Trailing a teen fugitive
Colton Harris-Moore has been a one-boy crime wave since he was 7 years old.
He has broken into houses, stolen cars and burglarized markets, hardware stores and cafes for years on this rural, woodsy island north of Seattle.
Since early 2008, when he escaped from a juvenile holding facility, Harris-Moore, now 18, has been leading police on a fruitless chase through Washington, Canada and Idaho -- stealing two boats and crash-landing three planes (he taught himself to fly on his computer, authorities suspect) along the way, police say.
Now it looks like he may be back.
Police are investigating a wave of burglaries over the last few weeks on Camano Island and nearby Whidbey Island. There are no official suspects, but many here are convinced that the youth whose Facebook fan club numbers more than 7,000, often described as a teenage Jesse James, is responsible.
On Camano Island, where residents say sheriff’s deputies have been combing the woods on foot and sending search helicopters up at night, Harris-Moore more often is considered, simply, a thug.
“If someone says he’s not intelligent, I would say that person is a fool,” Josh Flickner said. It was Flickner’s market that Harris-Moore, with police in hot pursuit, famously plowed into with a stolen Mercedes before running off while the car was still moving.
“But the people who have called him Robin Hood or James Bond on his Facebook fan club, it makes me want to vomit,” Flickner said. “It just makes me sad that there’s so many people in our society who would give glory to someone whose only intention is to thrive on the hurt of others.”
Harris-Moore’s baby face -- which belies his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame -- is familiar to most people in Washington state. Mug shots, surveillance camera photos and Harris-Moore’s self-portrait photo have been plastered for months in newspapers and on market bulletin boards and television news programs.
The fugitive’s mother raised him in a run-down, single-wide trailer in the woods on the south end of the island. Posted along the driveway these days are multiple “No Trespassing” signs.
By the time Harris-Moore turned 12, he had a conviction for possession of stolen property. Over the next few years he racked up convictions for theft, burglary, malicious mischief and fourth-degree assault.
Neighbors said most often he stole not valuables but necessities: tools, blankets, food.
“He’s broken in here a couple of times. He steals vitamin water, beef jerky, hot dogs. He doesn’t like junk food,” said Patty Arnett, a clerk at the Tyee Grocery on south Camano.
At one point he broke into the South Camano fire station and stole a thermal imaging camera, officials said, giving him night-vision capability in the woods.
Neighbors said Harris-Moore may have begun stealing as a child because his mother was unemployed and sometimes threw him out of the house.
“He had a horrible childhood,” said Carol Star, Harris-Moore’s next-door neighbor. “I could hear every kind of bad language out of her mouth, screaming and yelling at him. One time I yelled over there, ‘I’m tired of hearing that! Knock it off!’ And she screamed back, ‘F--- you!’ ”
Robin Lowell, whose daughter was Harris-Moore’s childhood friend, said theft became “a survival mechanism” for the boy.
“When you’re told every day of your life that you are worthless and you are no good and get . . . out of my house, that’s what you do. You get out,” Lowell said. “And in order to eat, to have a place to sleep, you do what you need to do.”
Harris-Moore became adept at setting up camps in the dense woods that cover the majority of Camano Island.
Island County sheriff’s deputies, having found a load of pizza boxes at one of his camps, once caught him by posing as pizza deliverers. Another time, officers arrested him when they found a light on in an abandoned house.
But in April 2008, Harris-Moore escaped from a minimum-security juvenile home in Renton, Wash. Since then, he has been suspected in a rash of burglaries across northern Washington and into Canada.
His crimes may have reached a new level that November when authorities say a Cessna 182 belonging to a Seattle radio talk show personality was stolen from a hangar on Orcas Island and flown to a “hard landing” on the Yakama Indian Reservation.
Then on Sept. 11 this year, a Cirrus SR22 was stolen and flown to another of the San Juan Islands. The thefts accompanied a series of burglaries across Orcas Island.
San Juan County Sheriff Bill Cumming said Harris-Moore, who has long had an interest in aviation, is a suspect in both thefts; although he is not known to have any formal flight training, he did once buy a flight manual using a stolen credit card.
Officials believe he left the San Juan Islands in September on a stolen boat, which was found at Point Roberts, at the Canadian border.
From there, authorities theorize, Harris-Moore made his way across Canada to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where another Cessna 182 was stolen Oct. 2 and landed in a logged-out forest area at Granite Falls, Wash.
“How he walked away from it is anybody’s guess,” said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus. “The wings were broken, the fuselage had a big crack in it, the nose was broken.” The plane had about 10 to 12 gallons of fuel remaining, he said.
Neighbors on Camano Island are convinced Harris-Moore flew over the island before landing at Granite Falls.
“It was about a month ago. There was a plane flying around the house up here. It was a gold and white Cessna,” said Star, who has been the victim of numerous burglaries and thefts over the years.
“I started waving and jumping around. It was really, really low -- about 100 feet, just over the treetops. He was just boosting his ego, I’m sure.”
Three days after the plane theft, a house not far from where the plane crashed was burglarized, a case that seemed to fit Harris-Moore’s M.O.: Blankets, shoes and food were missing. Police combed the woods, and someone -- police said they believe it was “the suspect” -- fired a shot at deputies.
A full-scale manhunt ensued, with three dozen officers, SWAT teams and search dogs. The FBI has been called in.
But the fugitive remains at large, and his fame, perhaps predictably, has spread.
There are now at least three Colton Harris-Moore T-shirts to be had (“Mama Tried,” reads one), a “Ballad of Barefoot Harris” can be found on YouTube (“He was born in the woods with a lockpick in his hand”) and the Facebook fan page set up by three young men in Washington and Oregon has members from all over the world. “Fly, Colton, fly! Come in Greece and marry me!” one young woman invites.
Zack Sestak, a 26-year-old writer from the Seattle area who started the fan page, said he was intrigued after researching Harris-Moore’s story for an article. And he was amazed to see the page grow at the rate of “10 new people every five minutes” once the fugitive’s story began spreading.
“People that are struggling with this huge economic downturn, people feeling very disillusioned . . . CEOs getting million-dollar bonuses off of taxpayer dollars -- people are seeing this and they’re feeling let down by the system,” Sestak said.
“And to see an 18-year-old kid that seems to be taking on the system and winning -- I don’t want to say people are inspired by that, but it strikes their imagination,” he said.
Sometimes, it seems the only people here not talking about Harris-Moore are the authorities.
“We’ve had some burglaries on Camano Island, and we’ve had them on Whidbey Island, and we’re investigating them, and that’s what I can say,” Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said. “I’m just not going to comment on the ongoing investigation, and I think you can appreciate why.”
In the meantime, residents said, they’ve been told to lock their doors.
“I think most people are long past the fear stage,” Flickner said. “Now you’ve got people who are either sympathetic or people who are sick of him and just want to see him caught. . . . I lock my doors at night. But it’s not from fear. It’s that I’ll be damned if he breaks into my house.”