that allowed him to pick the lock. Though varied operators had significantly varied lock configurations, Clark zeroed in on particular designs to breach. (His accurate tool residence and methodology has never been publicly disclosed, seemingly attributable to security concerns.)

Clark’s approach used to be easy. Upon arriving at a pay phone, he aged a custom tool that he would possibly maybe well maybe lag into the margins of the coin box to gauge what quantity of cash used to be within and whether or no longer it used to be price pursuing. If it used to be paunchy, he’d derive the receiver and pretend to be deep in a dialog. While hunched over the phone, he’d grab his lockpicking tools—which he hid with an untucked shirttail—and fetch to work on the lock. Deciding on one took about 15 minutes. When he obtained it, the faceplate in entrance of the coin receptacle got right here off. Clark would exhaust the box paunchy of switch after which change the faceplate.

This last step used to be key: The phone would continue to arrangement with out the box, giving no physical or mechanical clue it had been tampered with. No one would realize the box used to be missing except a phone firm worker got right here to retrieve the cash—in some cases a week or so later. By that level, Clark would be long long gone.

Clark ransacked pay phones in Ohio, but he rapidly branched out to varied states. By one estimate, he hit phones in 30 of them, largely within the South and West. He most in vogue to follow phones come the interstate so he would possibly maybe well maybe flow away in a speed if he needed to. He furthermore perceived to prefer phones come country and Western bars, both because he loved the entertainment or because he knew corporations would be pleased winning phones nearby. He stopped off for lodging and food using his stolen quarters as cost, though he used to be furthermore identified to change the cash for bills at banks. He used to be furthermore seemingly cocky. He aged the identify James Bell when registering for rooms, a nod to the phone enormous he used to be ripping off continuously.


Bell used to be shining to Clark’s plot early on. As his spree grew, there used to be a requirement of whether or no longer he used to be performing alone or whether or no longer the phone thefts had been portion of some interstate crime ring.

But nearer inspection of the locks published a clue. In picking them, Clark left within the abet of a telltale series of scratches that authorities life like nearly as correct as a fingerprint. It used to be the one fragment of evidence officers needed to flow on, though there used to be nothing to match it to—no nationwide database of lockpicking marks.

It wasn’t except 1985 that investigators in Ohio and the FBI obtained their first exact smash within the case. A particular person that details media described as an “informer” suggested them to search out closely at Clark, the Akron native who had as soon as been embroiled within the inaccurate ring of the late 1960s. Clark’s family—his spouse and a grown daughter—had been gentle within the Akron house, but Clark himself used to be nowhere to be stumbled on. He had it seems that broken off ties alongside with his relatives.

Armed with a search warrant, police searched a trailer belonging to Clark and stumbled on a smoking gun of varieties: parts of a Bell lock, which they inferred had been aged as a observe lock.

A pay phone is pictured

The lock box on a pay phone will also be considered on the decrease gorgeous. / Carlos E. Serrano/Moment by Getty Photos

While there used to be no brand of Clark, no longer less than they’ll fair set a face to their suspect’s identify. A sketch artist developed a likeness that used to be aged for wished posters; police approached consolation store workers and motel workers asking if they had considered him. Some had, including one gape who believed they had considered Clark working a phone while being obscured from notion by a blue van. The phone’s contents had been believed to had been stolen all the arrangement in which by the time of the sighting. One Bell worker even linked a legend of confronting Clark while he used to be within the course of a heist; Clark, in a rare moment of animus, warned the worker off. Though he it seems that never brandished it, Clark used to be identified to sustain a .38 revolver. He used to be seemingly prepared for a confrontation.

A warrant used to be issued for Clark’s arrest in Ohio as neatly as nationally: The FBI sought him alongside with unlawful flight from the issue. Bell and varied phone operators offered a $25,000 reward for knowledge ensuing in his arrest. Tricks persisted to advance in, though Clark, sticking end to the interstate, used to be continuously a day or so earlier than the legislation. No longer even two appearances on The united states’s Most Wished resulted in any important leads. Some officers doubted he would ever be caught. If he wasn’t, there unquestionably wasn’t the relaxation Bell or varied operators would possibly maybe well maybe practically attain. Even supposing he had been costing them $70,000 as soon as a year, that used to be gentle less pricey than making an are attempting to interchange locks on 1.8 million phones.

But in August 1988, Clark’s flee got right here to an stop. Performing on one other tip, the FBI arrested him in Buena Park, California. Correct to Clark’s subversive vogue, there used to be no protracted fight: He surrendered with out incident; weird lockpicking tools had been stumbled on in his condo. Though legislation enforcement didn’t repeat who or what led them to Buena Park, they indicated Clark’s plot to stay in a single issue would possibly maybe well fair be pleased helped them retract as much as him.

Talking with the press, his attorney, Paul Potter, mentioned Clark had admitted to being the actual person police had been buying for in 1985 and characterised his client as “an American tinkerer.”

Bell’s nationwide spree used to be a logistically messy one for the criminal justice machine. Any individual of dozens of states would possibly maybe well maybe elevate expenses. Before all the pieces, he used to be extradited abet to Ohio, where he pled responsible in Summit County to 5 counts of grand theft and one other 5 counts of tampering with coin machines, crimes with a loss valued at correct $500. In consideration for the plea, the exhaust dropped varied expenses and took a doable 10-yr penal complex sentence off the desk. Clark obtained three years.

In 1990, Clark obtained one other sentence in Ohio, this one in Columbus after pleading to at least one depend of theft and two counts of tampering. He obtained a 3-yr sentence. Whether he obtained time beyond law in varied states is unclear.

Clark used to be roughly 50 years used when he used to be caught. He died in 2012. In a guestbook marking his passing, a commenter seen that Clark used to be a “thinker and a doer,” which would possibly maybe well maybe be as fitting a eulogy as he would possibly maybe well maybe hope for. It’s furthermore unlikely the FBI’s fears of a copycat will ever materialize: As of 2018, there had been less than 100,000 pay phones within the country and sure even fewer this present day.

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