A seven-word message that flashed up in every betting shop on both sides of the Irish Sea this week was enough to chill the soul of all turf accountants: "The Pencil Man is on the run."
The emergency alert, sent by satellite to more than 10,000 bookies from Aberdeen to Cork, referred to John Bailey, a beguiling Liverpudlian whose talent for gambling fraud has made him Britain's most feared punter.
For the past six years, Bailey, 32, has toured bookmakers exercising a talent for smooth talking and sleight of hand that is estimated to have netted him proceeds of more than £1m. His lucky streak was thought to have run out last November when he was found guilty at Grimsby Crown Court of conning two Humberside bookmakers out of £40,000 in 48 hours of frenetic betting.
But 10 days ago he failed to attend a hearing where he was expected to receive a substantial jail term. He was last seen seven days ago in two betting shops in Co Kildare in the Irish Republic. His trip abroad has been made despite being banned by court order from every bookmakers in the UK and also being forced to surrender his passport as a condition of bail.
The betting authorities said yesterday that Bailey, whose nickname comes from his method of scribbling phoney wagers with a pencil after distracting shop staff, was probably returning to old habits.
Warwick Bartlett, chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB), which represents Britain's 8,300 betting shops, said: "If there was an Olympic Games for conmen, I am sure he would get gold. There is not one part of the country where he has not been active.
"The problem is that he has become very good at what he does. He has a very plausible manner, an outgoing personality which puts people at their ease and a trick which has earned him huge sums."
Not content with fleeing from the British courts, Pencil Man chose to taunt his pursuers by writing to the judge before last week's hearing to say that he would not be attending. He has also phoned the ABB to say he intends to give himself up – "but not yet".
Bailey, who was described during his court case as a gambling addict, is reputed to stake £400,000 a year at two bookmakers in Liverpool – a habit financed by his con tricks at other shops.
The fraudster, who at 6ft 3in and with a shaven head is an imposing figure, started his crime spree by preying on shops run by the main high-street chains such as Coral and William Hill. When they changed their till systems to make Bailey's modus operandi impossible, he switched his attention to smaller, independent betting offices.
Using a self-effacing manner and a charming patter, the fraudster placed large losing bets to cover his tracks. He once offered to buy a bookmaker fish and chips as he drove him to the bank to collect his winnings.
Pencil Man's methods are straightforward. He fills in a betting slip with an innocuous bet, which is accepted and time stamped. He then steals the carbon copy back from across the counter. Once he knows the winners of races, he adds a further, more complicated bet to both copies and slips the carbon copy back across the counter after distracting staff. He returns later to collect his winnings.
His victims say that while his fraud is simple, it is accomplished with speed by a cunning and ruthless criminal. Nick Ceclich, whose identification of Bailey as he tried to collect £17,000 from his betting shop in Grimsby led to his conviction last year, said: "He is no lovable rogue. He chats, jokes and distracts his way to theft in a few moments – it took him 30 seconds to put his fraud in place at my shop. Then he can turn nasty as he demands his money. The sooner he is behind bars the better."