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Disputed Pay Phones Disappear

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Evette Wilson, chairwoman of the neighborhood-watch committee, says residents don't know who's responsible, but most applaud the mysterious saw-wielder. "We think it's the telephone fairy," Wilson says. "We think it's so funny."

Robert Clayton, the phones' owner, isn't laughing. The stolen phones cost him $6,000, he says, not counting the income he's lost since their disappearance. Flyers taped to the steel posts offer a $250 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the theft.

Some residents theorize the phones were stolen for the change inside. Clayton, however, believes the theft is the culmination of a long dispute between his company, Transdominion Ltd., and the owner of the shopping plaza on Broad Rock Boulevard, which is adjacent to James', the convenience store where the phones stood.

Rae Lee, the plaza owner, had requested several times that the phones be removed, Clayton says. He refused. Clayton says he thinks Lee ordered a painting crew to saw off the phones.

Neither Lee nor his attorney returned calls to Style by press time. But a source familiar with the situation says Lee never authorized any phones to be taken out. The source says the dispute arose from confusion over who owns the land on which the three phones stood. Although Clayton was paying a commission to the convenience store owners, the property actually belongs to Lee, the source says.

Hamid Essawti, manager of James' Food Store, says two weeks ago he saw a couple of men standing by the phones who said they had orders to take them down. "I let them [do] what they did," he says.

The phones were a public service, Clayton says, and everyone in the neighborhood used them. They were well-kept, graffiti-free and a call cost only 25 cents, "because it's a low-income community," he explains.

It's a matter of principle now, Clayton says. Police and property owners alike are waging a war against urban pay phones, he says, not only in Richmond but throughout the state. "They think that all phones are nothing but problems," he says.

Essawti says he's not sorry to see the crowds gone from his corner, but he understands Clayton's concern. "From one side is bad," he says, "and from the other side is good."

— Melissa Scott Sinclair

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