Colton Harris-Moore: The Saga of the “Barefoot Bandit”

Aug 10, 2010 - by Denise Noe

Colton Harris-Moore

Colton Harris-Moore

The “Barefoot Bandit” became a modern day folk hero on Facebook, evading police across the United States for three years by stealing vehicles, boats and light aircraft before being captured in the Bahamas.  But the lanky, 6-foot-5 teenager was no Robin Hood, leaving over $3 million in damages in his wake.

by Denise Noe

Ferry boat captain Freddie Grant and ferry service employee Stan Pennerman of the Eleuthera Island of The Bahamas were going about their morning routine on July 10, 2010 when they noticed that the ignition systems on three of the service’s boats had been damaged. The men recalled seeing a tall, white teenager either bathing or swimming in an inlet the previous evening and wondered if he might be connected to the harm. Grant and Pennerman reported the damaged ignition systems and the sighting of the teen to the police.

Police connected this report to others recently received that pointed to a fugitive from the United States, Colton Harris-Moore, often called “The Barefoot Bandit.” In an article for the HeraldNet entitled “After two years, one chapter of Colton Harris-Moore’s escape comes to a close,” Jackson Holtz wrote, “In the Bahamas, video surveillance cameras reportedly captured glimpses of him prowling through bars and restaurants in the sandy, sun-splashed resort islands off the Florida coast. Officials there turned up the heat, handing out wanted posters.”

According to “Barefoot Bandit caught in Bahamas” that was published in The Sydney Morning Herald, the authorities of The Bahamas had been on the lookout for Harris-Moore since “he allegedly crash-landed a stolen plane a week ago on nearby Great Abaco Island, where he was blamed for a string of at least seven break-ins.”

The Associated Press article by Megan Reynolds and Mike Melia entitled “Authorities Target ‘Barefoot Burglar’ in Bahamas,” reported that a surveillance video inside a bar and restaurant on Great Abaco caught Harris-Moore’s image before dawn on July 6, 2010. The article relates that restaurant owner Alistair McDonald “said the teen at one point looked directly into a security camera, then shone a flashlight into it to blur the image and turned all three security cameras to face the wall.” McDonald added, “He seemed pretty relaxed and at ease.” However, Harris-Moore left without actually stealing anything.

Two days prior, on the evening it is believed Harris-Moore crash-landed a plane into a Great Abaco marsh, a service station was burglarized. Reynolds and Melia reported, “The thief stole a Gatorade and two packets of potato chips, leaving a bundle of food and drinks on the counter – a sign he apparently left in a rush. Pinder told the Associated Press that the thief was so skilled that he didn’t even scratch the lock he picked.” Reynolds and Melia continue, “A nearby house was also burglarized, with the thief making off with a brown Chevrolet Tahoe that was later found abandoned in the town of Marsh Harbor.”

A thief burglarized the bar at the ferry landing at which Grant and Pennerman worked.  He cut a screen to get in and then dismantled the security light. The manager of the bar, Denaldo Bain, commented on the burglar’s next actions, “He was watching television. He was just chilling.” This fit in with previous reports that Harris-Moore would often break into unoccupied residences and businesses just to hang out.

The timing of Harris-Moore’s arrival in The Bahamas may have been especially unfortunate for authorities because it coincided with an annual regatta that made it easy for him to blend in among the crowds of visiting tourists. “The Regatta Time in Abaco is an annual ritual for sailors, mostly from nearby South Florida. Organizer Kathy Ralph said some 50 boats are participating in races and the competition, the area’s biggest annual event, has drawn more than 2,000 spectators,” Reynolds and Melia reported.

Although the vast majority of offenses attributed to Harris-Moore were non-violent, a Royal Bahamian Police Force bulletin stated unequivocally that this fugitive should be regarded as “armed and dangerous.”

According to Reynolds and Melia, “National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest said local authorities were working with the FBI, which posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to Harris-Moore’s capture.” They also quote The Bahamas official as confidently stating, “If he is there to be caught our police will catch him.

On July 11, 2010, they did. Bahamas police spotted the fugitive aboard a light vessel. A high-speed boat chase followed. According to a police official, officers shot at the motor on the suspect’s stolen vessel.  “There were reports that Harris-Moore held a gun to his head, and that police talking him out of harming himself, but that wasn’t immediately confirmed,” Holtz reported.

When Harris-Moore was caught, the brown-haired, green-eyed, dimple-chinned 18-year-old was shoeless. It seemed a fitting way for the cocky young criminal who had achieved worldwide fame as the “Barefoot Bandit” to be captured. Uncharacteristically for such an arrogant criminal, he hung his head down.

 

From broken toys to burglaries

According to Patrick Oppmann’s article in CNN Justice, court records reveal a troubled childhood for the future “barefoot bandit. Harris-Moore was raised by a single mother, Pamela Kohler, after his father left the home when Colton was between 4 and 5 years old. Kohler had a series of boyfriends in and out of the shabby trailer home that she and her young son shared. Kohler’s sister, Sandra Puttman, said that Kohler drank heavily and would often break her son’s toys as a form of discipline.

Oppmann’s article further reports, “State Child Protective Services responded to reports of incidents at the home on 12 different occasions, once removing Harris-Moore from his mother’s care for three days.” In a court record, Kohler said, “Colton tended to beat his head on the wall when he was a toddler.”

An article by Associated Press writer Gene Johnson disclosed that Harris-Moore often ignored teachers and started fights at school. The Sunday Times reports that he began escaping the turmoil at home for life in the wilderness at the age of 7.  “He would break into holiday homes, steal blankets and food and vanish into the woods for days.” “America’s Most Wanted Teenage Bandit” by Tim McGirk in Time.com reveals that his name first appeared on a police blotter when he was accused of stealing a bicycle when he was 8 years old.

Oppmann’s article discloses that later he “was arrested with three other boys for breaking into the middle school he attended. Harris-Moore later pled guilty to using a butane torch lighter to burn a hole into a school window and then stealing a laptop and some blank CDs. He was sentenced to six months of supervision and 56 hours of community service.

In a handwritten letter kept in a court file, his mother wrote that the boy became very attached to her second husband, a heroin addict. She stated, “The boy has had many disappointments all his life. His stepfather died and our dog and this had severe effects on Colt and I.”

Harris-Moore’s father, Gordon Moore, occasionally visited his son but those visits were not always positive. Oppmann writes, “In a May 2003 incident, court records say that Colton Harris-Moore, then 12, called 911 after his father allegedly pushed him to the ground and gripped his hand around the boy’s throat. When police arrived, according to records, Colton’s father Gordon Moore ran into the woods . . . but they soon caught him. He was arrested and taken to jail.” Soon after that, his father stopped all contact with him and his mother.

A probation officer writing in 2004 stated, “Colton and his mother share a tumultuous relationship. Colton’s mother reported to me how he is violent at home on a near daily basis.” The report continued that during one of their altercations the boy broke the telephone so his mother could not call the police. She also alleged that he once bit her on the forearm and threatened her with a boat oar.

In 2007, Harris-Moore pled guilty to three burglary charges. He was sentenced to three years in a juvenile detention center in Renton, Washington. Good behavior at the center led to his transfer to a halfway house. He complained that the beds at the halfway house were too short for his 6 foot 5 inch body. One day, he shimmied out of an open window – and into a life of infamy.

 

Heisting cars, boats, and planes on the run sans shoes

Living primarily in forests, he traveled in stolen cars and burglarized residences and businesses across Washington State, occasionally dashing into Canada and Idaho. Although he usually wore shoes, he often committed his crimes barefoot and that led to the nicknames “The Barefoot Burglar” and “The Barefoot Bandit.”

Harris-Moore appeared to taunt police with his nickname as he is believed to have been the thief who broke into a grocery on Washington State’s San Juan Islands and left cartoon-like, chalk outlines of bare feet all over the floor. According to a Sunday Times article entitled “Colton Harris-Moore, the barefoot boy bandit, outfoxes sheriffs,” he soon won notoriety as the “agile 6ft 5in cat burglar who thanks his victims by leaving them notes and cheeky photographs of himself.” Some victims sold the pictures on eBay.

He graduated from stealing cars to taking speedboats. Although he had no training as a pilot, he apparently learned the rudiments of flying from manuals and video games. According to the Sunday Times, Harris-Moore traveled to Canada and then crossed the border into Idaho “where he stole a Cessna 182 and flew to Seattle. He crash-landed in a forest clearing and walked away with cuts and bruises.”

After that, he stole other light aircraft and flew to various points in the Puget Sound islands. One was another Cessna that he also crash-landed and walked away from. The disc jockey who owned the plane complained about Harris-Moore’s aviation skills on radio, saying, “He still doesn’t know how to land a plane in one piece.”

Once police chased Harris-Moore while he was speeding away in a stolen Mercedes-Benz. He deliberately crashed it into a roadside gas storage tank. The resulting explosion allowed him to escape into a nearby wooded area.

The Sunday Times article continues, “This was followed by the largest manhunt in recent memory. Three dozen sheriffs, aided by specialist armed units and an FBI helicopter, fanned out across Camano Island but failed to capture him.”

Although most of Harris-Moore’s known crimes are non-violent, Jackson Holtz’s article “Massive manhunt follows after shot fired at deputy,” that appeared in the HeraldNet, describes reports that Harris-Moore may have been the suspect who shot at sheriff’s deputies in Snohomish County, Washington State as they searched a wooded area for a burglar.

On May 30 or May 31, Harris-Moore left $100 in cash and a note at a veterinary clinic in Raymond, Washington. The note read, “Drove by, had some extra cash. Please use this money for the care of animals – Colton Harris-Moore (AKA: ‘The Barefoot Bandit’) Camano Island, WA.”

The note was authenticated when police dusted it for fingerprints and found Harris-Moore’s. According to the KIROTV.com article entitled “’Barefoot Bandit’ Leaves Note, $100 at Raymond Vet Clinic,” Warrenton, Oregon Police Chief Mathew Workman informed the Everett Herald that Harris-Moore “may be a suspect in connection with a boat theft, a car theft and the attempted theft of a plane on June 1, a day or two after the note was left in Raymond, Wash. ‘It stands to reason they would be related,’ he told the newspaper.” That same KIROTV.com piece reported, “Several Seattle bounty hunters have also been looking for [Harris-Moore] since June 2.”

 

A criminal’s troubling celebrity

The elusive fugitive soon acquired a cult following. The Sunday Times article was published in December 2009 and it reported, “Thousands subscribe to his Facebook page and his image appears on T-shirts with the logo “Fly, Colton, Fly!”. Local rock groups have penned songs about him. Hollywood producers have lodged lucrative film deals with his family and offered to pay for lawyers if he gives himself up.”

Holtz writes, “Seattle T-shirt artist Adin Stevens was inspired by the tale of the elusive teenager. He created a fan club shirt for friends that features the teen's photo, which Harris-Moore took of himself with a stolen camera, and the words, ‘Momma Tried,’ a reference to a Merle Haggard song.” That Merle Haggard song is sung from the viewpoint of a career criminal who says, “No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried/Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied/That leaves only me to blame ‘cos Mama tried.”

Stevens remarks about Colton, “He's pretty gangster. It's rad to see a kid his age going for it.”

The boyish face of the tall and lanky criminal has led many people to compare him to the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can.

Harris-Moore’s mother, Pamela Kohler, has expressed a most peculiar pride in her son’s criminal exploits. Noting that her son had been able to fly without training, she commented, “I hope to hell he stole those airplanes. But put in there that I want him to wear a parachute next time.” The Sunday Times records that she remarked, “I was going to send him to flight school but I guess I don’t have to.” Reynolds and Melia quote her as giving flight safety instructions to her son. “Colt is not to be flying a single-engine plane,” she said, giving the potential for engine failure as the reason he should avoid stealing such aircraft. “The rules are he carries a parachute with him and he takes two-engine planes.”

While he was on the lam, she also stated that she hoped Colton would flee to a country that did not have an extradition treaty with the United States. When initially informed that authorities suspected that he was in the Bahamas, she commented, “The furthest he gets from the U.S., the better. I’m glad he’s able to enjoy beautiful islands but they extradite. It doesn’t help matters at all.”

Understandably, the elevation of this thief to folk hero does not sit well with either his victims or authorities. Washington State’s Island County Sheriff Mark Brown was quoted by Gene Johnson as complaining, “He is an adult felon!” After Harris-Moore’s capture in The Bahamas, Brown commented, “I am thankful that Colton Harris-Moore has been taken into custody by the Bahamian authorities. I pledge my commitment to seek accountability for the many crimes suffered by the citizens of Island County at the hands of this criminal.”

Indeed, Harris-Moore is no Robin Hood and his crimes have caused great harm to many people. The loss in theft damage done to the Homegrown Market and Gourmet Deli, at which he is believed to have drawn those chalk footprints, totaled about $6,500. The store’s owner, Kyle Ater told reporter Jackson Holtz that as many as 20 employees might have to be laid off as a result. Ater elaborated, “Hopefully he can pay for his crimes.”

Before he was apprehended, an official on Orcas Islands north of Seattle, an area in which Harris-Moore was suspected of several crimes, commented that people there were glad he was far away. Chamber of Commerce director Lance Evans stated, “Speaking on behalf of the business community, we’re thrilled. We’re hopeful that authorities anywhere he finds himself will catch him.”

After Harris-Moore was caught, Joni Fowler, the manager of a Washington State café of which he is accused of stealing as much as $1,500, derided those who make a hero out of him. “These people that support him, they’ve never been violated by having him break into their homes or businesses,” she observed. “Just knowing he has a huge following makes me really worry about the state of this country.”

A story in the Seattle Weekly Blog by Vernal Coleman that was published before his capture, was entitled “Camano Islanders Vent Frustration Over Colton Harris Moore . . . in Song.” Part of the lyrics read: Colton-Moore was a lad who turned out bad/He robbed the Tyee Store/He lived in our sheds and he slept in our beds/And they say he was rotten to the core.”

Bahamas Islanders also set up an anti-Colton Harris-Moore website to rival that of his fans. Vernal Coleman’s Seattle Weekly Blog piece called “Colton Harris-Moore Haters now have a Home on the Web” describes its creators as declaring, “This is a place for everyone who doesn’t want to join all the unthinking fan clubs that celebrate the ‘Barefoot Bandit’s’ crimes against the community.” They also set up a special section inviting those who despise this criminal to “ridicule your least favorite fugitive in style.”  This article is illustrated by a photograph of T-shirt with Harris-Moore’s visage on it and the message, “I Support Safe Community Not Fake Heroes.” The word “Fake” is printed over “Folk” which has been pointedly crossed out.

 

Paying for the crime spree

In a Bahamian court, Harris-Moore pled guilty to illegally entering The Bahamas. He was fined $300. According to Associated Press reporter Curt Anderson, “Harris-Moore’s attorney in the Bahamas, Monique Gomez, said the U.S. Embassy there would pay the teenager’s $300 fine.” Questioned by Bahamian police about why he came to that country, Harris-Moore said he was attracted by its plethora of islands and their many airports and docks. He also said that he intended to travel to the Turks and Caicos Islands southeast of The Bahamas and from there go to Cuba, apparently following his mother’s hope that he would settle in a country that has no extradition treaty with the United States.

However, he was extradited to the United States on July 13, 2010, and placed in a Miami, Florida jail. Anderson’s article noted, “Harris-Moore is suspected in about 70 burglaries, thefts and other property crimes in eight states and British Columbia, including thefts of aircraft – one of which he allegedly flew from Indiana to the Bahamas.”

Harris-Moore’s first appearance in a U.S. courtroom since his arrest in The Bahamas was before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Dube. The now 19-year-old was attired in a tan jail jumpsuit. On his feet, he wore sandals and white socks.

Harris-Moore said he believed that his mother had hired an attorney. “I’d like to speak with my mom first,” he said. “She said that she hired one. I have not met with him yet.”

In fact, Pamela Kohler has asked Seattle lawyer John Henry Browne to be her son’s attorney.

On July 16, 2010, Harris-Moore was back in the Miami courtroom where he waived his right to an extradition hearing, thus agreeing to be transferred to Washington State. “Before the hearing, the young defendant appeared relaxed and even shared a few laughs with another detainee,” a CNN wire report stated.

Time will tell just what the justice system will ultimately demand of Colton Harris-Moore as payment for a crime spree that may have led to more than $3 million in property losses. It will also take time to find out if Harris-Moore will remain lawless and anti-social throughout his life or if he will put his considerable talents to positive use in the future.

 

Bibliography

Anderson, Curt. “Accused ‘Barefoot Bandit’ has US court appearance.” Associated Press. Published 7/14/10. Accessed 8/5/10. http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hu6i6UTxAdDNf5f_TEtgSI9ewLGgD9GV0NFG1

“Barefoot bandit caught in Bahamas.” The Sydney Morning Herald. Published 7/12/10. Accessed 8/2/10. http://www.smh.com.au/world/barefoot-bandit-caught-in-bahamas-20100711-105s2.html

“’Barefoot Bandit’ Leaves Note, $100 At Raymond Vet Clinic.” KiroTV.com. Published 6/17/10.  Accessed 8/7/10. http://www.kirotv.com/news/23939095/detail.html

CNN Wire Staff. “’Barefoot bandit’ suspect set for transfer to Washington.”  Published 7/16/10. Accessed 8/7/10. http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/07/16/barefoot.bandit.case/index.html

Coleman, Vernal. “Camano Islanders Vent Frustration Over Colton Harris Moore . . . in Song.” Seattle Weekly Blogs. Published 5/6/10. Accessed 8/7/10. http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/dailyweekly/2010/05/camano_islanders_vent_frustrat.php

“Colton Harris-Moore, the barefoot boy bandit, outfoxes sheriffs.” The Sunday Times. Published 12/6/09. Accessed 8/4/10. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6946030.ece

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Holtz, Jackson. “Massive manhunt follows after shot fired at deputy.” HeraldNet. Published 10/6/09. Accessed 8/5/10. http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20091006/NEWS01/710069923&news01ad=1

Johnson, Gene. “Teen burglar’s mom: ‘I hope he stole those planes.’” Associated Press. Published 10/6/09. Accessed 8/3/10. http://www.katu.com/news/local/63636867.html

Merle Haggard, Mama Tried lyrics. CowboyLyrics.com. Accessed 8/6/10. http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/haggard-merle/mama-tried-507.html

McCartney, Juan and Melia, Mike. “’Barefoot Bandit’ nabbed after 2 years as fugitive.” Associated Press. Published 7/11/10. Accessed 8/2/10. http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5g3ng0HuCqAC4S1vDdZDuEso6S73QD9GT6I100

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Momma Tried Colton Harris More Fan Club T-shirt << Colton Harris More Fan Club. http://www.coltonharrismoorefanclub.com/?p=201

Oppmann, Patrick. “Court records reveal troubled childhood of ‘barefoot bandit.’” CNN Justice. Published 7/22/10. Accessed 7/27/10. http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/07/22/barefoot.bandit.profile/index.html?hpt=C1

Reynolds, Megan and Melia, Mike. “Authorities target ‘barefoot burglar’ in Bahamas.” Associated Press. Published 7/8/10. Accessed 8/7/10. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38125382/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts

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