Thief's bus tour is quite the ride

Any wheels will do for this fugitive - truck, bulldozer, even Crystal Gayle's "Old Blue."

Published January 27, 2007

LAKELAND - The fugitive parked the million-dollar tour bus on the grass at USA International Speedway at dusk Thursday, stepped inside the front office and lied through his teeth.

He said that he was on the Advance Team for NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart and that Mr. Stewart was planning a surprise visit, and that he needed a generator to run the bus.

He was calm and collected. He wore a Tony Stewart hat and new white sneakers.

"What did you say your name was?" track manager Barry Williams asked.

"Daniel Pitts," the man said.

"Good racing name," Williams said later, "but I just knew something was wrong."

Williams called the Florida Highway Patrol and they ran the plates on the bus as Pitts locked the doors and pulled out of the parking lot.

The plate was registered to country singer Crystal Gayle's tour bus.

"What are the odds?" said track president Bill Martino.

Turns out police in four states were looking for Pitts, whose real name is Christopher Daniel Gay.

They say he's a small-time criminal who has been making headlines since he escaped from a prison escort in South Carolina on Sunday.

Gay, 32, was being transported by a private company from Texas to Alabama, where he is wanted for stealing a camper, when he escaped in full shackles at a welcome center on Interstate 95 in Hardeeville, S.C.

Police say he ran 4 miles through the woods before stealing a pickup and escaping from 19 officers and their bloodhounds.

He drove 300 miles undetected, then stole a Wal-Mart semitrailer truck from a store parking lot in Manchester, Tenn., about 70 miles southeast of Nashville, police say. Police spotted him again Tuesday evening in Cooperstown, Tenn., where his family lives.

Gay led them on a chase down back roads, reaching speeds of 70 mph before he ran the truck filled with $300,000 in merchandise into a field about 50 yards from the house where his mother lay dying.

Abandoning the truck, he ran into the woods and disappeared.

"She is at the house where he ran to," said Cooperstown police Chief Dave Barrera. "His mother is dying of cancer. You can understand why he did what he did, but it's just the way he went about it."

He wasn't spotted again until Thursday, when he pulled into the USA International Speedway in Lakeland in the bus belonging to Crystal Gayle.

"He knew quite a bit about racing," said Williams, who called the Florida Highway Patrol with the plate number when he grew suspicious. "He was well-mannered. Not at all violent or weird."

Gay, it turns out, has a record of stealing trucks and heavy equipment. He once stole a bulldozer in broad daylight and waved at a police officer as he loaded it onto the back of a truck.

And this wasn't the first time he ran from the law.

In 2000, he convinced prison guards in Georgia that he was suicidal, and they put him in a cell nearest the door. As soon as the opportunity arrived, he bolted.

The law finally found him two years later.

"Maybe he's a little claustrophobic," Lt. Dan Martin, acting chief of the Hardeeville, S.C., police told the Island Packet of Hilton Head, S.C. "He can't stay in one place too long."

The Florida Highway Patrol has issued an all-points bulletin for the bus, which was reported stolen from a Prevost bus company garage in Nashville.

"It was gone when troopers in the area arrived" at the speedway, said FHP spokesman Larry Coggins. "We didn't know whose bus it was; we just knew it was a stolen bus."

Lakeland police were on the lookout Friday as well, though no one knew which direction Gay was headed or how he found the speedway in the first place.

How hard could it be to find Crystal Gayle's tour bus?

"It doesn't say Crystal Gayle on the side," said Lakeland police spokesman Jack Gillen. "Besides, there are a lot of vans on the road in Florida right now."

Gayle, meanwhile, really wants her bus back. Her crew parked it after a recent gig outside Houston and she needs it for the rest of her hectic tour.

"We called that bus Old Blue," she told the St. Petersburg Times on Friday from Nashville. "It was definitely special. It's my bus. When you go out on the road, it's your home away from home."

She said she and her band have written several songs on the old bus, and it brings back some fond memories.

But Gayle said she also feels sympathy for Gay and his family.

"I wish when he took my bus he would have just gone to visit his mama instead of joy riding in Florida," she said. "I feel for both of them. I just want everyone to be safe."

Barry Williams wasn't as gentle.

"Yeah, I'm pulling for him," he said. "To go back to jail. He's an escaped convict."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813-661-2443.