'Barefoot Bandit' stole boats, planes

Last Updated 22 July 2010, 15:52 IST

Yet perhaps his most benign nickname is the most telling. Long before stealing boats and planes made him a marvel of elusiveness, an Internet antihero, Harris-Moore, 19, was suspected of stealing cookies and frozen pizza from the Kostelyk family, a few gravel roads from the squalor that was his home, a trailer on a dead end here, barely an hour from Seattle. The Kostelyks had waterfront property and a freezer full of food. He lived inland and had nothing.

“We called him ‘Island Boy,’ ” recalled Linda Johnson, whose mother was among Harris-Moore’s first suspected victims. “He came back over and over again — frozen pizza, cookies, ice cream.”

By the time he was captured on a stolen motorboat in the Bahamas last week, racing from the police with video-game gall, the 6-foot-5 Harris-Moore had become a sensation. After escaping from a juvenile halfway house here more than two years ago, he eluded the authorities across North America using his wits and his fleet (sometimes bare) feet.
The police said he made makeshift homes in empty houses for days or weeks at a time and somehow taught himself to fly, mastering the art of crash-landing and walking away. Even in the age of the search engine, Harris-Moore seemed untraceable and unknowable, part high-tech Huck Finn, part cunning criminal.

An examination of his early life and troubles suggests a picture far less cinematic. According to court and public documents and dozens of interviews, Harris-Moore was nobody’s hero, not even his own. On the contrary, whether he was hiding in the Kostelyks’ tree house, watching for delivery of the high-powered flashlight the police believe he ordered with a stolen credit card, or flying solo to the Bahamas in a stolen Cessna this month, isolated in the tiny cockpit for more than a thousand miles — Colton Harris-Moore, for much of his life, was alone and hungry.

That was true even as he was being celebrated by thousands of fans on Facebook. “He says he’s not into any of that,” said Monique Gomez, a lawyer who briefly represented Harris-Moore in the Bahamas. “He just wants to get this behind him.”

Volatile childhood
Harris-Moore had a volatile childhood and was often in conflict with his mother, Pam Kohler. His father appears to have been absent.  A social worker’s report from the time he was first arrested, at 12, drew a succinct conclusion, at least from the boy’s point of view. “Colton wants mom to stop drinking and smoking, get a job and have food in the house,” the report said. “Mom refuses.”

When Harris-Moore was 4, someone reported Kohler after seeing “a woman grab a small child by the hair and beat his head severely,” according to a psychiatric summary 12 years later. By the time he was 10, an investigation involving “negligent treatment or maltreatment” had been initiated.

He dropped out of school after ninth grade.

The crimes for which Harris-Moore has been convicted or is suspected of show an increasing focus on technology and transportation, involving the theft of laptops and mountain bikes, GPS devices and power boats. But it is hard to find anything in his past that suggests he would soon be capable of commandeering airplanes and flying them out of the country without any cockpit training. He is suspected of taking at least five planes — including once during the Vancouver Olympics — and crash landing all of them. He walked away each time.

Harris-Moore arrived in Washington on Wednesday and was due in court.

(Published 22 July 2010, 15:52 IST)

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