FBI Arrests Suspect in ‘Telephone Bandit’ Case

Times Staff Writer

An Ohio man who authorities say earned the nickname “The Telephone Bandit” by looting more than $500,000 from pay phones around the country was arrested in Buena Park, officials said Saturday.

James Clark, 49, surrendered peacefully to FBI agents just before 6 p.m. Friday at an undisclosed residence, FBI spokesman Fred Reagan said.

Clark, who was classified as armed and dangerous, “may not be Jack the Ripper, but he’s a one-of-a-kind thief. We’re glad to have him in custody,” said Lawrence G. Lawler, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office.

Clark’s activities were featured twice on the syndicated TV show “America’s Most Wanted,” which re-enacts real, unsolved crimes. However, Clark’s arrest was not related to publicity from the show but was the result of a “solid, detailed investigation,” Lawler said.

Lt. Robert Scalise, chief of investigation for the Summit County Sheriff’s Department in Ohio, which teamed with Ohio Bell officials in a three-year investigation, said: “We believe he was starting to train other people (around the country) in his technique. It is pretty significant he was apprehended at this point.”


‘He Was Very Clever’

Scalise said Clark, a machinist by training, began looting pay phones several years ago in the Akron area. “He would steal a coin box from a pay phone and practice on it until he mastered the touch” of picking the lock on that make of phone, Scalise said.

“We found a lock in his trailer when we entered it with a search warrant in 1985,” Scalise added. “He had apparently just stolen it and was going to practice on it.”

Reagan said Clark had developed a special tool to pick the locks “in rather short order.”

In November, 1985, Summit County authorities issued a warrant for Clark’s arrest, charging him with possession of stolen property. Six months later, fearing that Clark had fled Ohio, they called in the FBI, which issued a warrant in Cleveland in June, 1986, charging Clark with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

“He was clever, no question about that,” Scalise said, but “I don’t think it came as a surprise he got caught. It was just a matter of time.”

Mostly in South, West

Authorities in Ohio said Saturday that Clark had robbed pay phones in about 30 states, mostly in the South and the West and including many locations throughout California.

Linda Bonniksen, a Pacific Bell spokeswoman, said Saturday that the locks on some Pacific Bell pay phones had been picked during the past several years and that the company has been working with the FBI.

The incidents stopped seven months ago, Bonniksen said, but then a rash of lock-pick thefts occurred in Sacramento several weeks ago .

“The crime is very unusual,” said Bonniksen, adding that most pay phone thieves simply steal the entire phone. “It’s a very quick process and a very skilled process, and it’s one that doesn’t draw a lot of attention because you can stand at a pay phone and do it and look like you’re doing something normal.”

Can Hold $150

Clark reportedly concentrated on phones at major sporting events or other events that drew large crowds, where coin boxes would be full and he could go unnoticed, FBI officials in Ohio said. A pay phone can hold as much as $150.

Scalise said authorities began to suspect Clark had trained others after “other people showed up picking locks” throughout the West. He would not elaborate but said there “may be other arrests.”

Authorities would not say how they found Clark in Buena Park or how long he had been there. Clark’s wife lives in Akron, Scalise said.

Clark is being held at Terminal Island Federal Prison on charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, and arraignment is set for Monday before a federal magistrate. Clark is expected to be extradited to Akron.

Last year, Ohio Bell offered a $25,000 reward for Clark’s arrest. It wasn’t clear Saturday whether the reward would be offered to anyone, Reagan said.

Times wire services contributed to this report.