x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Barefoot Bandit comes of age on the run

Eighteen-year-old Colton Harris-Moore has given authorities the slip for more than 20 months now - often on foot, and on many occasions without any shoes on.

Colton Harris-Moore took this self-portrait in June 2008 using a stolen camera. He is achieving folk hero status in the US and Canada after a string of burglaries and daredevil escapes from the law. Island County
Colton Harris-Moore took this self-portrait in June 2008 using a stolen camera. He is achieving folk hero status in the US and Canada after a string of burglaries and daredevil escapes from the law. Island County

DENVER, COLORADO // He has been called everything from Klepto Colt to the Barefoot Bandit. He has rustled small planes, speedboats and luxury cars, robbed island hideaways and survived for weeks in the rugged wilderness of the Pacific North-west. He has got 17,000 followers on Facebook, and hundreds more US police, Canadian Mounties and FBI agents trying to track him down in the real world.

But 18-year-old Colton Harris-Moore has given them the slip for more than 20 months now - often on foot, and on many occasions without any shoes on. By all accounts he is fleet-footed and razor sharp. Whether he is a rebel or a reprobate seems to depend on your point of view. "Colt's case engenders strong feelings on both sides," said Bob Friel, an author and photographer who has reported extensively on Mr Harris-Moore. "People ? tend to fall firmly in one of two camps: he's an outlaw hero or he's simply a no-good crook."

Police have tied Mr Harris-Moore to more than 100 crimes, and when cornered, he has made some breathtaking escapes, often in the style of his childhood hero, James Bond. In November 2008, for example, he is known to have slipped into a parked Cessna on Orcas Island, piloting the tiny plane over the Puget Sound before crash landing on an Indian reservation on the mainland more than 600km to the south-east and walking away from the crumpled wreck miraculously unharmed. The stunt was all the more impressive considering that the gangly teenager not only had no pilot training when he took to the skies that day, he had never even been on a plane before.

Although some residents suspect copycats in some of the crimes in which Mr Harris-Moore is accused, even his mother has expressed wonder that he apparently picked up flying from reading training manuals and playing video games. Police believe he went on to commandeer two other small aircraft, both of which were also found crash-landed nearby. "I hope to hell he stole those planes. I'd be so proud," his mother, Pam Kohler, defiantly told a local interviewer. "But next time, I want him to wear a parachute."

On another occasion, the Barefoot Bandit leapt from a moving (and stolen) Mercedes-Benz to escape pursuing police. When officers later searched the car, they found a digital camera with a brazen self-portrait the teenager had snapped while wearing a Mercedes shirt and listening to an iPod. Mr Harris-Moore has also made getaways using two speedboats, according to authorities, and broken into dozens of empty homes, usually in search of food, a warm bath or a place to rest for a bit. He has busted open ATM machines and used stolen credit cards to order survival gear and other goods.

Along the way, his antics have earned him a global cult following, with a clutch of websites tracking his escapades and a ballad romanticising his Houdini-like escapes. T-shirts with his image and the banner "Fly, Colt, Fly!" or "Momma Tried" are selling briskly on the internet, while the world's media have descended on Camano Island, a wooded atoll 50km north of Seattle where Mr Harris-Moore grew up in a shabby trailer.

He has been likened to the legendary American outlaws Jesse James and Billy the Kid, although his supporters are quick to note that, unlike them, he has not killed anyone. Mr Harris-Moore reminds others of Frank Abagnale Jr, who as a young man in the 1960s passed off more than US$4 million (Dh14.7m) in bad cheques before the age of 19 by posing as a PanAm pilot, a paediatrician and an attorney. Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed Mr Abagnale in the movie Catch Me If You Can.

It seems all but certain that Mr Harris-Moore's story will eventually end up on the silver screen as well, but with every new felony charge the chances of a typically happy Hollywood ending dim further. There is no question he had a rough childhood, with a mother who battled alcoholism, a father who walked out on him and a stepfather addicted to heroin. Police say he committed his first robbery at age 10.

His latest run from the law began in April 2008 when Mr Harris-Moore slipped out of the second-storey window of a juvenile detention centre where he was serving time for theft and possession of stolen property. Because some of his most recent suspected felonies, including smashing another Cessna stolen in Idaho, have taken him across state lines, Mr Harris-Moore is now a federal fugitive. He has also turned 18, meaning, if caught, he will be tried as an adult.

On the one hand, the tale of Colton Harris-Moore shows how easily a smart, seemingly well-intentioned kid can slip through the cracks if his parents, his teachers and the social safety net all fail him. But the derring-do of the Barefoot Bandit has nonetheless captured the imaginations of thousands - many of whom think he can be reformed. "I've had people contact me asking me to get word that they'd be willing to offer him a job and give him a chance when this is all over," Mr Friel said. "That, to me, would be a happy ending."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae