Colton Harris-Moore myths falter under examination

CAMANO ISLAND — Colton Harris-Moore is no Jesse James. No Robin Hood. No Billy the Kid or misfit MacGyver.

“To glamorize him as a folk hero is wrong,” San Juan County Sheriff William Cumming said. “He should be characterized for what he is. He’s a serial burglar. He’s a thief, and he obviously has a lot of turmoil in his life, and that’s not something to glamorize.”

The line between fact and fiction has started to blur in the past few weeks, as the 18-year-old from Camano Island has gained international notoriety as a wily, fleet-footed commando who continues to stay steps ahead of the police.

A Facebook fan page has attracted thousands of visitors and the teenager’s mug has flashed across national news networks. “The Legend of Colt” appeared on the Oct. 9 front page of The Globe &Mail, a national Canadian newspaper. Colton Harris-Moore T-shirts are selling faster than the teen can run.

“It’s not this myth they’re trying to make him into,” Island County sheriff’s detective Ed Wallace said. “He’s a criminal stealing for his own gratification — either for the property or the thrill, I can’t answer that.”

He doesn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor. He doesn’t rob banks. He’s not a detective or a spy. He doesn’t have an invisibility cloak.

Yet as the elusive teen has become banter for talk radio and Web logs, lore often has outgrown truth. Let’s set the record straight.

He’s no boy genius. It’s unlikely that he and his mom will be nominated for the mother-child pair of the year. He’s not blamed for every crime in the Pacific Northwest. He’s no survivalist. He likely didn’t hotwire airplanes. And he’s not always the barefoot burglar.

He is a suspect in dozens of crimes across the Pacific Northwest. Police believe he may have stolen boats, cars and planes. He’s listed in a FBI database as a fugitive from justice.

MYTH: His crimes are evidence of high intelligence

“Part of his eluding police could be because he has an high IQ. He may be clever,” said Deborah Stipek, a developmental psychologist and dean of the Stanford University School of Education in California.

Pam Kohler, Harris-Moore’s mother, has told reporters all over the country that her son has an exceptional intelligence quotient, or IQ, a few points shy of Albert Einstein’s.

“So what? Attila the Hun may have had a high IQ,” Stipek said. “That’s beside the point, it’s totally irrelevant. Her son is causing harm and hurting people, and that’s what matters.”

Far from a sophisticated crook, Harris-Moore appears to have left a catalog of clues: fingerprints, blood, videotape, photographs, even vomit in the cockpit of a stolen airplane.

“He’s leaving us evidence at crime scenes,” Wallace said. “An intelligent, good criminal doesn’t do that.”

MYTH: Mom and he are pals

Kohler, 58, repeatedly has defended her son in media interviews. She’s both urged him to give up and encouraged the teen to continue. But her stories about the pair’s mother-and-child bond may be as tall her son’s 6-foot-5 frame.

She says the two are close. Court papers reveal a tumultuous relationship.

“Clearly he and his mother have difficulty resolving problems without aggression,” a probation officer wrote in 2004. “Both Colton and his mother appear to have limited insight on how to avoid engaging in aggressive behaviors at home.”

He hasn’t lived at home since the spring of 2006 when he failed to show up for a court date. Since then, he’s either been a ward of the state juvenile rehabilitation system or a fugitive.

MYTH: He is blamed for every crime in the Northwest

Harris-Moore began capturing headlines in early 2007 when Island County officials handed out wanted posters featuring the boy’s photo. Since then, his mom often has said he’s being unfairly linked to every break-in on Camano Island, the rural community where Harris-Moore grew up and where Kohler still lives. She’s made the same claim as his crime spree has expanded across the Pacific Northwest.

“Anytime anything is stolen they blame it on Colt,” Kohler has said.

Not true, Wallace said.

This past summer when Harris-Moore was suspected of returning to his old stomping grounds, another man, 22, was busted for breaking into Camano Island homes and stealing large-screen plasma TVs, Wallace said.

“Mom’s mentality that we blame everything on Colt isn’t the case,” Wallace said.

MYTH: He is a survivalist

While there is evidence that Harris-Moore has set up camps in the woods, he’s not a survivalist, police say.

“I’m not talking about burrowing into the dirt,” Wallace said. “He had tents.”

More often, Harris-Moore’s made himself comfortable by amassing expensive stolen gear or by simply spending a few nights in the vacation homes he burglarized.

Contrary to some reports, he’s not just stealing survival gear.

Court papers itemize much of the property: jewelry, watches, laptop computers, iPods, digital cameras and camcorders. He also likes remote-control toys, including cars, boats and helicopters.

At the Creston Valley Regional Airport, just across the Canadian border from Idaho’s panhandle, locals believe Harris-Moore stole junk food, beer, soda and two handguns. He may also have tried to steal an airplane there.

MYTH: He hotwired the stolen airplanes

Harris-Moore appears to be a suspect in three thefts of small airplanes. He has no formal flight training. Each time, the planes were crash-landed.

“He’s been lucky three times, and from the looks of it, he’s not getting much better,” said Robert Collins, president of the Florida-based Aviation Crime Prevention Institute. “You don’t get too many chances to crash an airplane and walk away.”

Collins doesn’t believe that the teen started the planes by fusing together the electronics. “I don’t think the kid is smart enough to hotwire,” he said.

Two of the stolen planes were Cessnas, which is notable because they have a notorious security flaw that makes them easy for thieves to start, Collins said.

MYTH: He’s the barefoot burglar

This myth is flourishing on the Internet. Harris-Moore is being called the “barefoot burglar” by many journalists and bloggers from outside the area, and it keeps getting repeated as new writers and broadcasters discover the story of the teenage serial thief.

Yes, bare footprints have been found near some crime scenes where Harris-Moore is a suspect. Witnesses also claim to have seen him running without shoes. It’s not, however, his calling card.

“It’s interesting how that’s become his tag,” Sheriff Cumming said. “He’s not always barefoot.”

In the eight years Harris-Moore is suspected of committing crimes on Camano Island, he was never barefoot, police said.

“He’s not some kid running around with no shoes on,” Wallace said. “He’s got boots and shoes.”

In fact, shoes were stolen during a Oct. 4 burglary in Granite Falls that bears resemblance to others officials have pegged on the teen.

Being barefoot for any extended time in the wilderness, where Harris-Moore is suspected of spending time, would be uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst, said Andrew Toyota, a climbing instructor and volunteer with Everett Mountain Rescue. Cold feet could lead to hypothermia.

Still, there are some who believe being barefoot may be a benefit.

Chris McDougall is the author of “Born to Run,” a book about running barefoot. He’s a proponent of the increasingly popular movement among some athletes. Nerves on the soles of the foot are very sensitive.

“The really experienced barefoot guys say it’s actually safer,” McDougall said. “If you can’t see in the dark, then you can feel your way really effectively.”

If Harris-Moore is running barefoot through the woods, he’s following in the footsteps of American Indians and others with long traditions of being both fleet- and bare-footed.

“He’s actually an heir to noble traditions,” McDougall said.

Not around here.

“Given the weather and the harsh terrain, it is unlikely that people in the Pacific Northwest would go barefoot for any length of time,” said Jennifer Webb, of the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology.

At the same time, going barefoot leaves behind the individual’s unique footprints.

Those would provide more evidence to link Harris-Moore to crimes.

“Perhaps he thinks he’s outsmarting the cops,” Wallace said. “That’s the thing about the super intelligence of this kid: it’s not there.”

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437,

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