By Gene Johnson Associated Press
SEATTLE — The tale of the Barefoot Bandit is Hollywood-ready, with its barely schooled, shoeless scamp dodging police as he allegedly stole planes and cars in a cross-country dash before he was nabbed in a high-speed boat chase in the Bahamas.
A well-known entertainment lawyer hired by Colton Harris-Moore’s mother says he is being swamped by unsolicited offers for book and movie deals, and no law would prohibit the 19-year-old or his mom from getting rich off his tale.
But hardball-playing prosecutors could seek to have them agree to turn over any profits from such deals in exchange for Harris-Moore avoiding a long prison sentence. The government could use the money to repay his alleged victims.
“Most victims in this case would not look kindly on either the defendant or his family getting rich,” said Mark Bartlett, former first assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle. “It would be very difficult for him to make a pitch for leniency without a clean and total disgorgement of profits he or his family members are making.”
Harris-Moore was arrested in the Bahamas a week after he reportedly crash-landed there in a plane stolen July 4 from an Indiana airport. He made initial court appearances in Florida last week and is being returned to Seattle, where he faces a federal charge in the crash-landing of a plane stolen from Idaho last year.
The self-taught pilot is suspected of more than 70 crimes across nine states since he walked away from a halfway house in April 2008, many of them in Washington’s bucolic islands. Some prosecutors and a defense attorney who was asked to represent him have expressed interest in negotiating a “global” plea deal to resolve all or most of the allegations.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to comment on how the prosecution will proceed, except to say it is reviewing crimes attributed to Harris-Moore to see which might be prosecuted in federal court. Police suspect Harris-Moore took stolen cars, a boat and planes across state lines, and interstate transportation of stolen property is a federal offense with a 10-year maximum sentence.
John Henry Browne, a Seattle lawyer who has been asked to represent Harris-Moore, did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
A global plea deal would be more efficient than prosecuting him in one jurisdiction after another, but it isn’t clear that would satisfy the local, elected prosecutors who have dealt with Harris-Moore the longest.
“I never say never, but my preference is that he answer for Island County charges in Island County court,” said Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, whose jurisdiction includes Harris-Moore’s hometown of Camano Island. “He’s got a lot to answer for.”
He also noted Harris-Moore still has two years left on the sentence he walked away from in 2008.
Harris-Moore might not be charged in every case in which he’s a suspect. In some Washington burglaries, little or no physical evidence was uncovered. In Indiana, Monroe County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bob Miller said charges in the plane theft are unlikely for that reason.
In other states, prosecutors have already filed charges.
If the U.S. attorney’s office were to broker a deal, it could recommend leniency in exchange for Harris-Moore agreeing to direct profits from movie or book deals to victims. That would be easier on victims, who otherwise might have to sue him for damages.
But prosecutors are unlikely to offer leniency unless Harris-Moore’s mother also agrees to forego any profits, Bartlett said.
“A plea agreement is a contract, and that contract can be very broad,” Bartlett said. “She’s not being prosecuted, but her profits could definitely be part of the negotiations.”
The federal government and many states, including Washington, have “Son of Sam” laws barring criminals from making money off crimes in which a victim is physically harmed or killed, but there are no allegations that Harris-Moore hurt anybody.
That leaves a plea deal as the only likely means of preventing him from making money off his story, though a court could order restitution to victims.
Such deals have precedence. “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh pleaded guilty in 2002 to supplying support for the Taliban in exchange for a 20-year sentence. He also agreed that any profits from publicity deals would be turned over to the U.S. government — and that he would not communicate with relatives or associates to help them profit from his story.
O. Yale Lewis, the entertainment lawyer advising Pam Kohler, said the different circumstances raise questions about a similar deal being worked out for Harris-Moore and his mother.
“I would say prosecutors should not and do not have discretion to require a parent to pay money into the system as a condition of negotiating with their child,” Lewis said.
Lewis said it “would be grossly unfair” for Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan to seek to include language comparable to the Lindh case in any plea deal with Harris-Moore. He emphasized that Kohler has never sought publicity for her son’s actions, and any talk of the pair profiting remains speculative.
Mary Fan, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego who teaches at the University of Washington Law School, said the U.S. attorney could try to garner any profits from mother or son. But, she said, modeling an agreement on the Lindh plea has clear advantages: It requires only the defendant, rather than family members, to waive certain rights, yet still curbs the family’s ability to profit by preventing the defendant from participating.
“The government has a strong interest in deterring others from trying to grab public attention by committing crimes,” Fan said. “If the Barefoot Bandit makes a million bucks from committing a bunch of crimes, what’s to prevent other kids from saying, ‘I want to be just like him’?”