Reporters: The Underdogs' Favorite

Los Angeles Times Reporter-Columnist Paul Coates, 44, specializes in sentimental stories about the oddball and the offbeat. In 18 years of reporting, he has become familiar to just about every criminal, cop and kook in California.

When he walks across the yard at San Quentin prison, inmates line up to shake his hand. He has interviewed pickpockets, prostitutes and crooks on TV; once an escaped mental-asylum patient barged into the studio and unburdened himself over the air. It has become something of a local practice for fugitives from justice to surrender to Coates.

When he answered his office phone one...

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