For better or worse, a prolific young burglar from Camano Island is becoming a household name across the country.
On Thursday, two national media outlets devoted air time to the story of 18-year-old Colton Harris-Moore, who is accused of stealing boats, cars and Cessna aircraft.
T-shirts with Harris-Moore’s face on the front were ringing up brisk sales at a Seattle print shop Thursday, with orders coming from as far away as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. A fan club on Facebook has drawn thousands of entries. There was even a story posted on the Web site for the sensational tabloid Weekly World News about the “barefoot burglar.”
There have been tales of Harris-Moore hiding in the woods, eluding police and becoming increasingly brazen. In fact, a shot was fired after a recent burglary near Granite Falls near where the last stolen plane possibly connected to the teen was found.
There are reasons that Harris-Moore’s story, both the embellished and factual versions, has widespread appeal, said a University of Washington expert on folklore.
“Somehow people like to live vicariously through people like this,” said Michael Allen, a history professor at the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus. “It has elements of the frontier, lawlessness and anti-authoritarianism, and a lot of Americans love that.”
One person not caught up with the hoopla is Island County Sheriff Mark Brown.
Brown said he often calls on the media and the community to help him do his job of catching criminals. Such was the case in 2006 when Harris-Moore was first captured and sentenced to three years confinement for residential burglary. He escaped from a juvenile half-way house in Renton in April 2008 and has been on the run since, leaving a trail of dozens of crimes in four Washington counties, Idaho and British Columbia.
Now, Brown fears there is a feeding frenzy that could be harmful in the long run.
“It’s like the pendulum has gone completely the other way,” he said. “We shouldn’t be commenting on ongoing investigations, but everyone wants the instantaneous information.”
Once Harris-Moore is caught — safely — “that would be the time to digest the psychological and social factors that people seem to be” focusing on, Brown said.
Speculation that Harris-Moore was headed back to his home on Camano Island grew when a stolen plane was found wrecked near Granite Falls on Oct. 1. On Sunday, Snohomish County deputies were called to investigate a residential burglary near the crash site. During the investigation, someone shot at the deputies.
No one was hurt, and no arrests have been made despite a massive manhunt Monday by dozens of SWAT team members.
Snohomish County officials have refused to link the Granite Falls crimes to Harris-Moore, saying they need to wait for evidence to be tested.
Regardless, public speculation is rampant.
And, despite the teen’s growing renown, he’s leaving behind a trail of victims.
On Thursday, a Seattle radio personality told his listeners he’s the owner of one of the small airplanes Harris-Moore might have stolen.
Bob Rivers, who has been a radio personality at KZOK (102.5 FM) for nine years, said his Cessna 182, worth about $150,000, was stolen from a locked hangar on Orcas Island in November. His plane was later found crashed on the Yakama Indian Reservation. It was so badly damaged that it is a total loss.
A DNA sample from vomit found in that plane is being analyzed. A DNA sample from blood in a Sept. 8 cash machine burglary on Orcas Island linked that crime to Harris-Moore last week.
Rivers said he was shocked when he heard someone had stolen his plane.
“I was called, and I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “As to the current suspect, I have only done what everyone else has done, which is read about it in the newspaper. I can’t be any more sure than the police are.”
Rivers said he decided to tell his story publicly in hopes it will help catch Harris-Moore.
“I’m not a fan of the media frenzy because I don’t like the whole cult hero thing, but if keeping it alive helps solve it, then I think it’s worth it.”
Rivers appeared on a nationally broadcast FOX News interview Thursday with Harris-Moore’s mother, Pam Kohler.
“It’s not my place to judge anyone,” Rivers said afterward. “I’m told he had a difficult childhood. The only thing I agreed with her on is she would like him to turn himself in.”
Kohler said she agreed to be interviewed in hopes it will help get her son to surrender himself before he gets hurt.
Later Thursday, CNN Headline News featured a segment about Harris-Moore, which included an interview with Herald reporter Jackson Holtz who has covered the story for two years.
At Good Times Printing in Seattle, orders for Harris-Moore T-shirts are coming in from around the country, said Adin Stevens, who owns the company.
“I sold a couple hundred bucks worth this morning,” Stevens said Thursday. “With all the interest, I was forced to think about why I wanted to make the shirts. I really don’t know, to be honest. I just think it’s an extraordinary story. I can relate to Colton in a number of ways. It’s a good outlaw story. … I had my share of trouble growing up.”
Stevens said 25 percent of the sales proceeds will go to an organization devoted to helping troubled youth.
Kohler, Harris-Moore’s mother, said that would be a good cause, but she doesn’t want anyone making money off her son’s alleged exploits.
“I don’t think it would be right for someone to profit from something that is so sad.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org.