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When Island County Sheriff Mark Brown announced in January 2007 that his department was looking for a 15-year-old serial burglar, the news caught my attention. It was the first time I’d heard of Colton Harris-Moore. I was the cops reporter at The Herald.
Property crimes typically don’t make news unless there’s a twist that helps them rise above the daily reports of burglaries and thefts. The sheriff’s case of a six-month burglary spree pinned to a lanky teenager rightly earned its way into The Herald. At the time, Sheriff Brown feared Colton and his then-accomplice, Harley Davidson Ironwing, were taking increasingly dangerous risks. Deputies worried the suspects were armed. The sheriff printed wanted posters featuring both boys’ mug shots and urged local residents to lock their homes.
Colton was suspected of breaking into vacation homes on Camano Island then sprinting off into the dense woods to escape the cops, the sheriff said. Locals reported rumors that this Colton had some peculiar traits: he often went barefoot, ran faster than any cop and sometimes even lived in the trees. Local television news reporters sent crews to scour the island for hints of the tall, lanky teen burglar.
I grabbed my reporter’s notebook and made the drive from Everett to south Camano Island. I met many people I would speak to over and over again during the next three years. Josh Flickner, the young manager of the Elger Bay Grocery. Mark Brown, the newly elected sheriff, and his detective, Ed Wallace. I’d have the first of dozens of conversations with Pam Kohler, Colton’s mother.
As quickly as Colton’s story broke, the chapter came to a close. On February 9, 2007, I was enjoying dinner out in Seattle, when the call came that Colton was arrested. My editor and I scrambled to change a story already set to run in Saturday’s paper. That Monday I attended a brief bail hearing in Coupeville and got my first in-person glimpse of Colton Harris-Moore. It seemed to me and others that Colton’s 15 minutes of infamy were over. Like so many other crime stories than came and went, I believed Colton would capture headlines for a few days, and then fade.
We were wrong.
On April 22, 2008, Sheriff Brown contacted The Herald again. The slippery teen burglar that Brown and his department worked so hard to capture had escaped, crawling out the window of a halfway house in a Seattle suburb. Colton’s greatest criminal feats and his flight into American history were just beginning.
This is the tale of the “Barefoot Bandit,” the people in his life, his victims and his criminal adventures. The story follows his upbringing and his exploits. He started out stealing to survive and went on to steal for pleasure. His thefts grew from taking frozen pizzas to fancy electronics to cars and, despite no formal flight training, airplanes. He went on a two-year, nine-state crime spree, breaking into dozens of homes and businesses, and was often seen running away barefoot. He racked up more than $3 million worth of stolen or damaged property, including a high-end private plane he flew from Indiana to the Bahamas.
If he had been the subject of one massive manhunt on a small island and escaped, Colton could have earned some pride in beating law enforcement. He went beyond that. Police, FBI, Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard used the latest investigative techniques to try to pin down the elusive teenager time and again. Colton always slipped away.
A colorful cast of characters surrounded the Barefoot Bandit… One person you will not hear from directly: Colton Harris-Moore did not respond to my requests for interviews. His lawyer provided some glimpses into Colton’s life on the run, but his comments must be taken in the context of a pending criminal case. Colton had plenty of opportunity to share his thoughts.
Instead, Colton participated in what one expert described as a very social kind of lawbreaking. His burglaries were, in effect, his Twitter postings. His planes thefts were his blog postings. Colton may not have had the time or inclination to update a Facebook page, but thousands of his online followers posted instead and cheered for him at every turn. He became the “Trickster,” a barefooted, oversized Bart Simpson, whose games were a series of felonies. Colton became the first outlaw folk hero of the Internet age. What started as a neighborhood nuisance for Camano Island became a problem for the nation. CNN started covering Colton’s crimes. Time magazine named his “America’s Most Wanted Teen Bandit.” His fate became fodder for Fox News.
Colton stole identities and used them to create his own sense of place in the world. While other boys his age were beginning to date, study for college entrance exams and work odd jobs, Colton was refining a practiced pattern of burglary and theft.
He did all this as a fugitive. Operating in mostly remote areas with small police forces, Colton outran law enforcement, mocking them along the way. Several times the cops turned up the heat, deploying the most sophisticated equipment available, to stop the Barefoot Bandit’s odyssey. Sometimes he lurked nearby, watching the cops search. Other times he ran and ran.
Colton was a serial burglar, a thief, a troubled kid whose extraordinary bravado landed him on the front pages of newspapers around the country. By the time he was arrested, barefoot and stuck on a sandbar in the Bahamas thousands of miles from home, Colton had captured fame. He went from being a young man from Camano Island with few prospects to being the Barefoot Bandit, an internationally known renegade. He soared at altitudes typically reserved for people who spend years training to be pilots and he reached great heights of infamy. He was abused and he fought back, waging a game with law enforcement that ended in a hailstorm of bullets in another country. He barged into many lives, stole from hundreds of people and frightened thousands more who lived on his flight path and in his territories. Colton also inspired, by thrilling a part not all of us will admit: sometimes it feels good to root for the bad guy. For a little while, that guy, the Barefoot Bandit, was winning, and we cheered him on: “Fly, Colton, Fly!”
Reprinted from “Fly, Colton, Fly: The True Story of the Barefoot Bandit” by Jackson Holtz with arrangement from New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright Jackson Holtz, 2011.
As a member of The Herald’s crime reporting team Jackson Holtz covered Colton Harris-Moore’s story for years. While his daily reporting duties have shifted to feature coverage, he continues to report on Harris-Moore, who is awaiting trial in federal court.
Holtz, 42, earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. He joined The Herald in 2006.