Looking back, it seems obvious that the authorities wouldn’t keep Colton Harris-Moore cooped up for long. The gangly teen giant from Camano Island, 25 miles north of Seattle, had been in and out of trouble since before his teens and was convicted of his first crime at age 12 (possession of stolen property). By 15, he went on an islandwide burglary spree with an older boy named Harley Davidson Iron-wing. When they weren’t being carted off to juvie, they worked their way through the opulent—and empty—summer homes of Washington State’s elite, then disappeared into the surrounding forests.
Ultimately, Harris-Moore spent seven months on the lam as the most notorious fugitive in Puget Sound before cops discovered him holed up in a vacant home. Foolishly, he’d left a light on. Now the boy called Colt found himself in a minimum security facility in Renton, Washington on the outskirts of Seattle. He was smart, a quick study, and he’d dealt with enough counselors and well-meaning adults to say what they wanted to hear. Some of them would later call him a borderline genius. And so no one was paying too much attention when, sometime after bed check on April 29, 2008, he disappeared out an open window and into the wild. Outside of a few close calls with police and the odd surveillance tape, that’s the last anybody has seen of Colton Harris-Moore.
In many ways the Pacific Northwest is a country unto itself, and a weird one at that. A regional
secessionist movement proposes a Republic of Cascadia, which would encompass Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Northern California. The thick forests surrounding Puget Sound played home to Twin Peaks and Twilight, while Amboy, to the south, is where legendary airplane hijacker D. B. Cooper literally vanished into thin air in 1971.
Now he’s joined by Harris-Moore, the 6'5", 18-year-old petty criminal turned international media sensation known variously as the Barefoot Burglar, the Jesse James of Puget Sound, and a modern-day Huckleberry Finn. In the past three years, he is suspected of 50 burglaries among the posh vacation homes of the islands of Possession Sound and the crook of Puget Sound, as well as Stanwood in Snohomish County on the mainland. Add on occasional sorties into adjacent islands and counties, plus Idaho and Canada, and the number of burglaries doubles to 100. It is thought that he enters locked houses through their skylights and has used stolen credit cards to charge high-tech items such as night-vision goggles and police scanners (as well as bear-repelling mace), which he has delivered to the homes he’s broken into—even ordering takeout pizza to the edge of the forest where he was hiding out. Over the past 18 months, he has also been accused of stealing speedboats, crashing a neighbor’s stolen Mercedes-Benz, and eluding the Island County Sheriff’s Department, despite the persistent presence of police helicopters and what locals call the most aggressive manhunt in memory.
But what has caught the attention of the international press and made Colt a folk hero for the Facebook era is that he is suspected of stealing four single-engine planes—a Cessna 182 taken from Orcas Island in November 2008, which crash-landed on the Yakama Indian reservation 300 miles to the southeast when it ran out of gas; a Cirrus SR22 taken on September 11, 2009 in nearby Friday Harbor and puddle-jumped back to Orcas; a Cessna T182T flown from Bonners Ferry, Idaho on the Canadian border, which was totaled on impact in Granite Falls, halfway back across Washington State, having run out of gas a second time; and a second Cirrus SR22, stolen from Anacortes on the Washington mainland and discovered back on Orcas Island on February 11, 2010. In each case the pilot walked away from the wreckage. Which is especially amazing considering that Harris-Moore had never taken a single flying lesson—in fact, he’s reportedly never even been aboard a commercial flight—apparently having learned everything he knows from an aviation manual bought online with a stolen credit card. “It takes a leap of faith to believe he could do this,” says Chris Jacobs, a local pilot and flying instructor. “Sure, there’s enough information out there to learn everything you need to know, but I don’t know anyone else who would dare to try it.”
While local authorities call Harris-Moore a common criminal, others see him as a legend. Currently, he has more than 19,000 members on his Facebook Fan Club page, there’s a “Ballad of Barefoot Harris” on YouTube (“Colton, keep on running / Your mother sends her love / Remember how old Jesse went / So Barefoot Colton watch your back / And fly on, Colton, fly”), and dozens of T-shirts, mugs, baseball caps, and other merchandise dedicated to this all-American outlaw.
“A lot of people are looking for a hero, or even an antihero, and they see this kid taking on the system and winning. It’s inspiring,” says Zack Sestak, who runs the Colton Harris-Moore Fan Club. “He’s not a common criminal. He’s an extraordinary criminal.” According to island residents, furtive sympathizers have been leaving food out for him, and the national press has become a ubiquitous presence. Time magazine labeled him “America’s Most Wanted Teenage Bandit,” and, of course, Hollywood has been sniffing around for a biopic. But like Bigfoot, that other lumbering colossus and legendary phantom of the Pacific Northwest, Harris-Moore has proved impossible to find.
By the late evening of July 18, 2008, Colt had been on the run for nearly three months, bedhopping from house to house on Camano Island. That night he was doing his best to keep the black Mercedes he’d “borrowed” on the road. No more a trained driver than a pilot, he found the precision German steering more than he could manage; it didn’t help when a black-and-white police car passed him on a twolane highway and whipped around to investigate. Colt sped north toward town, banked a hard left, and entered the parking lot of the Elger Bay Café. With the car still rolling forward, and the authorities in hot pursuit, he bailed and made a beeline for the edge of the adjacent woods. The car smashed into a Dumpster and dislodged the pipe to a propane tank. One random spark and the cops would have an industrial explosion on their hands. As it was, police found a self-portrait on a digital camera in the front seat. In it Colt is lying in a bed of ferns, staring at the camera with a goofy, quizzical smile. For his legion of fans, the photo has become something of a totem.
There is one road onto Camano Island from the mainland, and beyond the waterfront houses that present a picture-postcard façade for the island’s 13,000 residents, it wends through the forest past patches of ragged scrubland where trailers are perched on cinder blocks. In a clearing marked by yellow police tape, amid rusted pick-up trucks and lawn furniture, stands the gray 40-foot single-wide mobile home where Colt was raised by his mother, Pam Kohler. A gaunt man with long gray hair tends an outdoor fire pit, and soon a tiny, hunched woman in a tattered robe carrying a cigarette and a steaming cup of coffee pokes her head through the screen door.
Unsurprisingly, Pam Kohler, 58, is a fierce and proud defender of her only child. She claims that Colt has an IQ score “three points below Einstein’s,” although he never finished high school, and says he doesn’t drink, smoke, or do any drugs. According to Pam, he has a laptop and has watched his whole legend unfold in real time, a phenomenon he finds genuinely comical. She says it’s unlikely her son did even half the things he’s accused of, but if he did steal and fly four planes, she is extremely proud of him.
A resident of Camano Island for 22 years, Pam had Colt at 40, after hanging “with the hippies in the ’60s” in her native Seattle. One part backwoods libertarian, one part lapsed longhair, she considers herself a liberal, but refuses to criticize the federal government and flies her flag every Fourth of July and Veterans Day. She identifies Colt’s father as Gordon Moore, a journeyman concrete finisher she never married and split with when Colt was two.
“He didn’t want to be a father and didn’t like living in the woods, so he left,” she says. “He had my blessings.” She says he was a good father till then and that he tried to stay involved in his child’s life until early adolescence. This despite court records that claim Moore was “an oft-incarcerated, violent alcoholic” (25 convictions in 22 years). The incident that permanently splintered the family occurred at a barbecue in 2002, where Moore allegedly threw a 12-year-old Colt on the ground following an argument in which Colt threw baseball-size rocks at him. Moore was subsequently arrested. Pam claims Child Protective Services kept Colt for three days but ultimately found no fault with either parent.
By all accounts Colt was a happy child and got along well with Pam’s husband, Bill Kohler, a dairy farm worker. But all that changed after Kohler died unexpectedly when Colt was seven. He became a problem student, and before long he was running with Harley Davidson Ironwing, a budding local criminal two years his senior.
Ironwing is currently incarcerated in a county jail in Everett, Washington awaiting trial for trying to break into a safe in the basement of his family’s church during Sunday service. At 5'3" and 135 pounds, with a vaguely rodentlike face under a mop of bushy brown hair, the diminutive Ironwing made for an odd pairing with the lumbering Colt. “There is no question he took those planes,” says Ironwing, confirming that his friend learned to fly by reading and researching online. According to Ironwing, Colt paid him to be his bodyguard—an odd reversal of roles at first glance. “I’ve done just as much as him, but I’m painted as a common criminal,” Ironwing says, claiming he schooled Colt in the ways of crime. “I could disappear, but I’m what you call ‘institutionalized’—I like the structure here. I get caught because I want to get caught.”
Ironwing claims Harris-Moore has done all he’s done because he hates his mom. “His mom ain’t worried about him,” he says. “But she’s loving the publicity of acting like she’s worried.”
Harley Davidson’s mother, Karen Ironwing, knew Harris-Moore from sleepovers, when the boys would stay up all night playing video games. A beatific, gray-haired woman of 60 who cares for six kids and six grandchildren, she recalls the friends trying to set a gas pump on fire once, but generally has only good things to say about Colt: He was polite, clean, nicely dressed, always had money, never gave her any trouble. Still, she was aware of his troubled background. “When he was born, his dad rented a limo to bring him home,” she says. “They stopped in the town plaza to show him off, and when they left, one of my friends said, ‘That kid doesn’t have a chance.’ ”
“Colt is brilliant,” she continues. “I would love to see him captured alive and not injured. I said to someone, ‘You know, the CIA should send him to Afghanistan, because he’s a survivalist and he can either teach them something over there or help.’ ”
For her part, Pam maintains that she and her son have always been close—perhaps even more so since he went on the lam. She recently got a gift from Colt: a cell phone, so he can call periodically.
But Colt’s Mother’s Day cards suggest a homesick kid away at camp: Written in crayon, in childish block letters, Colt wishes Pam a “Happy late Mother’s Day…I really wish I was home, but since I’m
not—this is the best I can do. I hope you like it.”
There’s a small airport on Orcas Island, which can be monitored from the tree line. Colt had always harbored a fascination with flying, and authorities suspect that by November 12, 2008 he took his obsession to the next level. A fugitive from justice for the previous six months, he had set up shop in a makeshift deer blind beyond the airport’s chain-link fence, waiting almost a week until he saw the plane he wanted—the single-engine Cessna, about which he knew everything you could without ever actually having taken flight. Sometime after dark he broke into the hangar, dug through the plane’s interior until he found a spare key, and waited for the first rays of dawn, when he rolled it out onto the tarmac, taxied toward the runway, and climbed into the morning sun. He headed southeast, careful to steer around Sea-Tac International Airport outside Seattle, setting his sights on the Cascade Mountains. Experienced pilots know mountains bring turbulence, but miraculously Colt survived the updrafts and crash-landed the plane in a field on the other side, in the middle of the Yakama Indian reservation, 300 miles from where he took flight. The plane was totaled, but Harris-Moore walked away. Police later found what they termed “DNA evidence” in the cockpit. To the layman that would be vomit.
Local pilots are mixed in their assessment of whether a brazen upstart with no flight training was capable of such a risky adventure.
“With a high-wing Cessna, the basic design is very easy to fly,” says Jim Kirby, a burly Seattle-based entrepreneur and amateur pilot.
“If someone follows the manual for the correct airspeeds for takeoff, flight, and landings, they could most likely pull it off. They are also easy to break into and start. The hardest part would be the landing.”
But Chris Jacobs, a pilot for Kenmore Air and a flight instructor, is skeptical. “My opinion, and the opinion of everyone I’ve talked to in aviation, is it’s inconceivable that someone who has only read a manual could get in the plane, start it up, taxi it, take off, and then fly somewhere else,” says Jacobs. “And then to land! I think it would be easier to do what the 9/11 terrorists did than what this kid is doing. I presume that if the authorities are convinced he was capable of this, it’s all true. But it’s still fucking crazy.”
Whatever Colt’s aerial heroics, the Island County Sheriff’s Office is no longer officially commenting on the subject. Still, when Sheriff Mark Brown is quoted in the local press, it’s apparent he is long past appreciating the humor of the situation. Ambushed by CBC-TV and asked about Harris-Moore’s burgeoning celebrity, he cryptically replied, “He’s certainly not my hero. I hope you and I and everybody else, when he does make that fatal mistake, are not responsible for something other than an arrest being made without an incident.”
There is little love lost between Pam Kohler and the sheriff’s department. She reports that on one occasion authorities missed catching Colt by mere minutes, finding an empty tent with stolen goods on a corner of the property. That’s when they seized Colt’s dog, Melanie, which provoked the following note: “Mom, cops were here…everything’s on lockdown. I’m leaving 4-Wennachi…won’t be back est. 2 month. I’ll contact you. They took Melanie. I’m going to have my affiliates take care of that. P.S.–Cops wanna play huh!? Well it’s no lil game. It’s war! & tell them that.”
“One time Melanie started barking and ran right up to the edge of the property,” recalls Pam. “There was this SWAT team guy in the bushes. Then a whole bunch of them—eight or 10—came out. They had their little costumes on and were doing their show, and they all had their guns drawn…They’re retarded, bumbling fools.”
Josh Flickner manages the Elger Bay Café and grocery (which Colt nearly incinerated with the stolen Mercedes) and heads the local chamber of commerce. He blames Sheriff Brown as much as anyone for the enduring spectacle. It’s Brown who opposes a reward for information leading to Colt’s arrest and refuses to deputize community members who want to posse up.
“In my opinion, if he’d done that, this Colt thing would have been done over three years ago,” says Flickner. “He’s just a thief who got lucky. It’s easy to think it’s more than it is.”
According to Zack Sestak, head of Colt’s fan club, the legend is deserved. “He’s the right criminal at the right time,” he says.
“Executives are getting billion-dollar bonuses, and these are people that failed at their jobs. The normal people, everyday people, people who are struggling to pay their bills—they see someone like Colton taking on the system, and they say ‘All right! Fucking go at it, dude.’ ”
September 11, 2009 was allegedly a busy day for Colt. According to authorities, he likely boosted another single-engine plane, this one a Cirrus SR22, from the airport at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and headed east to Orcas, site of his first aviation adventure. Again he totaled the plane but walked away from the damage. This time San Juan County sheriff’s deputy Jeff Patterson managed to get a positive ID on him, before Colt “virtually vaporized in front of me,” according to Patterson. Once more Colt ran through the woods and escaped—this time stealing a speedboat, which he abandoned at Point Roberts on the mainland near the Canadian border. Less than a month later, on September 29, 2009, Colt allegedly attempted his most ambitious aerial stunt to date, stealing another single-engine Cessna from Boundary County Airport in Idaho, crossing Canadian air space in the process, making it an international crime. Defying the odds a second time, he flew back across the Cascade Mountain range, crash-landing near Granite Falls. Police there maintain he fired a stray shot at them with a gun stolen from a cruiser on Camano Island.
“I know for a fact that Colt doesn’t like guns,” says Pam, who insinuates hat local sheriffs have merely upped the stakes on the vendetta they’ve always held against her son. “But I told him, ‘You know they’re after you, and they are going to shoot you.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I know that.’ I told him I’m ordering him a bulletproof vest. I don’t know how I’m going to get it to him, but I’m getting him one.”
Although Pam insists she doesn’t know where Colt is (which is the way she likes it), she does have her suspicions.
“I’ll do anything for him but harbor him, because I’m not going to jail,” she says. “But I know Colt’s safe because he told me about the people he’s with. He has his own room, clothing, shelter, his own TV, his own iPod, his own computer. He has food. That crap about him stealing food now? He lives with a chef. They’re well-to-do people.
People say he’s out burglarizing all night. Well, I know for a fact he’s up all night doing computer work for the people he’s living with.”
She says her son has a girlfriend, that he’s not too interested in politics, though he did like George Bush, that he loves Sinatra and Earth, Wind and Fire, and thinks Patsy Cline sings like an angel. As far as she knows, he’s in the continental U.S., but probably not on Camano Island. According to Pam, Colton denies many of the crimes that make up his legend: Ripping off ATMs, stealing the first plane that crash-landed on the reservation, the other that was taken in Idaho, shooting at police. In the meantime, she says, Colt regularly goes out in public, albeit while disguised. “He says, ‘Mom, you could walk right by me and not know who I was.’ ”
She has also encouraged Colt to turn himself in. “He said a couple of times that he wanted to surrender, but he wanted to wait for the media to die down. He thinks he’s looking at 20 years.”
Pam points out the trailer’s polished hardwood floors, the one modern touch to the otherwise dilapidated décor. Colt put the floors in by himself three years ago. A back door leads to a cramped hallway and then to Colt’s old bedroom, which has been converted to storage.
But even the boxes can’t obscure the room’s focus. Every spare surface has been made a staging area for his model airplane collection: Japanese zeroes, SPADs, Fokkers, Messerschmitts, P-38 Lightnings, P-51 Mustangs; photos of single-engine Turboprops, Cessnas, Cirrus SR-20s and SR-22s, sea planes, floatplanes, and bush planes. One wall is taken up by a poster of the full panoply of post-war Piper Cubs, and another by a blown-up photo of a cockpit looking out on the tarmac of a small commercial airport.
“He’s always wanted to fly jets,” says Pam. “He read every airplane book he could find. He could look up in the sky and identify them as a little kid—right down to the model number.
“He wants his own fleet of jets to fly prominent people around, like Bill Gates and Paul Allen and Warren Buffett. He even has a name for it: Phoenix. He said, ‘Mom, that’s that bird that comes up from the ashes! Phoenix Airlines.’
“From my last phone conversation with Colt, I’m left thinking he’s going down,” she says. “He told me he had something big planned. He asked me to pull that gate down to the front,” she points to a rusted barn gate leaning against a rock, “because there would be a whole lot of paparazzi down there. He told me, ‘Don’t worry, Mom.’ How can I not worry about my son winding up dead?”
For the time being at least, Colt appears to be alive and well. Just before midnight on February 10, a plane stolen from Anacortes on the Washington mainland and headed toward the San Juan Islands was spotted on radar. The next day a stolen Cirrus SR22 was discovered blocking a runway at the Orcas Island airstrip. This time the damage was minimal. Within hours, as the story burned across the Internet, the number of members in Colt’s fan club soared past 19,000, as supporters in Texas, Canada, Italy, and elsewhere offered him a place to hide out from authorities. The messages from his fans carried a common theme: “This guy is my hero!” “Run, fly, swim!”
“Keep it going, Colton. And fly, baby, fly!”