King of Quarters: The ‘Pay Phone Bandit’ Who Baffled the FBI in the ’80s

A rogue genius figured out how to breach coin boxes on the phones, with his haul adding up to as much as $1 million.
Pay phones were everywhere in the 1980s. And they were often full of money.
Pay phones were everywhere in the 1980s. And they were often full of money. / Ron Bouwhuis/Moment via Getty Images

Most of the sightings were the same. Standing in front of the motel clerk or convenience store worker was a man, roughly 5 feet, 9 inches tall, wearing a baseball cap pulled low and almost touching a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses. A ponytail stuck out from the back of the hat. A button-down shirt was left untucked. Cowboy boots protruded from under his pant cuffs.

Most importantly, the man liked to pay for his food or his room in quarters—rolls and rolls of quarters.

In the 1980s, police in Ohio as well as the FBI spent years chasing the man with the ponytail. Unlike a lot of criminals, he didn’t brandish a gun, resort to violence, or put innocent people in his crosshairs. What he did instead was become the most prolific safecracker in modern times, able to breach what was once believed to be the impenetrable, unbreakable strongbox housed in the country’s 1.8 million pay phones. Using means that baffled even security experts, the “pay phone bandit” or “telephone bandit” eluded capture. Quarter by quarter and year after year, he collected an estimated $500,000 to $1 million from these tiny safes. The question was how anyone was ever going to find him.

“Unless somebody gets lucky, he’ll probably never get caught,” Ohio Bell Telephone security official Robert Cooperider told The Los Angeles Times in 1987. “He’s well-organized, he’s smart, and he’s not greedy. He only hits a few widely spaced spots each day. He’s always looking over his shoulder, to see if there is a police car, or a telephone company vehicle.”

Lock and Key

Though it’s hard to imagine today, there was once a time when making a telephone call meant going home, asking to use someone’s phone, or plunking a quarter into a freestanding pay phone. (Or more than one, depending on where you were calling and for how long.)

The first public pay-to-use coin-operated phone debuted in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1889. It relied on the honor system, with users depositing coins owed after their call was done. Over the next century, they appeared everywhere, from convenience stores to diners to bus stations. Some were freestanding; others were located inside of a booth to give callers some privacy.

While the phones varied somewhat in design, virtually all of them took care to make the coin box virtually impregnable. Bell, then the world’s largest phone carrier, reportedly spent years refining a lock on their box that was thought to be unpickable. If a would-be thief wanted to even have a shot at getting into the box, they’d have to try smashing it open with a sledge hammer or knock it out of the ground with a tractor. Given that the boxes only held about $150 when full, few criminals thought it was worth the effort.

A pay phone is pictured
A typical pay phone inside of a phone booth. / Marie Hickman/Stone via Getty Images

James Clark wasn’t one of those people. The Akron, Ohio, native was a machinist by trade, but he had a nebulous history. According to the Associated Press, in 1968 he was arrested for attempting to arrange a massive counterfeit money deal with contacts in Europe that would have put $50 million phony bills into circulation. He was caught and sentenced to three years in prison.

Roughly a decade later, in the early 1980s, Clark devised a new scheme. According to authorities, Clark obtained locks like the ones found on pay phones and created a set of specialized locksmith tools that allowed him to pick the lock. Though different operators had somewhat different lock configurations, Clark zeroed in on specific designs to breach. (His exact tool set and technique has never been publicly disclosed, likely due to security concerns.)

Clark’s strategy was simple. Upon arriving at a pay phone, he used a custom tool that he could slip into the margins of the coin box to gauge how much money was inside and whether it was worth pursuing. If it was full, he’d pick up the receiver and pretend to be deep in a conversation. While hunched over the phone, he’d grab his lockpicking tools—which he concealed with an untucked shirttail—and get to work on the lock. Picking one took about 15 minutes. When he got it, the faceplate in front of the coin receptacle came off. Clark would take the box full of change and then replace the faceplate.

This last step was key: The phone would continue to operate without the box, giving no physical or mechanical clue it had been tampered with. No one would realize the box was missing until a phone company employee came to retrieve the money—in some cases a week or so later. By that point, Clark would be long gone.

Clark ransacked pay phones in Ohio, but he soon branched out to other states. By one estimate, he hit phones in 30 of them, mostly in the South and West. He preferred to stick to phones near the interstate so he could leave in a hurry if he had to. He also seemed to favor phones near country and Western bars, either because he liked the entertainment or because he knew businesses would have profitable phones nearby. He stopped off for lodging and food using his stolen quarters as payment, though he was also known to exchange the coins for bills at banks. He was also seemingly cocky. He used the name James Bell when registering for rooms, a nod to the phone giant he was ripping off on a regular basis.


Bell was wise to Clark’s scheme early on. As his spree grew, there was a question of whether he was acting alone or whether the phone thefts were part of some interstate crime ring.

But closer inspection of the locks revealed a clue. In picking them, Clark left behind a telltale series of scratches that authorities considered almost as good as a fingerprint. It was the one piece of evidence officials had to go on, though there was nothing to compare it to—no national database of lockpicking marks.

It wasn’t until 1985 that investigators in Ohio and the FBI got their first real break in the case. A person that news media described as an “informer” told them to look closely at Clark, the Akron native who had once been embroiled in the counterfeit ring of the late 1960s. Clark’s family—his wife and a grown daughter—were still in the Akron area, but Clark himself was nowhere to be found. He had apparently broken off ties with his relatives.

Armed with a search warrant, police searched a trailer belonging to Clark and found a smoking gun of sorts: parts of a Bell lock, which they inferred had been used as a practice lock.

A pay phone is pictured
The lock box on a pay phone can be seen on the lower right. / Carlos E. Serrano/Moment via Getty Images

While there was no sign of Clark, at least they could put a face to their suspect’s name. A sketch artist developed a likeness that was used for wanted posters; police approached convenience store workers and motel workers asking if they had seen him. Some had, including one witness who believed they had seen Clark working a phone while being obscured from view by a blue van. The phone’s contents were believed to have been stolen around the time of the sighting. One Bell employee even related a story of confronting Clark while he was in the middle of a heist; Clark, in a rare moment of animus, warned the worker off. Though he apparently never brandished it, Clark was known to carry a .38 revolver. He was seemingly prepared for a confrontation.

A warrant was issued for Clark’s arrest in Ohio as well as nationally: The FBI sought him in conjunction with unlawful flight from the state. Bell and other phone operators offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. Tips continued to come in, though Clark, sticking close to the interstate, was always a day or so ahead of the law. Not even two appearances on America’s Most Wanted resulted in any meaningful leads. Some officials doubted he would ever be caught. If he wasn’t, there really wasn’t anything Bell or other operators could practically do. Even if he were costing them $70,000 annually, that was still cheaper than trying to replace locks on 1.8 million phones.

But in August 1988, Clark’s run came to an end. Acting on another tip, the FBI arrested him in Buena Park, California. True to Clark’s subversive style, there was no protracted struggle: He surrendered without incident; unique lockpicking tools were found in his apartment. Though law enforcement didn’t divulge who or what led them to Buena Park, they indicated Clark’s decision to stay in one place may have helped them catch up to him.

Speaking with the press, his attorney, Paul Potter, said Clark had admitted to being the man police had been searching for in 1985 and characterized his client as “an American tinkerer.”

Bell’s national spree was a logistically messy one for the criminal justice system. Any one of dozens of states could bring charges. Initially, he was extradited back to Ohio, where he pled guilty in Summit County to five counts of grand theft and another five counts of tampering with coin machines, crimes with a loss valued at just $500. In consideration for the plea, the judge dropped other charges and took a potential 10-year prison sentence off the table. Clark got three years.

In 1990, Clark got another sentence in Ohio, this one in Columbus after pleading to one count of theft and two counts of tampering. He got a three-year sentence. Whether he received additional time in other states is unclear.

Clark was roughly 50 years old when he was caught. He died in 2012. In a guestbook marking his passing, a commenter observed that Clark was a “thinker and a doer,” which is probably as fitting a eulogy as he could hope for. It’s also unlikely the FBI’s fears of a copycat will ever materialize: As of 2018, there were less than 100,000 pay phones in the country and likely even fewer today.

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