By Jackson Holtz Herald Writer
COUPEVILLE — In the end, Colton Harris-Moore’s story of a troubled childhood, undiagnosed fetal alcohol problems and deep remorse helped sway a judge away from a harsh prison term.
The man who gained international notoriety as the Barefoot Bandit was sentenced Friday to more than seven years behind bars, the low end of the state’s mandatory guidelines.
He could have spent decades in prison for the two-year crime spree that cut a swath through Pacific Northwest and ultimately touched three countries and nine states.
Harris-Moore racked up millions in stolen property, helping himself to cars, boats and planes while also burglarizing homes and businesses.
“I wanted the maximum amount but I think it was fair and just,” Camano Island resident and Harris-Moore victim Michael Nestor said after the hearing.
Prosecutors from Island, San Juan and Snohomish counties were pushing for about 10 years, the maximum amount within the state’s guidelines.
“He was a menace,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said.
Harris-Moore’s defense team argued that their client qualified for a six-year sentence, a punishment that was less than state guidelines.
“We’re afraid that his spirit will be killed and destroyed by a lengthy sentence,” said John Henry Browne, Harris-Moore’s attorney.
An extensive psychiatric evaluation determined that Harris-Moore suffered from undiagnosed neurological problems.
As a boy, Harris-Moore had almost all the risk factors for failure and none of the support to succeed, Dr. Richard Adler said. The Seattle psychiatrist evaluated Harris-Moore for the defense and testified Friday.
Criminal behavior seemed inevitable.
“It started out of necessity,” Adler said. “He had the worst of circumstances.”
Harris-Moore told investigators he began stealing food from neighbors at 13.
His mother, Pam Kohler, was portrayed as abusive and negligent. She would use spare money for cigarettes and beer instead of food, reports said.
Harris-Moore’s first memory of childhood was of Kohler saying she wished he was born dead, Browne said.
Kohler did not attend Friday’s hearing. She said she visited a friend and held a prayer vigil for her son.
Churchill called Harris-Moore’s case both a tragedy and a triumph of human spirit.
In her remarks, she acknowledged that Harris-Moore had been in her courtroom before, facing juvenile offenses.
Harris-Moore committed numerous crimes and took away the sense of safety once enjoyed by his victims, the judge said. But his tough childhood, including a hard-drinking mother, could have fit into the biography of a mass killer or a drug addict, Churchill said.
Instead, he has shown genuine remorse and has taken steps to make restitution.
“That is the triumph of the human spirit and the triumph of Colton Harris-Moore,” she said. “He has survived.”
The serial burglar sent the judge a six-page, single-spaced letter taking responsibility for his actions, apologizing and sharing much of his life story.
“There are no words sufficient to describe the level of remorse or the feelings I have about myself,” Harris-Moore wrote. “The indelible mark I made on the communities and the fear I caused homeowners, there is no going back.”
Harris-Moore inked a $1.3 million movie deal to help pay back his victims. Under the plea agreement reached in state and federal courts, he is prevented from earning a dime for himself.
Showing no emotion and staring at the floor for most of the hearing, he did not speak up in court Friday, despite encouragement to do so from his attorneys.
Still, Robert Gleyre said he believed Harris-Moore demonstrated genuine remorse.
Harris-Moore broke into Gleyre’s Granite Falls home in October 2009. He stole food, survival gear and a .22 caliber pistol. Mostly, though, he robbed the family of their sense of safety.
While others cheered and made a hero of the notorious fugitive, Gleyre said he worried about his wife, and was concerned every time someone came up the driveway.
After the day’s hearing, he said he learned volumes about Harris-Moore. Now, he hopes the young man can get help in prison.
Harris-Moore has been held at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac since his July 2010 arrest. He still faces federal sentencing at the end of January. His state prison term will not begin until he turns 21, satisfying his juvenile sentence.
After the hearing, Banks, the Island County prosecutor, said he thought the seven-year sentence was fair.
“It’s still a significant amount of time for someone who’s never been in the in adult criminal justice system,” he said.
After answering questions about Harris-Moore and dealing with his criminal cases for more than a decade, Banks said he was relieved to put this case behind him.
“I’m glad that it’s over,” he said.
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; firstname.lastname@example.org.