After two years, one chapter of Colton Harris-Moore’s escape comes to a close

CAMANO ISLAND — He will fly no more. He will run no more.

For now.

A two-year, cross-country, international, multimillion-dollar crime spree ended with the arrest early Sunday of Colton Harris-Moore, the notorious Camano Island fugitive known as the “Barefoot Bandit.”

For the first time since escaping a Renton group home in April 2008, Harris-Moore, 19, again was in shackles, where he was found at a dock in the Bahamas. This time he’s at risk of prosecution for more than 70 crimes across eight states and in three countries.

More than $3 million in stolen or ruined property is connected to him.

“No comment. No, no, no,” Pam Kohler told The Herald on Sunday when contacted about the arrest. She’s Harris-Moore’s mother and lives on south Camano Island. In the past, she’s been supportive of her son’s efforts to remain free. She recently retained assistance of a prominent entertainment lawyer.

Despite no flight training, no driver’s license, no formal education for years and a tumultuous childhood, Harris-Moore is suspected of piloting planes, stealing luxury cars, making off in pleasure boats and travelling from the far Northwest to the Bahamas — all while wanted by authorities.

He reportedly was seen running from police without shoes, which led to his headline-grabbing nickname. He was photographed walking barefoot Sunday, his ankles tethered by shackles, while heavily armed police stood guard.

As news of the arrest quickly spread, area law enforcement officials, victims and residents took some comfort that Harris-Moore’s flight from justice had ended without injury.

“I am thankful that Colton Harris-Moore has been taken into custody by the Bahamian authorities,” Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said. “I pledge my commitment to seek accountability for the many crimes suffered by the citizens of Island County at the hands of this criminal.”

Armed confrontation

Around 3 a.m. Sunday, Bahamian officials moved in on Harris-Moore near a dock.

“It went down like you expect of Colt,” said Bob Friel, an Orcas Island writer who went to the Bahamas after learning the notorious teen fugitive was suspected of crashing a plane there.

Friel, who is writing a book about Harris-Moore, said he was near where the arrest was made. He said Harris-Moore chatted with locals prior to being confronted by authorities.

“He tried to run to the very end. A sandbar and police bullets finally stopped his boat and convinced him to give up,” the writer told The Herald.

Police had to fire at the boat’s engines to force him to stop. There were reports that Harris-Moore held a gun to his head, and that police talked him out of harming himself, but that wasn’t immediately confirmed.

Harris-Moore was taken by plane to Nassau, the island nation’s capital, for processing. He’s expected to appear in court there sometime this week.

Harris-Moore is a suspect in more 70 criminal investigations in the U.S., according to federal charges filed in December and unsealed last week.

Federal prosecutors in Seattle charged him by complaint with interstate transportation of stolen property. He also faces a number of charges already filed in Island and San Juan counties and in Nebraska.

Troubled childhood

Harris-Moore began acting out and causing problems at 10, court records show.

He grew up in a turbulent household. His father, Gordon Moore, was a drug user who was sent to prison by the time the boy was a toddler and was never a consistent presence in his life. His mother, Pam Kohler, 59, often argued violently with the boy.

When Kohler drank, she became mean and would break her son’s things, Harris-Moore told a psychiatrist during a court-ordered evaluation in 2008.

“She seemed to care less and less about his attending school and functioning as a student,” court records said.

By 12, Harris-Moore was in criminal trouble. He was accused of breaking into a Stanwood business, setting fire to Stanwood Middle School and ruining a bulletin board at the Thriftway. He pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property, a felony.

In summer 2006, he was supposed to be in court at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center in Everett. He didn’t show.

He later told a court official he was afraid to go back to jail, and “took off before the day of the trial.”

He was soon breaking into homes on Camano Island, often using home computers to surf for porn on the Internet. Frustrated after a six burglaries and worried about the safety of residents — and of the 15-year-old suspect — the Island County sheriff’s office in January 2007 issued wanted signs for Harris-Moore.

Within weeks of stories appearing about his crimes, Harris-Moore was nabbed when a neighbor spied lights on in an empty vacation home. Police used a ruse to snare him. Flashlight beams from two deputies gave the appearance of a larger force outside the house. He surrendered.

Facing 23 criminal charges in Island County Superior Court, Harris-Moore pleaded guilty to three and was sentenced to more than three years in the custody of the state’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration.

Escape from custody

Officials said he excelled at reform school and quickly was moved from a jail-like lockup in Eastern Washington to a less-secure group home near Seattle.

After lights-out in April 2008, Harris-Moore slipped out a window and ran.

And ran. And ran.

It wasn’t long before the break-ins began again on south Camano Island.

In July 2009, police accused Harris-Moore of stealing a Mercedes-Benz from one of his mother’s neighbors and crashing it into a propane tank behind the Elger Bay Grocery Store. He left behind a backpack, where police found a journal and a stolen digital camera with self-portraits of Harris-Moore — the now-iconic image of him wearing a Mercedes-logo polo shirt.

Soon, the teen’s exploits took off, literally.

In September 2009, the San Juan County sheriff announced that Harris-Moore, who has no flight training, was a suspect in two plane thefts and several burglaries. He was believed to be headed for Canada in a stolen boat.

He allegedly made his way through British Columbia before sneaking across the U.S. border to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where on Sept. 29, he allegedly flew a stolen plane back to Snohomish County.

A logger found the wreckage in a clear-cut near Granite Falls on Oct. 1. Police traced bare footprints to a camp in the woods. Days later, someone fired a weapon at deputies in the area.

Notoriety spreads

The serial burglar’s reputation leapt onto the Internet after a Mukilteo man started a Facebook fan page urging people to support Harris-Moore. “Run Colton Run,” was their rallying cry. T-shirts and mugs with Harris-Moore’s face sold quickly.

International media took notice of the “Barefoot Bandit” story.

In truth, officials said he more often wore shoes, but the nickname stuck. Later, Harris-Moore himself used the name to sign notes.

News crews from Brazil, Canada and national networks in the U.S. scoured the woods of Camano Island for a glimpse of the fugitive, or to nab a snarky quote from his mom, or to be the “first” to report a sign posted along the dirt driveway saying tresspassers will be shot.

Friel, the freelance writer, published a story in “Outside” magazine. He later inked a book deal based on the story, which in turn was sold to a Hollywood studio to be adapted into a movie.

Some reporters said they got Kohler’s cooperation by bringing her Pall Mall cigarettes and beer. Others reportedly paid for the privilege.

The crimes continued.

In February a stolen plane from Anacortes skirted the attention of officials monitoring airspace above the Vancouver, B.C., Olympics and landed in the mud on Orcas Island.

Harris-Moore was suspected of that theft, and also of breaking into the Homegrown Market and Gourmet Deli. The burglar ate a meal, vandalized the security system and drew bare human feet on the floor using chalk. The “footprints” led out the door, along with this message: “Cya.”

The burglary cost $6,500 in theft and damage, a financial blow that put 20 employees at risk of losing their jobs, the store’s owner, Kyle Ater, told The Herald on Sunday.

“He’s a real, tangible criminal, because until now he’s been a ghost of a criminal,” he said. “Hopefully he can pay for his crimes.”

Teams on the hunt

Intense manhunts were launched near Granite Falls and on Orcas Island. Law officers used sophisticated helicopters, man-trackers and SWAT teams.

They came up empty.

Various police agencies joined the fray. The FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the U.S. Coast Guard, and sheriff’s deputies from at least six counties participated in that hunt.

Some officials talked openly about their investigations. Others, including the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, refused to even mention Harris-Moore’s name. The FBI said the case should be handled by local authorities. In December, though, they worked with federal prosecutors to secretly file a criminal complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle, charging Harris-Moore with stealing the plane that was found near Granite Falls.

It wasn’t until months later, after Harris-Moore embarked on a cross-country crime wave and allegedly crashed a stolen $650,000 plane off the Bahamas, that the FBI acknowledged their interest in the case.

“We want to get him. He’s turned from a regional nuisance into an international problem,” FBI Special Agent Steven Dean said last week.

In the Bahamas, video surveillance cameras reportedly captured glimpses of him prowling through bars and restaurants in the sandy, sun-splashed resort islands off the Florida coast.

Officials there turned up the heat, handing out wanted posters.

The FBI offered a $10,000 reward.

Late in the week, the hunt moved to Eleuthera Island and Harris-Moore began to run out of hiding places. By Friday, it appeared that he was becoming reckless.

Prior to the arrest Sunday, James Alan Fox, an expert criminologist who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, said Harris-Moore’s running was coming to an end.

“At some point, he’ll feel so invincible and unstoppable he won’t be so careful,” Fox said.

Bahamas arrest

An alert ferry boat captain in the Bahamas on Wednesday spotted the 6-foot, 5-inch Harris-Moore bathing on the northern end of Eleuthera Island.

Freddie Grant said he didn’t think much of the incident until he noticed that somebody had damaged the ignition systems on boats owned by the ferry system.

A bar at the ferry landing also was burglarized Wednesday night by a thief who cut a screen to break in, dismantled a security light, and moved the television’s remote controls, said Denaldo Bain, the 30-year-old manager of Coakley’s International Sporting Lounge.

“He was watching television. He was just chilling,” Bain said.

Camano Island resident Mike Kermbach, 65, said Sunday it was a shame that such a seemingly intelligent young man didn’t find a more productive use of his talents. After all the hype, Kermbach now is looking for prosecutors to cut away the myths using hard evidence.

“It’ll be nice to know what he did and what he didn’t do. He’s kind of a scapegoat,” Kermbach said. “Until facts are proven in a court of law, we can’t just blame him for everything.”

Reporter Noah Haglund contributed to this report. Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437, jholtz@heraldnet.com.

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