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Visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the bald eagles on Camano Island in Washington State's Puget Sound are more likely to see a different bird in the sky: a police chopper skimming the cedar forests in search of an outlaw. Colton Harris-Moore, a gangly 18-year-old with furtive eyes and a dimpled chin, has been on police blotters since he was accused of stealing a bike at the age of 8. Since then, he is suspected of having committed nearly 100 burglaries in Washington, Idaho and Canada. Police allege that he graduated from bikes to cars, then to speedboats. Lately, he is suspected of stealing three small aircraft — all the more impressive given that he has never taken a single flying lesson.
(See the top 10 crime stories of 2009.)
Harris-Moore, 6 ft. 5 in. (1.96 m), has become a legend in the Pacific Northwest — T-shirts bearing his face or the words FLY, COLTON, FLY are big sellers in Seattle — and on the Internet. His Facebook fan club has 8,000 members, and a hokey ballad on YouTube sings his praises. Harris-Moore's supporters see a deeper meaning to his popularity: During hard economic times, they say, why not celebrate a poor boy who robs from the island vacation homes of Seattle's dotcom gazillionaires? But Harris-Moore apparently steals just as often from Camano's ordinary folk as he does from the rich.
(See the top 10 Facebook stories of 2009.)
He had a rough past. Harris-Moore's abusive father walked out after choking him during an argument at a family barbecue. His mother raised him in a mobile home dragged into the woods on the island's South End, which, as local writer and stained-glass artist Jack Archibald says, has "basically one main road, a two-lane blacktop that loops around like a belt on a skinny fella."
Some locals speculate that Harris-Moore burgles not for the money but to experience the fantasy of the happy home life he never had as a child. According to local sheriffs, he often slips into a house just to soak in a hot bath or steal mint-chip ice cream from the fridge — a "Goldilocks thing," one investigator says. Initially, Harris-Moore seemed to steal only what he needed for life in the woods. "He's a survivalist," says Archibald. The teenager allegedly used one homeowner's computer and credit-card information to order bear mace and a pair of $6,500 night-vision goggles.
(See the top 10 gadgets of 2009.)
His recent alleged crimes have been more brazen. He's been accused of stealing speedboats to travel to nearby islands to plunder empty homes. In November 2008, police suspect that Harris-Moore hot-wired a Cessna that belonged to a local radio DJ — he'd ordered a flying manual on the Internet — and crash-landed it 300 miles (about 480 km) east on an Indian reservation. Since then, he may have stolen two other planes, both of which were later found crashed. He apparently walked away from the wrecks, miraculously unharmed. On Fox News, Harris-Moore's mother Pam Kohler outraged her tut-tutting interviewer by saying, "I hope to hell he stole those planes. I'd be so proud. But next time, I want him to wear a parachute."
So where is he now? When police recently retrieved a stolen Mercedes-Benz on Camano, they discovered a camera with a photo that Harris-Moore had snapped of himself. The manhunt has become more intense. Before slipping away from a police raid on his mother's trailer, Harris-Moore left a note: "Cops wanna play huh!? Well its no lil game.....It's war! & tell them that." Authorities say he then broke into a deputy's car and stole, among other things, an assault rifle. He is now considered armed and dangerous. "He's not evil, but he's not Robin Hood either," says artist Jack Gunter, an island resident. "Unless he's stopped, chances are he'll end up a career criminal — or dead."
That, of course, would only add to his legend. To his young fans, Harris-Moore is known as "the Barefoot Burglar" because he once kicked off his shoes to flee deputies chasing him in the woods. One of his admirers — a young, tattooed waitress at the Viking Restaurant in nearby Stanwood, on the mainland — says that one night last month, she saw a tall young man sprinting down the street. "He was barefoot, and he was laughing. I wanted it so much to be Colton."
On Fox News, Harris-Moore's mother Pam Kohler outraged her tut-tutting interviewer by saying, "I hope to hell he stole those planes. I'd be so proud. But next time, I want him to wear a parachute."