By Jackson Holtz Herald Writer
EASTSOUND, Orcas Island — A gun and his two Rottweilers by his side, Kyle Ater slept Thursday night in his Eastsound grocery store.
It was a flashback to the fall, when businesses and homes on Orcas became ripe pasture, police allege, for the notorious teenage fugitive, Colton Harris-Moore.
During that crime spree, Ater believed the best protection for his business was to bunk there, ready to confront the 18-year-old felon.
He spent thousands of dollars installing a dozen surveillance cameras capable of taking images in the dark and snapping 30 frames each second.
“The only reason I bought that security system was for him,” Ater said. “So I could go home and sleep.”
Someone broke into his Orcas Homegrown Market and Gourmet Deli early Thursday. A stolen plane was found in the mud at the Orcas landing field.
San Juan County Sheriff William Cumming suspects the crimes are Harris-Moore’s calling cards. Investigators on Friday combed the plane and other evidence in an effort to positively link the crimes to the Camano Island teen.
If he’s responsible for this week’s thefts, the damage toll from Harris-Moore’s life of crime will reach at least $1.5 million. So far, he’s suspected of stealing four private planes, two luxury cars, numerous computers, cameras and music players, plus peace of mind.
“This is not Robin Hood,” Island County sheriff’s detective Ed Wallace said a few weeks ago. “He’s stealing for his own gratification, and he’s hurting people.”
The Orcas Island break-ins fed into a fresh media frenzy about the case. National news outlets rushed to report the tale of the young criminal, whom they’d earlier dubbed the “Barefoot Bandit.”
In Orcas, the burglar drew footprint outlines in chalk on the red concrete floor.
The attention on Harris-Moore is misplaced, his victims say. Rather than spinning the 6-foot, 5-inch crook into a catch-me-if-you-can folk hero, the focus should be on the people he’s hurting.
Ater found his store’s computer hard-drive immersed in water, an apparent attempt to destroy evidence. Perishable food was ruined, and $1,200 cash is missing. Damage and stolen property from Thursday’s break-in cost Ater in excess of $5,000.
“This is such a huge attack. It’s not just financial, it’s emotional,” Ater said.
Peace of mind lost
Many of Harris-Moore’s victims have insurance and some stolen property has been returned.
Still, homes and businesses, once sanctuaries, have been defiled.
“That’s the biggest loss,” Wallace said. “No amount of restitution can bring that feeling of safety back.”
During a six-month spree that began in summer 2006, the teenager, then 15, terrorized south Camano Island. He was arrested red-handed in February 2007 and sentenced that year to spend three years behind bars. But in April 2008, Harris-Moore slipped away from a group home.
The teen’s wanton disregard for others has forced many to install dead-bolt locks and to lock doors. That’s happening even in locations where homeowners once felt protected by their remoteness.
Bob Rivers, a Seattle talk-radio host, said his community on Orcas Island has changed since Harris-Moore snuck onto the island two years ago. The teen is the prime suspect in the 2008 theft of River’s $150,000 Cessna from the small airport where the most recent stolen plane was found abandoned last week. Rivers’ plane was left wrecked near Yakima. Sheriff Cumming said vomit recovered from the plane’s cockpit was tested to see if it matched Harris-Moore’s DNA. Whoever took the plane caught a break: Stomach acid prevented investigators from achieving a match, the sheriff said.
Rivers was interviewed by national news programs about the plane theft in stories that played into Harris-Moore’s bad-boy legend. It left him uneasy.
“Am I helping to catch this guy or helping to get out delusion?” he wondered recently.
Still, he never could have imagined someone would steal his plane for a joy ride.
“He’s (defecating) all over other people’s lives,” the talk-show host said.
An 8-year old Camano Island girl was traumatized in September 2006 after catching a glimpse of Harris-Moore sneaking away from a burglary, court records say. He’d broken into the girl’s home, stolen a bike and other belongings and started a fire in a bedroom.
“He made an imprint on her mind she will never forget,” the girl’s mother wrote in a letter to the court. “We could not console her or relieve her anxieties.”
The girl went to a counselor. On many nights, she was scared to sleep alone.
Another Camano Island family feared Harris-Moore was watching their house at night. Prosecutors allege Harris-Moore broke into the home in 2008 and stole the family’s credit card information.
Harris-Moore has used some of his victims’ credit cards to order products online and to buy access to pornography sites, court papers show.
“It is not just the money value of the items he stole, but the undermining of trust and disturbance of his neighbors; the invasion of their private space,” one couple wrote in a March 2009 letter tucked into Harris-Moore’s thick court records. “Harm was done to people even though he left no physical marks to show it.”
Many people blame Harris-Moore’s misconduct on his mother, Pamela Kohler, 58, who lives in a mobile home tucked in the woods on the south end of Camano.
That includes Jack Archibald, a Camano Island artist and musician, who penned a bluegrass song called, “The Sad Saga of Colton Harris-Moore.” Archibald said that kvetching about Harris-Moore has become a south-end Camano Island pastime.
‘A bit out of control’
News crews from Brazil, Canada, New York and Los Angeles have scoured the woods in his neighborhood leaving a well-worn trail in search of the bandit’s fresh face — and anyone who might provide a good sound bite.
“This is sort of gotten a bit out of control,” Archibald said. “At some point, we’re going to quit talking.”
Shannon Kirby agrees. She’s a Camano Island resident and Harris-Moore victim.
“There’s like this myth growing up around him. It kind of freaks me out because I’m afraid that this is going to push him to behave in more extraordinary ways,” she said.
Reporters have sought fresh insight from Kohler, sometimes bringing beer and cigarettes.
She isn’t always welcoming. A sign warns that trespassers will be shot.
She called 911 to shoo a Canadian camera crew away.
“I’m sick of it,” Kohler said recently.
One neighbor, who asked that her name not be used, said she’d like to put up a sign of her own: “If your son is breaking into my home, he will be shot.”
Many police won’t talk about their efforts to apprehend the notorious felon. They don’t want to feed the media frenzy, concerned that could be part of his motivation.
Some at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office call Harris-Moore “He Who Must Not Be Named,” a reference to the villain in the Harry Potter novels.
On Camano Island, neighbors now keep watch among lavender fields. They take in their mail as soon as it arrives, fearing Harris-Moore may steal identities the same way he’s snagged food, valuables and electronics.
They’re guarding what’s left of their peace.
When asked for the latest on “Colt,” they often breathe a deep sigh, roll their eyes and wish for his arrest.
“I just wonder how long this will have to continue?” said one neighbor who didn’t want her name published. “How can one person ruin it for the rest of us? It just doesn’t seem right.”
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437, firstname.lastname@example.org.