Just after midnight on July 18, 2008, Shirley Morgan, owner of Camano Island’s Elger Bay Cafe, received a phone call from the police informing her that her restaurant had been struck by a car.
Hours earlier, Deputy William Vaughn of the Island County Sheriff’s Department had spotted a black Mercedes-Benz, which was being driven erratically. Riding shotgun in Vaughn’s cruiser was Lucas Adkins, a civilian and sheriff’s department intern. As the Mercedes sped northward up the lonely two-lane road that winds around Camano’s heavily forested southern half, Vaughn gave chase.
When the Benz neared the intersection at Mountain View Road, its driver hung a sharp left into the cafe’s parking lot and exited the vehicle. Still in gear, the car rolled across the asphalt and into the building’s back end. According to police reports, Vaughn observed the vehicle’s occupant flee on foot, drop down a hill, and break for the forest. But it was the intern who first identified the suspect, whose tall, lanky frame and boyish face were recognizable even in the darkness.
Adkins told the detectives who arrived at the scene that the suspect looked like Colton Harris-Moore, Camano Island’s most infamous son and the state of Washington’s youngest serial fugitive—the so-called “Barefoot Burglar.” (Harris-Moore earned the nickname after witnesses reported seeing him running without shoes.)
In the dead of night, the restaurant—one of a trio of conjoined businesses, including a gas station and bait shop—was naturally empty of patrons. But there was a problem, police told Morgan. The car had plowed into a storage dumpster. Weighed down by spent cooking oil, it had absorbed much of the impact. But the crash had caused it to crush a pipe connected to the cafe’s industrial-sized propane tank. The deputies had turned off the gas, but the pipe would need to be repaired. All told, the incident cost Morgan $400.
“He didn’t do it intentionally,” says Morgan of Harris-Moore, “but when you’re that reckless, dangerous things like that can happen.”
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, the man who had made it his agency’s priority to catch the teen, was less charitable, telling the Everett Herald: “I’m convinced it was him. He spit in the eye of law enforcement. He spit in the eyes of the juvenile services that tried to help him, and he spit in the eye of the citizens that have tried to help him.”
The Mercedes Harris-Moore drove and ditched belonged to his neighbor, Carol Star. She was in Colorado when police reached her, and told them that no one had permission to use her car and that whoever it was must have stolen it. Police later found a sliding door at her house, located near Harris-Moore’s childhood home, completely removed.
A search of the car turned up a red-and-black backpack also belonging to Star. It was filled with items Harris-Moore had pilfered since walking away from a Renton group home that April—credit cards, a cell phone, a digital camera, a GPS unit—and a smattering of personal belongings, including a journal with his name inscribed on the inside front cover.
From the camera, investigators would later obtain the now-iconic photo that has been published in newspapers around the world. Taken by himself in what appears to be the woods, Harris-Moore is pictured lying on his back, wearing a black polo shirt with a Mercedes-Benz logo embroidered across the chest and a shit-eating grin across his face.
“That was how most of the island found out that he was back,” says Morgan.
Morgan, 61, has lived on Camano since long before Harris-Moore became a thorn in the collective side of the island’s residents. Thirteen years ago, she left Arlington, Wash., in search of new digs. She found Camano, a 40-square-mile island separated from the mainland by the Davis Slough, and promptly fell in love. Her cafe, one of a handful of eateries on the island, is the kind of place where semi-retired residents mix easily with well-heeled vacationers while conversing about topics of import—namely fishing.
“It’s a laid-back, peaceful place,” says Morgan. “There’s not usually a lot of drama,”
But there have been momentary breaks in the tranquility, many of which have come courtesy of Harris-Moore. While most kids his age are shambling through their freshman year of college, the 18-year-old has become a local legend, much to the displeasure of his hometown’s adult population.
At age 16, Harris-Moore was already a prolific, if sloppy, burglar. Facing a felony charge in 2006, he absconded and disappeared into the island’s forested wilds. After seven months he was caught, only to escape and disappear again after serving just one year of a three-year sentence—this time through a window of a Renton juvenile-rehabilitation facility.
In the year since his escape, Harris-Moore has officially been named as a suspect in two separate incidents in which the perpetrator stole and then took a joyride in a single-engine airplane, and is rumored to be the culprit in a third. The parallels to another famous teenage fugitive, Frank Abagnale Jr., whose own enthusiasm for impersonating airline pilots was captured in the film Catch Me if You Can, are obvious. As of this writing, Harris-Moore is still at large.
Hence, reporters from national media outlets like the Los Angeles Times are schlepping to northwest Washington to get the story; film producers are clamoring for the rights to his tale; and a Facebook fan page dedicated to him has nearly 8,000 members.
Meanwhile, his legend looms over Camano Island. Solicitations for comment from the Island County Sheriff’s Department were unsuccessful, but residents say sheriff’s deputies there have stepped up their patrols. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has offered its assistance, and on some nights, helicopters equipped with night-vision cameras hover over the woods, searching for Harris-Moore.
“Every time you hear a siren, you think it might be because of Colton,” says Morgan.
But even as the island grapples with the possibility that Harris-Moore might be back, debate over the reasons behind his lawlessness continues. His former neighbors have been filing concerns about his mother’s and father’s child-raising fitness since Harris-Moore was old enough to walk. According to documents and to Harris-Moore’s own accusations, both his parents have a history of substance abuse, as did the rotating cast of surrogate dads who entered his home after his biological father left the family.
“He started breaking into people’s homes because he wanted to see what it was like to live a normal life,” says one friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Reached by phone, Pam Kohler defends her son, calling Harris-Moore a “sweet boy.” She then demands payment in exchange for an interview, and hangs up the phone when it’s made clear that none will be forthcoming.
“I have no doubt that he might be doing some burglaries,” says Sandra Puttmann, Harris-Moore’s maternal aunt. “But every time there’s a robbery on Camano Island, they blame it on Colton.”
True or not, Harris-Moore has earned the suspicion. This is the story of a usual suspect.
Colton Harris-Moore was born at Skagit Valley Hospital on March 22, 1991. His troubles began early.
One of his very first interactions with Camano police was as a suspect, says his aunt. According to Puttmann, police suspected that a new bicycle he was walking with near his mother’s trailer was not an eighth-birthday present his mother had long saved to buy him, but had been stolen.
Harris-Moore’s real difficulties began long before that, claims Kohler. In a letter submitted to Snohomish County Superior Court during his 2007 prosecution on multiple counts of burglary, Kohler said that her son’s impulsiveness began as early as age 2. He had a tendency to “do things without thinking of the end results of his actions,” she wrote.
Years later, clinicians at Washington’s Compass Health Center diagnosed the then-10-year-old Harris-Moore with a host of psychiatric maladies, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, and intermittent explosive disorder, a condition that causes sufferers to react violently and grossly out of proportion to a particular situation.
Harris-Moore’s biological father, Gordon Moore, was, according to court documents, an oft-incarcerated, violent alcoholic. He left the family for good in 2003 after being arrested following an incident at a family barbecue in which Harris-Moore had been throwing rocks at his father following an argument, according to court documents. In response, the elder Moore knocked his son to the ground and held him down by the throat.
“Don’t you know, I have killed three men because of my anger,” he allegedly told his son.
Moore’s criminal record is no less extensive than his son’s. From 1974 to 1996, he racked up 25 convictions, many of them for driving without a valid license or under the influence. Moore’s most egregious offense was a 1999 hit-and-run, but to Harris-Moore the anger boast must have been a credible threat. After he called the police, his father disappeared into the woods, much as Harris-Moore would years later. Moore was eventually captured, taken in on an outstanding warrant, and found guilty of misdemeanor assault and driving under the influence. He is not currently incarcerated, but has been out of touch with his son since the incident.
A number of his mother’s boyfriends moved in and out of the family home as Harris-Moore grew to adolescence, each of them suffering from some form of chemical dependency. His mother also had problems with alcohol addiction, according to documents obtained from Child Protective Services by Compass Health Center’s Dr. Delton Young. SW‘s request for those records was denied by the state’s Department of Social and Health Services, citing their private nature. But as Young’s evaluation indicates, CPS was moved on more than one occasion to look into the conditions at Harris-Moore’s home.
In 2002, CPS began an investigation for “negligent treatment” after Harris-Moore was found with a bruise on his leg allegedly inflicted by his mother’s then-live-in boyfriend. Kohler told the evaluator that her boyfriend, who according to CPS also had issues with drugs and alcohol, was “not playing with a full deck.” During this time, Harris-Moore was briefly placed in foster care following intervention by local police, says the evaluation. His first conviction would soon follow.
Four days after Thanksgiving 2003, Harris-Moore and two fellow hellions tore across Camano Island, burgling and vandalizing their way to Stanwood Middle School. Before the night was over, they’d stolen a laptop from a mortgage-company office, set fire to the bulletin board at a grocery store, and taken a torch to one of the school’s soda machines.
The next day, one member of the crew confessed to local authorities and rolled on the other participants. Harris-Moore was subsequently tried and convicted of his first felony offense. As a juvenile, his sentence was light: He received six months of community supervision to go with 56 hours of community service and a 30-day stay at Everett’s Denney Youth Center.
By that time, Harris-Moore’s relationship with Kohler had grown tumultuous. Physical altercations between the two were not uncommon. Kohler was violent towards him “100’s [sic] of times,” says Young’s evaluation.
Harris-Moore soon became one of Stanwood Middle School’s problem students. He reported to CPS investigators that Kohler had grown largely indifferent to his studies, and his attendance at school plummeted. He later begged for help, saying, “I am not happy. I am depressed. I could stay in bed all day. I need help. I’m tired of this stuff.”
Following that first conviction, Harris-Moore’s criminal activity continued. The crimes were petty, however: possession of stolen goods, theft, and vandalism. Previous convictions had resulted in relatively minor penalties, mostly a combination of fines, community service, and a few days’ detention at one of the local juvenile-rehabilitation centers. But in 2006, as he entered his freshman year at Stanwood’s alternative high school, Lincoln Hill, he was facing mandatory incarceration. Washington state allows juvenile offenders only so many points before they are taken into the custody of the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration. And after being found guilty that February of stealing $61 from the Stanwood Public Library cash box, Harris-Moore had exhausted all of his, subsequently serving 30 days at Denney Youth Center.
He caught yet another charge a week after his release—for boosting $3,700 in computer equipment via a stolen credit-card number. The day before he was to appear in Snohomish County juvenile court, Harris thought better of it, and fled into the woods instead.
For those not blessed with access to a boat or helicopter, there is only one way on or off Camano Island. Sandwiched between the Tulalip Indian Reservation and Skagit Bay, its sole connection to the mainland is the Mark W. Clark Memorial Bridge, so named after a U.S. Army general and WWII veteran who once called the island home.
Underneath the bridge is the Davis Slough. Centuries before the island became a vacation community, Snohomish and Kikalo Indians would wait until low tide before crossing over to gather from its summer abundance of seafood. Similarly, many of Camano’s estimated 13,000 residents don’t actually live there full-time, arriving only after the weather turns warm. That and the island’s unique geography and relative isolation create plenty of opportunities for bored, disaffected young people looking for a place to squat.
“Camano Island has the same crime problems of a King County or a Seattle,” says John Dean, chairman of the Island County Board of Commissioners. “Most people come up to Camano Island thinking they’re going back into a very peaceful, crime-free area, but that’s really not so. When you have this amount of people in an area where there are so many places to hide, you’re going to have some problems.”
Morgan’s assessment is more blunt. “There are some bad apples on this island,” she says. “There are boys and girls who go over the bridge and steal. They break into people’s houses here. And because it’s a small community, everybody knows who they are.”
The Camano Island Chamber of Commerce boasts 135 members, most of them of the mom-and-pop variety like the Elger Bay Café, though a few are higher-end shops like the fashion boutique Doncaster and Dusty Cellars, a winery. Just over the bridge, across the line that separates Island County from Snohomish County, is the town of Stanwood. If Camano is a sleepy island refuge for residents who prefer not to be bothered, Stanwood is its conjoined but non-identical twin. Recent years have seen an uptick in development along the section of State Highway 532 that serves as the otherwise quaint town’s main thoroughfare. Big-box stores have sprung up, in some cases directly next to worn-out homes whose owners have yet to be bought out.
The retail development seen in Stanwood “may not be the kind of development that they want” on Camano, says Dean. In true islander form, some have developed a somewhat standoffish attitude toward those living on the “mainland.” An article in the most recent edition of the Crab Cracker, a local community newsletter, laments the bygone days when local youth spent Halloween on the island instead of being driven to the suburb of “Stanwoodopolis” to collect piles of candy.
“There are some people who would prefer it if a gate were placed at the entrance to keep everyone who is not from Camano Island out,” jokes Morgan.
Across the water the feeling is mutual, at least in regard to Harris-Moore. It was in Stanwood that his criminal activity began in earnest, and its citizens don’t particularly enjoy the association.
At the Stanwood Hotel and Saloon, Mike McCarthey looks up from his beer to inquire why anyone would still be interested in Colton Harris-Moore. “That kid doesn’t need any more publicity,” he says. “And you do realize he’s not from here, right?”
On the lam in 2006, Harris-Moore crashed with friends when he could and camped on his mother’s land when he couldn’t. But sometimes he’d stay inside one of the many empty vacation homes that dot the island. He’d had years to learn the migratory patterns of Camano Island’s residents, and now he took full advantage.
“As near as we could tell, it was kind of like this Goldilocks thing,” says Shauna Snyder. A former investigator with the Island County Public Defender’s Association, Snyder worked for Harris-Moore’s defense team during his 2007 trial. “Here you have this kid who grew up in a double-wide, and there he is in a mansion. Sometimes he wouldn’t take anything more than a can of soup. He just wanted to be there.”
During this particular six-month stint eluding the authorities, Harris-Moore would break into a home, eat, take what supplies he could, and use stolen credit-card numbers and the home’s Internet connection to purchase other items he thought would be useful. Theft reports began pouring in from residents across the island. Eventually, Harris-Moore amassed a trove of survival gear—police scanners, clothing, bear-grade pepper spray—much of which he had delivered to island residences under false names, intercepting the packages before the homeowners returned. He also allegedly used a pilfered credit card to pay for membership to a male pornography Web site called barelytwinks.com, though Snyder believes that this purchase was attributed to Harris-Moore by the card’s embarrassed owner.
Evading capture proved more difficult. Contrary to legend, on multiple occasions Island County Sheriff’s deputies almost caught Harris-Moore, with each incident report containing some derivation of “Colton Harris-Moore got away.” Weeks after he decamped for the wilderness, deputies served a warrant for Harris-Moore’s arrest at his mother’s house. According to police reports, he went crashing through the woods just as police arrived.
While searching for him, the cops stumbled on a tent he’d set up on the southwest corner of the property. Harris-Moore’s dog Melanie was there, and inside the tent, deputies found several thousand dollars’ worth of property they identified as stolen.
“It was like he was hoarding it all,” says Snyder. Deputies found a Christmas shopping list’s–worth of stolen goods, but as Snyder would later discover, there was no evidence that Harris-Moore had the means or inclination to sell any of it. “Normally, someone is going to try and make some money off of what they steal, but not him,” she says. “There just wasn’t any rhyme or reason to it.”
Nor did he make any especially large purchases with the credit cards police found in his possession. “I’m not sure if he ever knew, but some of the cards had limits in the thousands of dollars,” says Snyder. “It was like, ‘Dude, you could have been in the Bahamas.'”
When his mother returned home to find the deputies’ note attached to her door, she provided them with a message her son had left for the cops before he fled. “Mom, cops were here…everything’s on lockdown. I’m leaving 4-Wennachi…won’t be back est. 2 month. I’ll contact you they took Melanie. I’m going to have my affiliates take care of that. P.S. –Cops wanna play huh!? Well its no lil game…..It’s war! & tell them that.” [Ellipses his.]
They heard, and turned to a relatively new weapon in the law enforcer’s arsenal: tracking his movements via the Internet. Each time they suspected Harris-Moore had broken into a residence, investigators checked the past day’s Internet activity. Eventually they turned up his e-mail address, email@example.com, named for his dog. They also found his MySpace page, where under “occupation” Harris-Moore had entered the word “pilot.”
By then, Island County Sheriff Mark Brown had created a detail whose sole purpose was to track down Harris-Moore. Police began pulling overtime shifts trying to facilitate his capture—made all the more imperative, said police, after he allegedly stole a pistol from a police cruiser. “Wanted” posters with the teen’s mug shot were posted around the island.
Upon his election to office in January 2007, Brown announced that capturing Harris-Moore would be one of his top priorities, later telling the Herald that not only would Harris-Moore be caught and prosecuted, but so would anyone giving him shelter.
“Make no mistake, we intend to prosecute anyone assisting him to the fullest extent,” said Brown.
On Friday, February 9, 2007, Island County undersheriff Kelly Mauck sent out a press release containing a message for Colton Harris-Moore. “You will be caught,” he said. “You are hurting the citizens of our community, and you are unnecessarily putting yourself and others in harm’s way.”
Hours later, the department received a tip from a south Camano Island resident who had noticed a light turned on in a home that was supposed to have been vacant. The residents were on vacation, said the tipster. More than a dozen sheriff’s deputies and other law-enforcement agents then converged on the two-story bungalow, whose back end opens out to a clear view of Skagit Bay.
By the time police confirmed that Harris-Moore was indeed inside the home, he was on the phone with his mother. Pamela Kohler was picked up from her home and brought to the scene. After a “lengthy negotiation,” Harris-Moore finally surrendered.
All told, Harris-Moore had reportedly stolen nearly $30,000 in goods from his fellow Camano Island residents. After a seven-month manhunt, Harris-Moore was back in custody.
From a 16-year-old fugitive’s perspective, it could not have been worse. Harris-Moore was remanded to the Island County juvenile detention center on Whidbey Island. Prosecutors charged him with 23 counts of burglary and possession of stolen property. The coming months promised an seemingly endless series of tedious meetings with lawyers, and worse, a “structured environment,” a thinly veiled euphemism for school.
The chase was over, and still there remained some bravado. “He wasn’t willing to plead,” says Snyder. “In his mind, the cops hadn’t put it all together, and he thought he could beat the charges.”
After the state’s evidence was all laid out for Harris-Moore, however, he changed his tune. His court-appointed lawyer, Rachel Miyoshi, negotiated a plea agreement that slashed the number of charges against him from 23 to three. With Miyoshi’s help, he’d be out in three to four years depending on his behavior, potentially making him a free man by age 19.
“I’m not sure if it’s like his mother says and he’s three IQ points behind Einstein, but you’d have to be an idiot not to take that deal,” says Snyder.
Which is why Snyder and Miyoshi were both surprised when news broke of Harris-Moore’s escape.
By that time, Harris-Moore had been transferred from Green Hill School, the state’s maximum-security juvenile detention facility in Chehalis, to the Griffin Home, a comparatively soft-core facility in Renton. Documents obtained from the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration paint a picture of an inmate whose rehabilitation was going reasonably well.
“He was willing to work on treatment needs,” wrote Sarah Pemble, the Griffin Home’s Clinical Program Manager, in her assessment. But staff also observed that Harris-Moore would “victimize his peers,” calling them names and invalidating their responses during group-therapy sessions in an attempt to gain status, according to the report.
On the night of his escape, April 29, 2008, he was present for an early bed check at 8:40. By 9:45, the time of the next bed check, he had escaped through a window. Staff at the Griffin Home searched the grounds to no avail.
“Colton is just this mystery,” says Snyder. “Nothing he does has a rhyme or reason.”
But in his 2007 evaluation, Dr. Delton Young wrote that Harris-Moore “suffers significant anxiety being in detention and worrying about how long he will be incarcerated.” Young also noted that Harris-Moore occasionally had anxiety attacks while he was on the run prior to his capture.
“I knew I would get caught,” he told the psychiatrist.
Now he was on the run again—only this time it wouldn’t be just one law-enforcement agency chasing him, but several.
Before dawn on November 12, 2008, the Eastsound Airport on Orcas Island was empty. Beatrice von Tobel and the rest of the airport’s employees would not arrive for a few hours. But the small runway, as always, was lit.
It’s unclear how well-laid-out Harris-Moore’s plan was, or if he’d chosen his targeted plane before or after he arrived. A notorious quirk in the design of the Cessna 182 allows for keyless start-up, making it an obvious target. And so the suspect walked up to the single-plane hangar, entered the airplane, and then quite literally took off.
Hours later, the plane’s owner, Bob Rivers, the morning-zoo DJ at Seattle’s KZOK, received a phone call from the Yakima County Sheriff’s Department saying that the plane had been found crashed some 300 miles east of its previous parking spot. The suspect had made a “hard landing” on the Yakama Indian reservation, damaging the plane, and police found vomit in the cockpit.
Rivers declined to comment for this article, but he addressed the theft for the first time on his radio show in early October. “I don’t buy this folk-hero stuff,” he later told The Seattle Times. “I was furious that something like this could happen. I really want him caught.”
Shortly after his reappearance on Camano in 2008, folks on the island began to wonder if Harris-Moore had decided to take the summer off. Reported burglaries went down. Many wondered if he’d moved on. That’s when authorities in San Juan County, northwest of Island County, began noticing an uptick in reported thefts. Harris-Moore was later officially named a suspect in more than 30 burglaries there, and another dozen in Whatcom and Kitsap Counties. (Seattle Weekly made repeated attempts to solicit comment from the Island County Sheriff’s Department and the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department. Neither responded.)
On September 11, 2009, a Cirrus model SR22 (average price, $500,000) was stolen from Friday Harbor and flown due east to Orcas Island where it landed—hard. Harris-Moore got away, eluding the San Juan County Sheriff’s deputy who had spotted him.
Harris-Moore had always wanted to fly. Police retrieved flight-training manuals from his stash following one of his near-captures, and suspect that he learned from them and from Internet programs designed to educate newbies in the basics of flight.
His aunt, however, doesn’t buy it. “What does he know about flying?” she asks, cantankerously denying that someone without any formal training could steal, much less pilot, a single-engine airplane.
Von Tobel, longtime pilot and manager of the Eastsound Airport, is only slightly less skeptical. You could fly a plane without having had any formal instruction, she says, “but I wouldn’t try it.”
As the news spread, Harris-Moore became less an elusive teenage criminal than a folk hero, as observers began lauding his willingness to defy authority and his brazenness. Or his popularity could be due to the cinematic qualities of his story—classic Internet fodder that can take on a life of its own.
A Facebook fan page dedicated to Harris-Moore boasts the rallying cry “Fly, Colton. Fly.” Cable news outlets took notice; Kohler appeared on FOX News with Shepard Smith, who predictably wagged his finger at her failures as a parent.
Since felonious lifestyles often make best-selling narratives, a book is also in the works. What’s more, film producers began to contact area media outlets, including SW, hoping to obtain Harris-Moore’s contact information, casting him as a backwoods Abagnale, his story writ large across the screen.
“If you were as famous as he is now,” says Puttmann, “would you turn yourself in?”
By continuing to elude the authorities, Harris-Moore is answering his aunt’s question without saying a word.