The Barefoot Burglar

GQ, Aug 2010

Colton Harris-Moore: The most wanted teenage criminal in America.

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It was around midnight of July 18 2008 when Colton saw the Sheriffs bearing down on him in the rear view of his stolen Mercedes. He wasn’t much of a driver – who is at 16? – so he decided to ditch the wheels and run. Play to his strengths. He screeched into the parking lot of a local café andjumped from the moving car which then crashed into a propane pipe, threatening a major explosion. And while the Sheriffs dealt with that, Colton fled into the woods. Gone.

Deputy William Vaughn just watched his shadow disappear. There was no question of giving chase. The Sheriffs of Camano Island, in Western Washington had tried to catch Colton before – many times – but he was, in their own words, “fleet of foot”. One of their team even injured his knee in the process. A tracker dog might have helped, but the nearest one was in the next county, two hours away.

Instead, they searched the car and found a little backpack stuffed with the things that Colton had stolen over the last 3 months that he’d been on the run – there was a GPS unit, some credit cards, a cell phone and a digital camera that belonged to a local real estate agent. And on the camera was his self-portrait, facebook style – the thief, lying among ferns, in a stolen Mercedes shirt, listening to a stolen ipod, using a stolen camera. Playful, insouciant, catch-me-if-you-can.

That picture is now known all over the world. It’s on T-shirts, mugs and youtube videos of at least three original ballads that have been written in his honour. It’s on his facebook page which has over 20,000 fans and counting. It’s on the walls of law enforcement agenc ies throughout Washington, Idaho and even Canada, not to mention the FBI.

But still, twenty months later, they’re no closer to catching Colton Harris-Moore. He’s America’s Most Wanted Teenager.

They call him the Barefoot Burglar and he’s a legend in the Pacific NorthWest. An outlaw hero. A crime wave without any shoes. He grew up in a trailer home but steals from the rich. He’s six foot five and is said to have a near genius IQ. And ever since he escaped a half-way house just south of Seattle, exactly 80 days before he stole that Mercedes, he’s been on a spree of outrageous daring, making the local deputies look like Rosco and Boss Hogg from the Dukes of Hazzard.

They say he’s a suspect in up to 100 burglaries, with a total haul of over $1.5 million. His usual targets are the shops and homes of affluent waterfront communities in Western Washington – the sleepy islands of San Juan and Orcas. But he’s also believed to have stolen some 60 cars, a couple of speedboats and at last count, four single-engine planes, which authorities say he just started up, without a flying lessonto his name, and flew clear over the woods, laughing his ass off, his swag clattering around in the back. The planes all turn up crash-landed in the woods the next day but somehow Barefoot always escapes unscathed. And with every headline, every wrecked Cessna, his popularity only rises. He’s not just some juvenile tearaway. He’s Barefoot Harris, the People’s Criminal, an outlaw hero in the old tradition. And they speak of him far and wide – on his fan club wall are messages from England and Israel; girls in Brazil who want to have his babies.

“Right now, when people are struggling and you see the billion dollar bailouts for CEOs, to see this 18 year old kid strike back – that’s what it’s about,” says Zack Sestak, the 26 year old from San Diego who started the Facebook page last August. “People feel powerless so they’re turning to an outlaw for a hero. He’s a sign of the times.”

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Outlaw myths have always grown best from the soil of economic strife. Jesse James went on the rampage at the end of the Civil War in the 1870’s. So did Billy the Kid. And Colton’s fame took off around October 2009, while unemployment sailed past 10% and Goldman Sachs made bank. When the first T-shirt came out – a picture of Colton with the message ‘Momma Tried’ after a Merle Haggard song – the TV crews flocked to Good Times printing in Seattle to ask the skateboardy design dude Aidan, “is this a middle finger to Wall Street for destroying our economy?”

There are those who are not amused, of course. The finger-wagging conservatives on Fox, for example, like Geraldo Rivera who ripped Sestak a fresh one for glorifying a criminal. And naturally the local sheriffs are more than irritated by Colton’s popularity. They’ve now pulled the shutters down on all interviews. Sheriff William Cumming in San Juan County explains: “The media are making him a dashing hero, and he’s feeding off it.” And he’s probably right.

But legends don’t wither so easily – in fact, they grow better in the dark. Without the details about the investigation and the evidence against Colton, the rumours can flourish. And so they do. Especially on Camano Island, where Colton grew up.

It’s an old joke out here, how the Sheriffs can’t catch a kid on an island all of 25 miles long. But to be fair, Camano isn’t strictly cut off – there’s a road that links to the mainland. But it’s still considered part of the archipelago in western Washington where the rich buy holiday homes, and reclusives go for the quiet life – the quiet, the rain and the thick cedar woods. The kind of place where no one used to lock their doors.

The islanders are surprisingly forgiving of their wayward son. While a few load their guns and tempt Colton to “break into the wrong house”, most laugh about how he’s put Camano on the map, even joke that Colton should be on the Chamber of Commerce. And many are sympathetic, even his victims – they’ve heard how the boy was raised. And there’s no shortage of victims – everyone I meet has either been burgled by Colton, or knows three people who have.

“Let’s see, he took my computer, my husband’s computer, two bikes, my ipod…” Lori Free, a lively lady in her fifties was struck twice by Barefoot. The first time was a straight break-in through the bedroom window but the second time, he applied for a credit card in her husband’s name. Still, she’s not bitter. She understands what makes Colton extraordinary.

“He hasn’t hurt anybody, physically,” she says. “I know there’s other kinds of hurt, mental and emotional, but still.” It’s true that Colton often targets unoccupied vacation homes and always flees confrontation. “And I think he’s doing it for fun, not money. One of Colton’s teachers told me that he used to steal from other kid’s lunches. And he said it was, ‘because it’s fun’. I think that’s what this is all about.”

His motive is certainly a mystery: What makes Colton run? But Free’s right – he seems to be in it for the ride and not the profit. He steals what he needs to keep his adventure alive. When he robs a grocery store, he stocks up on beef jerky and pastries, things he can eat while he’s on the run. (He never touches the liquor or cigarettes – he doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs). And when he burgles a home, he only takes what he can use – the jewellery stays, nothing he has stolen has ever been fenced or pawned. He has used stolen credit cards to order survival gear online to help him evade capture in the woods – things like bear mace, night vision goggles and police scanners, all of which he discreetly collects from outside the door later. (He’s an expert at hiding in the woods). And on occasion he has even had pizza delivered to his victims’ homes while he kicks back and watches a movie. But pizzas are risky. Once, the guy who took his order at Alfie’s Pizza happened to know that the house he was calling from was meant to be vacant. So the cops delivered the pizza instead.

The Sheriffs told Free that Colton makes the beds in the houses after he’s slept in them. It’s been described as a Goldilocks thing – he’s a poor kid who wants to enjoy the homes of the wealthy, not trash them.

And then there’s his ingenuity. In Free’s case, he didn’t just scam a new credit card, he built a mailbox with a new address to receive the goods he’d ordered. And according to Nikko Van Wyck, who’s two years Colton’s senior and works at Sahara pizza in nearby Stanwood, Colton’s something of an electronics whiz. “He not only disabled alarm systems but took them apart and reassembled them at his mom’s house,” he says. “There’s motion sensors on the driveway that let him know if anyone’s coming.”

His former defense lawyer, Rachel Miyoshi, who handled his case in 2006, describes him as “very pleasant, and highly intelligent. Not violent at all. There doesn’t seem to be any evil intent.” She sees him, as many of his fans do, as an innocent, an odd word to describe a thief. “He’s like a criminal without malice,” she says. “Kind of a pure spirit. Which probably sounds mad.” But maybe that’s it – Colton is that rare outlaw who doesn’t want to get rich or right the world’s wrongs, he just wants to escape his harsh life and be free without consequences. Precocious, and unruly and, no doubt, a pest if you live close by – but not evil.

To date, his pinnacle moment would appear to be his alleged solo flight in a Cessna 182 in November 2008. It’s believed he stole it from a hangar on Orcas Island, an hour away on a ferry, – he found the key in the ignition and flight instruction manuals in the back, so he had a read and then took off, flying 300 miles through choppy winds and updrafts, only to crash land on an Indian reservation when he ran out of gas. The plane was found with vomit on the windscreen – must have been a bumpy ride – but Barefoot was long gone. Since then, three further planes have been similarly stolen and crash landed, and Colton is in the frame for them all.

Now it’s possible that this is all hype. After all, if the vomit contained Colton’s DNA, why hasn’t he been charged? But what’s undeniable is the scale of the feat for any 16 year old, let alone one of Colton’s uniquely broken background. And just how bad his upbringing was has become another aspect of his myth. The rumor is that his mother Pamela is a paranoid meth-head. Either that or an alcoholic. Turn up at the wrong hour, and she might greet you with a rifle or her boyfriend might come out swinging a baseball bat. And that’s if the dog doesn’t get you first.

So I pay her a visit down at the south end of the island. There’s a cultural split between north and south Camano. The north is all well-scrubbed, conservative and Christian. The south is wilder, less conformist. The woods are denser, the homes are hidden up shrouded driveways. Some south-enders are wealthy – former Microsoft executives, for instance, or if you buy the rumors, Tom Cruise’s mom. But there’s also an artist community here and a smattering of trailer homes. Pam lives in one of the latter.

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Coming up the drive, I pass the sign that says ‘if you pass this sign you will be shot’. I smile nervously at the guy who’s peering at me from behind some rusty old pick-ups. Then a dishevelled woman in a tatty jacket appears on the deck of her trailer barking “who is it? What does he want?”

I’m from British GQ?

“Oh you wrote me that letter.” She nods. “I told Colt ‘GQ’, and he said ‘ooh’. OK, you can come in. Don’t worry, I haven’t shot any reporters yet. But it’s good you drove and didn’t walk up. That would be sneaky. ‘Hi, I wanna talk to you!’ Boom! Ha ha ha!!!”

She’s not as scary as they say, Pam. But she’s clearly seen better days. With arthiritis and bad hearing, a tin of Bush Ice in one hand and a ciggie in the other, she’s the centerpiece of a picture of neglect. There’s a ramshackle trailer on cinder blocks with plastic sheeting for windows. The yard’s overgrown, the fire pit’s sodden and strewn with trash. She points to a damp picnic bench in the middle of it all. “Let’s sit here,” she says. “The inside’s a mess.”

Pam has been a feature of Colton story’s from the start. No doubt she has a knack for headlines. She’s said that she’s proud of her boy for teaching himself to fly, and that she’s looking to buy him a bullet proof vest . When asked if she had a message for Colt, she said, “tell him to work on his landings and get a parachute.”

But at the same time, it’s hard to know how reliable Pamela’s version of events may be. It’s often at odds with the official files. And then there’s the drink, the denial, the defensiveness of a mother whose son has been in nothing but trouble. On the one hand, she claims to chat to Colton regularly on the phone – he’s living with friends and doing computer work for them, apparently, not that she knows any details. But she also insists that her phone is being tapped. “Oh Colt knows how to block the cops from tracing it,” she says.

When she bought this five acre lot, some twenty years ago, she was almost 40. She worked for the Navy at the time, in accounts. Her first marriage had ended, her boy grew up and moved out, and she was with her new boyfriend – Colton’s father, Gordon Moore, an alcoholic concrete finisher with a rap sheet. “He kind of floated in and out of our lives since Colt was about 2,” she says. But Pamela didn’t try to stop him. “He didn’t like living in the woods. And you know alcoholics, you can’t talk to them. Plus Gordy had a temper.”

‘Gordy”s departure made way for Bill Kohler, Colton’s stepfather, an altogether calmer soul who milked cows for a living, and whom Colton adored. But Bill died when Colt was 10 and that was when the trouble started – the thieving, the outbursts at school. Colton was diagnosed with ADHD,depression, and something called intermittent explosive disorder, and duly prescribed a cocktail of stabilizers, anti-psychotics and anti-depressants. This was all between the ages of 10 and 13 while his mother kept drinking and Gordon Moore made the occasional appearance. Colton degenerated. Social workers reported that he was having meltdowns “pretty much every day”.

Colton later told a psychiatrist that Gordon once had Colton pinned to the ground by his neck, screaming “I have killed three men because of my anger”. But Pam brushes the incident aside: “They were wrestling! Those marks on his neck were stinging nettles.” Nevertheless, Colton called the police and Gordon was taken away, never to return. And Pamela blamed Colton. She also accused him of attacking her with a boat oar, while Colton said that his mother was the violent one, especially after a binge. He said that he tried giving her an AA book, but she burned it. His activities escalated to vandalism and residential burglary. The kids at school called him Klepto Colt.

Pam dismisses the psychiatrist report with a roll of the eyes. “He was just independent,” she says with a shrug. “He did what he wanted to do and to hell with you kind of attitude.” Sure, they fought, she says, but they had fun too – they’d go clam digging and crabbing. He loved the woods because he loved animals. Animals and planes, they were his thing – innocence and freedom. His room is plastered with pictures of planes.

The reason her boy went bad, she says, was not because of her boozing, or their fighting, or her variously addicted boyfriends that came in and out – not because, as a girl who walked home with Colton after school, told me, “he would have to go knock on neighbor’s doors for food” – it was because of the cops and the local school. “They’re out to get the kids, not help ’em,” she scowls. When she bought him a new bike, she says, the cops picked him up and accused him of stealing it. This, for Pam, was why good Colt turned bad.

There’s a tale they tell about Colton on the island – that his fights with his mom gave him practice at evading the cops. After one of their fights, he would build a potato cannon out of basic piping and fireworks explosive, and blast potatoes at her trailer, smashing all the windows. Pam would call the cops and Colt would hide in the woods while they tramped about shaking their fists. This went on for months, apparently.

Pam’s version is quite different, but no less entertaining. There was no cannon, and Colton wasn’t involved –her neighbors were the ones chucking the potatoes because they thought Colton had stolen a vintage car stereo from them. “They said this stereo cost $30,000!” she scoffs. “My aching frigging ass!” Apparently they not only threw potatoes, but also circular saw blades. She even thinks they put turds in her freezer. When I put this to the neighbors – who seemed sober and charming enough to me – they refused to comment because they were in the process of trying to sell their home. “We’re not leaving because of Colton, though…” There are those on Camano who would sooner not speak against Colton for fear of reprisal.

As Colton’s convictions began to mount – vandalism, burglary, malicious mischief – so did his spells of community service or detention. Until, at the age of 15, he ran – he spent six months out in the woods, robbing stores and vacation homes and picking up the name Barefoot when he robbed a shop without any shoes. He had a partner in crime at the time, a local low-life 2 years his elder with a name that was destined for prison – Harley Davidson Ironwing. Harley was known for, among other things, stealing the church collection plate. He’s currently incarcerated. “Colton came to me for friendship and protection,” he says. “He wanted someone to listen to him. People in his life always put him down. And he was very passive, he couldn’t fight at all. I had to get him out of some stuff.” Harley is only 5’2″ and Colton’s 6’5″.

They were an odd couple. Harley drank beer and snorted cocaine in the houses they hit. Colton ordered pizza and made the bed when he left. But their spree was short lived.

First the Sheriffs found a tent on his mother’s property where Colton had been stashing his bounty, so they confiscated it all, and also took Colton’s beagle, Melanie, whom they secured as ‘evidence’. When Pamela got home, she found a note from Colton: “Cops wanna play huh! Well it’s no lil game…. It’s war! & tell them that”. According to the Sheriff’s report, “this note indicates Colton was hiding in the woods watching us during the search.”

(The Sheriffs have played no small part in building the Colton myth. From releasing the iconic picture to statements like “Harris-Moore quickly outpaced us and ran westward thru an open horse pasture…” in 2007, or “he virtually vaporized in front of me” in 2008).

But then, the burglars slipped. They left a light on in one of the houses, and the cops arrived to find them drinking apple cider and discussing what to buy on a credit card they’d stolen. Typically, Harley was caught, while Colton escaped. But a week later, officers closed in again, and this time, Colton gave himself up.

His attorney, Rachel Miyoshi, managed to get his charges reduced from 23 to three and he was on target to be out in three to four years. And it was all going perfectly – he’d served his time in the maximum security detention centre and was transferred to an open facility for troubled youth called the Griffin Home. And then he bailed again – on April 29th 2008, just after lights out, he escaped through the window.

Since then there have only been sightings. There was the Mercedes theft in July. And the Elger Bay Grocery Store in south Camano is pretty sure he broke in a year later. “My daughter saw him in the cakes aisle, with a hooded top, a flashlight and a garbage bag,” says the owner Laurie Flickner. “When he was spotted, he just turned away and calmly walked out.”

In October, Camano residents noticed a Cessna flying dangerously low, and after a plane was found in Granite Falls, about 200 miles east, a full manhunt was launched. It’s said that a shot was fired at pursuing officers. But few believe that was Colton. “He hates guns,” says Pam. “He only shot mine once and it was always right there.”

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Now he’s believed to be on Orcas island. A plane was stolen from the mainland, and landed at Orcas airport. And that night, a grocery store on the island was robbed – the thief trashed the security system and stole cash, a cheesecake and some filled croissants. The Sheriff suspects Colton because 39 footprints were drawn on the floor, with the message “C-YA!” near the door. But it could easily have been a copycat. One of the results of Colton-mania is that he gets blamed for everything that bears his hallmarks. But he seldom damages property. And he usually takes food that’s ready to eat – those croissants were unbaked.

Nevertheless, the island is on high alert and the manhunt is on. Choppers are hovering, SWAT teams scramble, dogs are on the loose. Sheriff Cumming recently issued a release warning islanders to to lock up, hide the cash, and even “wipe down all your surfaces where a criminal may leave evidence.” It’s likely that Colton’s being protected, as Pam says. The chances of him actually living out in the woods for so long, like a cross between Frank Abagnale and Christopher McCandless, are slim. But how long can this go on? He turned 18 in March, so now he’s looking at some serious time. And islanders fear that with the stakes now raised he may even turn violent. The longer this goes on, the more tense it gets.

It seems increasingly likely that Colton will be caught and soon. That’s if he manages to walk away from his next crash landing, and doesn’t get shot by the cops, or by anyone else in the meantime. But then what – a movie? It seems an obvious choice. Already the scramble has begun for life rights – local journalists have tried to get Pam to sign contracts and put a word in with Colt. Everyone’s angling for a pay day. But there’s a precedent here at least, thanks to Frank Abagnale: write a book, put Leonardo Di Caprio in the movie, and donate the proceeds to some relevant cause. Then get a job with law enforcement, even the FBI, tracking fugitives, or helping troubled juveniles.

I put this to Pam and she shrugs, unimpressed. She wants him to go to Brazil to escape extradition. “He could fly there!” she says. “Go see that girl who wants his babies!”