Christopher Daniel Gay a.k.a. ‘Little Houdini’
The story of Christopher Daniel Gay is one of tragedy and misadventure that has earned him a permanent place in popular culture. Gay was the car thief with the golden heart. He earned his nickname of ‘Little Houdini’ after the amount of escapes from police custody he has managed to pull off –a total of eight times by his own reckoning. In 2007 he was catapulted into infamy when he broke out of prison to visit his dying mother, led the police on a manhunt that stretched across states and was finally apprehended whilst driving country singer Crystal Gayle’s tour bus. This only two years after breaking out to visit his dying father.
Gay’s childhood was a tumultuous one, with alcoholic parents he found that he had to look after himself and siblings from a young age. His mother left when he was ten and his father was rarely around, this saw Gay become the soul source of food for his siblings and he often had to turn to theft. One tale telling that as a child he had to steal roosters and boil them out of sheer desperation.
He left school at the age of eleven. Shortly afterwards a family friend taught him how to steal, paying him in beer and weed. Gay learned how to drive so he could steal cars. He spent his formative years in and out of juvenile detention centres for his crimes. It was during these times that he began to master the art of escape. On one occasion he just ran away when the opportunity arose. Another time he sliced his arm to be referred to a lower security mental health unit and simply walked out shortly afterwards.
When in his late teens his mother returned into his life. Free again he found part time work as a roofer, supplementing his income with small thefts. Gay eventually slipped back into his life of crime, preferring to rob heavy construction equipment and finding himself back in trouble with the law. Some accounts placing him stealing in excess of millions of dollars worth of equipment.
Stories of him are generally positive from those who knew him. ‘According to published accounts, including those of his wife, Erica Tapola-Gay, Gay is seen by friends as a Robin Hood-like criminal who has given $100 bills to homeless people and cooked dinner for hungry neighbourhood kids, even mowing his mother-in-law’ s grass and watering her roses.’ Some believe that his reputation has only been helped by his non-violent actions in his crimes, never using a weapon or harming anyone in any of his exploits.
His escape in 2005 helped cement this good natured reputation. Gay managed to escape from a Nashville jail to visit his father who was dying from Alzheimer’s at Centennial Medical Centre. Immediately after the visit he returned himself to prison. His mother issued statements in his defence to no avail and his sentence was increased.
It was his escape in January 2007, however, that gained the most publicity and saw his story being discussed on nation-wide news outlets. Whilst inside for the previous escape and crimes associated with his initial arrest, Gay received news that his mother was dying from colon cancer and this was the impetus for another escape. He was able to escape from a prison transport when it made a brief stop at a Welcome Centre and whilst still in full shackles. Tracking dogs were deployed, but were seemingly unsuccessful due to the rainy conditions masking his scent. This starting a manhunt that would stretch across five days and six states.
Whilst on the lamb he managed to steal a truck in South Carolina and drove it more than three hundred miles to his home state of Tennessee. When over state lines he connected the truck to a Wal-Mart trailer in the hope it would help him maintain some anonymity. He said, “Usually, trucks don’t go over state lines without a trailer like that.” Unbeknownst to Gay, the trailer was filled with over three hundred thousand dollars worth or merchandise. The police spotted him and gave chase. Gay bailed on the tractor just fifty yards from his mother’s trailer, he made it onto the her gravelled drive but had to escape into the woods with police close behind.
Gay managed to make his way back onto the interstate and came across a motel opposite a lot that was filled with tour buses of country singers. The lot had a gate with a locking combination so he started punching in numbers hoping for the best when a passing stranger gave him the code. Loitering inside in the rain another passing stranger asked him if he needed keys and when he answered ‘yes’ he was asked which bus it was he wanted. Gay asked for the keys to Crystal Gayle’s as she was his mother’s favourite singer. He quickly checked the television in the bus to find there was no news on his escape and then set off towards Florida.
Along the way Gay remembered that the Daytona 500 was taking place and assumed that it would be the best place to blend in with the other buses. On reaching the gate he found police all over the place, one asked him who he was with and Gay replied he was with Tony Stewart who was his favourite race driver. Gay was then given a VIP pass and escorted onto the racetrack. Whilst there he enjoyed a front road seat at the race and was allowed to drive around the track on a golf buggy after hours.
Back on the bus, this time the news was awash with tales of his escape and he set off once again. Becoming confused with the layout of the city he stopped to ask a woman for directions. Gay himself said he thought the woman was a prostitute but what he didn’t know was that she was an undercover cop working a police sting. Gay was questioned in relation to prostitution but made his way back to the bus after stating he was only asking for direction and then headed off again. When the police ran the plates they realised who he was and chased him down, tasering him when he made his way off the bus and put him back into custody again.
Gay’s mother died twelve days later. He never saw her alive again and was unable to attend the funeral.
There are some clips on YouTube of Gay talking about his escape from custody and arrest.
Another clip has footage of the escape, plus interviews with the arresting officer and Crystal Gayle.
On the 3rd March 2009 whilst being transported from Florida to Tennessee he managed to escape once again by freeing himself of his restraints and getting away whilst the officers stopped for food at a Waffle House in Kennesaw, Georgia. Gay then ran onto the grounds of the Kennesaw State University, where it was locked down and searched for the next two hours. He then managed to make his way back onto the road and hitched a lift back to his native Tennessee. Gay volunteered in a Nashville homeless centre for a short time. He then made his way to Orlando where a friend gave him work as a roofer for a few days before eventually turning Gay in. Police ironically arrested him in a Wal-Mart car park.
Since this final capture he has not escaped from prison again and seems intent on serving the remainder of his sentence.
Two songs have been written that depict his plight. Tim O’Brien the country singer released The Ballad of Christopher Daniel Gay. Also Sage Francis released, the far better, ‘Little Houdini’ on his Li(f)e (2010) album. There are also rumours that Craig Brewer ,of ‘Hustle & Flow’ and ‘Black Snake Moan’ fame, is to direct a biopic of Gay’s life.
Alternatively the 2007 escape was also mocked on an episode of World’s Dumbest Criminals.
Now Christopher Daniel Gay is still in prison, though he is hoping to be released in the next few years to return to a life of normality with his family. He is repentant for his crimes in the past, “When I look back on it — the things I’ve done like the escapes. It was chicken on my part. I should have been man enough to do my time”. Gay is also not a fan of the songs written about him.