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The Great Escape Artist

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Road reflected in side-view mirror Road reflected in side-view mirror (cogdogblog/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Christopher Daniel Gay has broken out of jail more times than anyone else alive. He is the stuff of country songs and film rights. Reporter Ben Montgomery learned about him after Chris's most notorious getaway; he had fled prison and stolen a tractor trailer so he could visit his dying mother. (Oh and somewhere in there he also made off with Crystal Gayle's tour bus.) Running had become a way of life for Chris, and that big stunt made him into a folk hero--an underdog with seemingly good intentions, always one step ahead of the law. But the story behind the myth is more complicated. Producer Pat Walters joins Ben to unravel Chris's past. They ask him, and those closest to him, why he keeps on running, and whether he can ever stop. (After you listen, check the links below for some new developments in the saga of "Little Houdini.")


Ben Montgomery

Produced by:

Pat Walters

Comments [46]

ohad from Boston

It didn't end well after the end of the story.

Aug. 15 2017 09:38 PM

The problem is that he was never helped by anyone competent. A devoted wife and kids are almost never the right help.

Jun. 18 2016 05:28 PM
John Garratt from US

So, just because Ben's father was a certain way means that Chris will be the same exact way? A journalist should know an anecdotal fallacy from miles away, not use one to support part of his story.

More human interest masquerading as...well, not science. I don't know what. Just more human interest.

John Fahey was the best part.

Jun. 08 2016 08:41 AM
Patrick Reed from Washington DC

Having been a big fan of RadioLab for some time, I was dismayed to hear The Great Escape Artist, which was, but for your Narrative edges at the beginning and ending, a verbatim of what Ira Glass had put forth some years back on This American Life. Really guys!?

Jun. 05 2016 12:46 PM
Ed from Bowie, Maryland

No matter how horrible a person's childhood was, they can change! I see it happening everyday, and it is awesome. But we must first surrender our will to Jesus Christ! Then, through His power, we ALL are able to turn our lives around. I once was hopeless. I decided it was impossible for me to change, and that I should concentrate my efforts on being a very good drunk & addict. But I finally hit bottom, & turned my will & life over to Jesus Christ. With the help of others, through a program called Celebrate Recovery, I have completely turned my life around. I am a completely different man today... clean, sober, humble, and available to help others. Oh, we all can change. But we must humble ourselves first.

Jun. 04 2016 01:47 PM

Great story, but commenting because the song at the end - We Move Lightly by Dustin O'Halloran, just takes me somewhere else.

Jan. 05 2016 08:57 PM
Geoff Erwin from Los Angeles

What has happened to Christopher Daniel Gay? Was he released from prison? How's he doing? Amazing story... Want to know more.

Aug. 27 2014 08:08 PM
JwnycB from WDC

I'm not a psychologist, but I suspect that Mr Gay, like many of us has a classic constellation of ADD attributes: intelligence, creativity, focus, and poor impulse control. Although, his upbringing speaks as much as any, of the current nature of humanity, I suspect he is probably too old to hope for significant change in his neurological development/structure. However, a good psychiatric assessment might offer some hope for pharmotherapy that could help him transition to a stable, healthy life outside. I too, wish him peace.

Aug. 24 2014 02:09 PM

Why would you bring God into this? Piece of shit journalist.

Dec. 09 2013 01:04 AM
Linda M. Robey from Bradenton Florida

Christopher Danial Gay's childhood is sad. He didnt ask to be born into that kind of life. No one does. It is innate that we hunger when we are not fed the proper amount of food, as a human being. His body needed food, his mind told him ways he could get what he needed, and he found it something he "could do" that was easy for him for survival. It was all he knew how to do. Thats it! Chris was just finding his way, and hurt a lot of people in the process. We need to forgive him! Forgiveness doesnt get him off the hook, it frees us from being in internal prison! He wants to change.. AND, he can, and he will, with God's help. He is seeing things as he grows older. I think we all do! God's love for us all is AMAZING, and unfathomable! I have a friend of 29 yrs.who has been held in prison for 34 yrs.(since the age of 16) and has never physically harmed a human being in his life. His release date is 9 yrs. away, and the parole board has set his parole 17 yrs. beyond his current release date! He is being punished so severely for his "escape" 30 yrs. ago. There is no violence on his record.He heard this program, and shared it with me. The State of Florida prison system is and is in it for the money. They are paid to keep inmates locked up! The parole board paroles very few! Look back and see there has been one or two paroled since 1900's.. Attorneys take thousand of dollars, and lose cases, every day! My friend has a BIG story to share, and you may hear his story on here, some day..He is an amazing survivor, with a lot of incredible, real life stories to tell. :)

Aug. 03 2013 11:34 AM
Kathryn from Florida

I can't get the image out of my mind of the two boys preparing to kill themselves because they couldn't take it anymore. How many other children are experiencing that today? I agree that to change such ingrained childhood experiences requires a miracle. But miracles do happen. I will be praying for Chris and believing in him. Please give us an update and tell us how he is doing.

Jul. 29 2013 05:44 AM
Mitch from NY

Heard this story again. Beautiful. How is he doing now? Was there a follow up?

Jul. 25 2013 08:29 PM
Gaelle Gralnek from Pasadena, CA

A compelling story, beautifully told! I heard it for the first time today (4/30/2013) and am eager to know whether Gay completed the program and was paroled in Oct. 2012 as scheduled -- I'm definitely rooting for him!

Apr. 30 2013 12:42 PM
D Klimov

To anyone wondering, the song around the 24 minute mark is Dustin O'Halloran — We Move Lightly

Apr. 25 2013 08:39 AM

I was glued to this story - for more reasons than i can include but a few are: i'm a middle TN girl, i ache for Chris and children like him who have such horrific starts in life, i know the value of writing those in prison and the gift i get in return, i cling hard to hope...for all of us. Thank you for this beautifully told story.

As I listened i saw it as a movie playing well in my mind. Somebody make it, please! There's an actress in Nashville, Emily Landham, who would nail Chris's dear wife to a tee. This is a story worth telling to the world...

Apr. 23 2013 02:19 PM
John from Brooklyn

Can you give me a site where I can find the ballad of Christopher Gay? I really loved his story (and all stories you guys report on).

Dec. 20 2012 01:29 PM
Lachlan from Sydney, Australia

I listened to this podcast on the 4th of October, 2012... the date Chris Gay is supposed to have completed the program and then granted parol... What a pleasent coincidence.

I hope things are going well Chris! Know that you have a massive group of listeners from all over the world rooting or you!

Good luck!


Oct. 04 2012 09:02 AM

I was almost late to work because I couldn't stop listening to the Little Houdini piece. I finally tore myself away from it but picked it back up again on the podcast. Really riveting and compelling. Please update us. Would love to know if he behaves himself when he gets out.

Jun. 10 2012 05:25 PM
Donald Baxter from Iowa City, Iowa

Gay men in the 1970s and 80s did phone freaking as a method of hooking up with other gay men in Atlanta. We called them the loop lines. Two lines conferenced in together, whoever had control of these lines could talk to dozens of men in sequence calling in.

Jun. 10 2012 02:52 PM
bill mason from Philly

Hi guys!

Back in the 1950's an escape [from jails] artist had a TV show about his many escapes, but i don't know if there were more than 13 or not. His name was Willie Sutton.

Jun. 10 2012 01:33 PM
leif BRUSH from 46° 47' 0" N / 92° 6' 23" W

I'd love to share my raw telco tapes (50s-60s) re your 2012/2ogreat-escape

Apr. 23 2012 05:28 PM
jjpare from Toronto, ON

The little finger-pickin guitar piece that plays after the halloween story is Sunflower River Blues by John Fahey.

Apr. 18 2012 12:38 PM
Dallas Downs from Texas

This is such a great segment! Thanks Radiolab for hitting it out of the park, again. PLEEAASE post music credits for this segment! The piano piece at the end was really good!

Apr. 12 2012 12:29 PM

The guitar song during the Little Houdini piece is "Bron-yr-aur" by Led Zeppelin

Mar. 23 2012 10:42 AM
David from San Antonio, Tx

Just bought the Sage Francis album with Little Houdini. Such a great song!

Mar. 21 2012 03:55 AM
Pearl from California

Please, please, please, include or post music credits for all your shows!

Mar. 20 2012 03:42 PM
Lidian from Plano, TX

This reminds me to be careful with my thoughts when I see someone, or hear about someone making wrong choices. No, it's not right to blame your past for the choices you make as an adult, but there is no denying the amazing and life altering effect of childhood. I say to myself, judge not.

Mar. 18 2012 11:23 PM
Clay garnett from Zambia!

Check out Little houdini by Sage Francis. Its all about Chris Gay. Awesome story.

Mar. 14 2012 07:15 AM

Ben Montgomery sounded exactly like Adam Scott who plays Ben Wyatt on Parks and Rec. This was an amazing segment.

Mar. 06 2012 01:23 PM
Kate from Beijing china

That gamelan-esque piece of music between segments was so amazing - please post the name/artist. Id love to buy it. And as usual, excellent episode. It was nice having the space record story return in a different form. Music, please!

Mar. 06 2012 02:31 AM
Gustavo from SF

Hey guys, invariably in EVERY episode I wonder where I can get this or that song from the ones you play in the background during stories. Yet you never list your tracks. Why?

If they are original works you could be raising money by selling them, if not then you could be raising money via affiliate links. At the very least you'd make a lot of your listeners happy.

Please list the music you use! Love the podcast, thank you.

Mar. 03 2012 05:55 AM
Allison from San Francisco

How can I find the music you played in the background?

Mar. 01 2012 08:38 PM
Pierre Kerner from Paris, France

There's an issue with downloading this episode. The link targets a radiolab022012.mp3 file whereas I found, after snooping around, that it's actually radiolab022012b.mp3
Can't wait to listen to it now!

Mar. 01 2012 05:01 AM

Another wonderful story. But may I interject a dose of reality....perhaps Little Houdini is staying in prison for the same reason others commit crimes again and again....a fear of the outside and responsibility? I hope it's not so, but this was my first impression as the story was being told.

Feb. 28 2012 11:59 PM

"Escape" was intriguing and well planned might I say. Thank you radiolab.

Feb. 27 2012 12:52 AM
Gaston from Costa Rica

What an amazing story! Sad, tragic, beautiful.

Feb. 25 2012 10:47 PM
Daniel from New York, NY

I loved this story. Please make sure to do a follow up later in the year to let us know how Christopher and his family is doing.

Feb. 25 2012 11:04 AM
su from south africa

I listened to it with my kids.
My ten year old daughter was amazed at how kids her age could want to kill themselves. Made her reailise hos lucky she is.
Once again another absolutely riveting podcast, brilliantly put together.
Thank god for Radiolab.

Feb. 25 2012 02:41 AM
Chris from South Pasadena, CA

For all of you dying to know the piano song that comes in at the end of this segment, it's Dustin O'Halloran — We Move Lightly. Enjoy!

Feb. 24 2012 12:49 AM
luke smith from Edinburgh

Another wonderful podcast from Radiolab, tinged as always with tragedy, hope and excellent production. Also, another request here for the name of the piano song played at the end of the great escape artist segment.



Feb. 23 2012 07:58 AM
groovymat from 59901

This reminded me of the Sage Francis song Little Houdini. I never knew the rest of the story until now. Thank you for being so awesome Radiolab!

Feb. 22 2012 10:12 PM

+1 for music credits, definitely want to know the gamelan-esque piece at the end of this great story!

this story should also shine a light on the prison / poverty system, and how prison does not help those stuck in these cycle since childhood.

Feb. 22 2012 04:24 PM
John Borges from Tampa

I love RadioLab and the great stories you provide along with the way you tell the story and the format on how you approach a story compared to other story telling venues. I was reminded of the movie the "Great Escape" and unlike the movie this story has a great ending - no spoiler alert here just need to hear it for yourself how great the great escape is.

Feb. 22 2012 03:39 PM
LucasBlake from Washington D.C.

I'd also like to know the source for that music at the end of the Little Houdini segment.

Feb. 21 2012 03:35 PM
blankscapes from Norway

AAaah.. who plays that piano-tune at the end of this segment??

Radiolab-day, is a perfect day..

Feb. 21 2012 02:45 PM
Kialah Smith from Boulder, CO

I herd your "Escape" podcast and could NOT believe my ears. One if my favorite artists, Sage Francis, has a (fairly new) song about Little Houdini... Called Little Houdini:
Sage Francis is an amazing lyricist. Hear the song here:

I LOVE your podcast,
Kialah Smith

Feb. 21 2012 02:33 PM

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