EASTSOUND, Orcas Island — An erratically piloted airplane violated the special no-fly zone established for the Olympics north of the San Juan Islands late Wednesday.
Officials spotted the $650,000 stolen plane around 11:30 p.m.
Then it was discovered Thursday morning in the mud off the landing strip on Orcas. At the same time San Juan County deputies were investigating a burglary at an Eastsound grocery store.
The combination of crimes ignited speculation that Colton Harris-Moore, the notorious teenage felon from Camano Island, may be at it again.
San Juan County Sheriff William Cumming said Harris-Moore, 18, is a “strong person of interest.”
The teen is suspected of similar plane thefts and has been linked to other burglaries at Eastsound stores last fall.
“It’s his M.O.,” said Kyle Ater, whose store, the Orcas Market and Gourmet Deli, was broken into early Thursday.
The sheriff said Washington State Crime lab officials would now try to link physical evidence collected from the burglary and the airplane theft to Harris-Moore.
An intensive manhunt was launched on the island with federal officials joining San Juan County sheriff’s deputies and other local police.
“We are operating as though he is still in our jurisdiction and planning our operational steps accordingly,” Cumming said.
Across the water, at the Anacortes ferry terminal, police are watching for the 6-foot-5 teenager, Anacortes Police Capt. John Small said.
“We are all working together on this,” Small said.
He’s investigating the plane theft, a Cirrus SR22, stolen from a hangar at the Anacortes airport.
On Orcas, Ater said he discovered large chalk-drawn footprints on the store’s concrete floor, $1,200 cash missing and a sophisticated security system vandalized.
The chalk “footprints” may have been reference to the “Barefoot Burglar” nickname that some journalists have given Harris-Moore. He’s reportedly been seen running from crime scenes barefoot, although police believe he usually wears shoes.
The break-in suspect also took food, including a blueberry cheesecake and organic produce, and tried to destroy the surveillance system by putting a computer hard drive into a sink and filling it with water, Ater said. Tools used in the break-in were tossed into the water, an apparent attempt to destroy fingerprint evidence.
Harris-Moore is charged with a Sept. 8 burglary at another Eastsound market. Prosecutors said they have DNA evidence linking him to the crime.
Two planes were stolen from the islands and Harris-Moore is a prime suspect. A Cessna taken from Orcas was recovered near Yakima and a Cirrus, the same kind stolen Wednesday night, was taken from Friday Harbor. It, too, crash landed on Orcas.
During the Harris-Moore crime spree last fall, Ater took to sleeping in his business to keep watch. Now, he again plans to sleep at the store.
“It’s really personal for me because I have all my time in here,” Ater said. “It’s a total violation.”
Harris-Moore reportedly used a stolen boat to escape the islands to Point Roberts last fall. He then slipped into British Columbia where he’s believed to have driven a stolen luxury car from Vancouver east toward the Canadian heartland. Speculation is that he crossed the border into Idaho, stole another plane and crashed it near Granite Falls.
Harris-Moore has been on the lam since he escaped a halfway house in Renton in April 2008 where he was serving a three-year sentence.
His mother, Pam Kohler, still lives on south Camano Island and has said she’s in touch with her son periodically by phone. She’s changed her phone number several times and now refuses to give it out, fearing the police will tap her line.
The boy’s criminal history dates back to 2003. He’s never had formal flight instruction although experts are skeptical he could have learned to fly from reading manuals and studying the Internet, as some have suggested.
His exploits have attracted worldwide attention and his story has been told in national magazines and network TV newscasts.
Beatrice von Tobel, the airport manager on Orcas, said rumors of Harris-Moore’s visits to the San Juans are getting to be old hat.
“I’d rather attract tourists that want to spend money than tourists who want to steal things,” she said.
Cumming, the sheriff, said he felt sorry for any teen who may resemble Harris-Moore.
“It’s not a good time to be 6-foot-5,” he said.
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437, firstname.lastname@example.org.