Who is the 'Barefoot Bandit'?
- 9 July 2010
- From the section US & Canada
American teenager Colton Harris-Moore is being hunted by police in the Bahamas after allegedly stealing a plane and flying it from Indiana, the latest in a string of suspected thefts of aircraft, boats and cars. But why has this supposed serial thief and burglar become an internet celebrity?
It's not that unusual for a 19-year-old to have a Facebook page dedicated to his or her adulation, counting 45,000 fans.
But those 19-year-olds are usually singers, musicians, actors or models. Not criminals.
Colton Harris-Moore is famous because he is an outlaw.
Growing up in Camano Island in the north-west of Washington state, Harris-Moore had a difficult childhood.
Frequent run-ins with the law culminated in a three-year sentence of detention, but after early release he absconded from a halfway house in April 2008, and allegedly began a spree of burglaries.
He is accused of repeatedly breaking into empty holiday homes, taking food, stealing electronic items and even using stolen credit cards to get deliveries of items essential for surviving in the woods.
Dubbed the "Barefoot Bandit", he is thought to have carried out many of his alleged offences without shoes.
In November 2008, he allegedly stole a Cessna 182 light aircraft from a hangar on Orcas Island, also in Washington state. Despite never having had a flying lesson he was supposedly able to take off, eventually crash-landing it 300 miles (483km) away.
In September last year, he allegedly stole another plane in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, crash-landing it 260 miles away in Snohomish, Washington.
This week the FBI announced a $10,000 reward for his capture, just as it was alleged that he had stolen yet another light aircraft from an airport in Bloomington, Indiana, before crash-landing off Abaco Island in the Bahamas and beginning another burglary spree.
"You have a kid, diagnosed with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], who never graduated high school, who really never took his formal education seriously, and he taught himself to navigate a plane 1,200 miles from Indiana to the Bahamas," explains Bob Friel, author of an upcoming book on Harris-Moore, Taking Flight.
"It is easy for people who are of a certain anti-authority bent to root for him."
Harris-Moore has allegedly left mock footprints at the scene of his crimes, notes, and on one occasion, a cash donation to be used to help animals.
This cheekiness perhaps explains why in Seattle you can buy T-shirts with Harris-Moore's face accompanied by slogans like "Momma Tried" or "Fly, Colton, Fly".
The most popular image of the burglar was taken on a camera stolen from Carol Star, a neighbour of his mother.
"He broke into my house three times and stole my Mercedes Benz," she says.
"He has been in trouble since he was eight years old. He is just a common thief. I don't think he is a dangerous person. He is in survival mode."
Josh Flickner, manager of the family-owned Elger Bay general store, and also a victim of an alleged Harris-Moore break-in, takes a dim view.
"It bothers me greatly that people glamorise him and call him things like Robin Hood. He is just a kid who wants what isn't his and steals to get it, and is just really lucky.
"He is very intelligent but at the end of the day he was terrorising our community. Now he is terrorising a different community."
Camano Island was a "no-crime" community before Harris-Moore's alleged spree began, says Mr Flickner. But the wave of burglaries forced residents to reconsider leaving doors and cars unlocked.
"He shopped here his whole life. I watched him grow up.
"I remember looking into his eyes. They say the eyes are the windows of the soul. His soul looked very dark."
The FBI wants Harris-Moore for transporting a stolen plane across state lines, but it notes that he has been the prime suspect in more than 70 other police investigations.
And yet there is still a large measure of ambivalence in the region where Harris-Moore allegedly started his crime spree.
"People's general attitude falls into two broad categories," says Jeremiah O'Hagan, from the Stanwood Camano News. "One is disgusted about a waste of everybody's energy, and the other category would be the people who view him as some kind of counter-culture folk hero."
Investigator Mike Rocha, of All City Bail Bonds, has dedicated himself to finding Harris-Moore, a "felon" who has caused "havoc", but he recognises why some feel drawn to him.
"He is just a 19-year-old kid trying to survive, doing whatever he can. He has defied the rules of society, and so far has successfully evaded capture. People love an underdog story."
The teenager's escapes might seem miraculous to some, taking into account the number of police officers who have been looking for him.
"They were going in one door and he was coming out of another," says Friel, a resident of Orcas Island. "You would think there's no way this kid can possibly get away, and he gets away.
"He was trapped against a cliff that overlooks extremely cold water and he still got away. You cannot help but be fascinated.
"There is no great social commentary, there is no great environmental message. He really wants a better life but when you look at his background, he is not put together to go about it the socially acceptable way."
Harris-Moore may be part of a "feedback loop", Prof Leo Barrile, a criminologist at Bloomsburg University, suggests. He may be driven to commit daring crime because of his online notoriety, thus magnifying it and providing the motivation for further crime.
And there are parallels to the lionisation of bank robbers in the 1930s US, such as John Dillinger, Prof Barrile notes.
"They became folk heroes. It is very interesting to think we are in an economic depression. There is a historical similarity."