Bandit on the run

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barefoot Well known photo of Colton Harris-Moore being brought to justice, sans shoes. In June 2001, an international manhunt came to an end when teen outlaw Colton Harris-Moore was captured in the Bahamas.

The baby-faced felon, known as the Barefoot Bandit for leaving his shoeless footprints at crime scenes, was taken into custody following a boat chase and gunfire by Bahamian police. When Harris-Moore was paraded before the press for the traditional “perp walk,” the 19-year-old was shackled and of course, shoeless.

A native of Washington state, he started out stealing food from neighbors’ homes and swiftly graduated to cars, trucks, yachts and small planes. He was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison for his crimes and ordered to pay some $1.3 million in restitution.

 

The astonishing story has a Jersey Shore connection. Philadelphian Bob Friel, author of a bestselling book about Moore that is now bound for the big screen, spent his summers in South Jersey – from Ocean City to Wildwood to Cape May, and also Sea Isle City, where his family has a home.

In a phone interview, Friel talked about his book “The Barefoot Bandit: The True Tale of Colton Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw,” as well as his longstanding connection to the Jersey Shore.

“Like many Philadelphia families, we went there every summer – my love of the islands came from Ocean City,” said Friel. “Then came those Wildwood days, with the song and everything else.”

A travel writer who has lived in ports of call around the world, Friel now resides on Orcas Island, part of the San Juan Islands off Washington state, where Colton Harris-Moore began his life of crime at the tender age of 12. 

“Talk about providence,” said Friel. “Over a 30-year career I worked mainly in magazines and underwater photography, and I wanted to get into bigger books. So I move to an island – 60 square miles with 4,000 people, very quiet, very rural, in a tiny cabin perched on cliff overlooking other islands – and suddenly there’s this extremely interesting story going on. As a writer, it was just through luck that he came to this island I was sitting on.”
As the world knows by now, Colton Harris-Moore came from undeniably unfortunate circumstances. His drug-addicted father was in prison when he was young and abused the boy after his release. Harris-Moore later lived with his alcoholic mother, Pamela Kohler, in a squalid trailer in the woods. Kohler reportedly made a practice of spending her public assistance check on booze and cigarettes, leaving little for food. According to psychological evaluations dating to Colton’s childhood, the boy repeatedly asked for help for himself and his mother.

“He was saying, ‘I’m tired of this,’” said Friel. “‘I want my mom to stop drinking and get a job and get food in the house.’” Despite the “plaintive cry,” said Friel, “they put him on medication.”

Eventually, Harris-Moore started to fend for himself, living in the woods and developing survival skills. Then the petty thefts and break-ins started.

Friel began to track the story, partly out of a writer’s curiosity, partly out of self-preservation.

“Here on this island people never locked their doors at night. They left their keys in the car,” he said.

But with the spate of burglaries, “Suddenly there was a constant level of tension. For a full year rumors go around this tiny little community, and everything gets bigger with the telling – it could be a guy in a hockey mask with a chain saw.”

Like his neighbors, Friel was unnerved.

“Suddenly,” he said, “there’s something out in the woods that wants to come into your house.”

When Harris-Moore stole his first airplane, he drew the attention of the FBI and Homeland Security. The teenager apparently had had no formal pilot training, and learned to fly largely through online flight simulators. And while he certainly got the planes in the air, he had a hard time putting them down; he crash-landed five small aircraft including the last, which had taken him from Indiana to the Bahamas.

In the course of his two-year crime wave, Harris-Moore became a media sensation, making the pages of Time magazine and the New York Times among countless other publications. He was the subject of a TV documentary.

For some, the young man was an outlaw in the mold of Robin Hood, Butch Cassidy or Frank Abagnale Jr., the bright but troubled hustler portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Steven Speilberg’s hit film “Catch Me If You Can.” Harris-Moore even had Internet fan pages.

“Outlaws are part of the American psyche,” Friel said. “It became this mythology of this brilliant but abused kid who went to rich people’s homes to steal food, but that wasn’t quite true. He stole from middle-class struggling people and mom-and-pop businesses.”

Even so, Friel added, “When you learn about his upbringing, you can’t help but feel sympathy for him.”

He describes Pamela Kohler as “a Ma Barker type” who was proud of her son’s exploits.

Harris-Moore, he noted, is “not an Einsteinian genius as he’s claimed or as his mom likes to state,” and may even have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.

“He has street smarts – or ‘woods smarts’ – and he is smart enough and calculating enough that the FBI threw all they could at him and couldn’t catch him,” Friel said. “That’s one part of his character that makes him easy to root for as compared to a dangerous outlaw.”

At one point in his travels, which took him to nine states, the young fugitive even stopped to leave a $100 donation for an animal shelter, signing it “The Barefoot Bandit.”

Colton Harris-Moore will be a free man by 2017. Does Friel think he has a productive life ahead of him?

“It will be up to him totally,” said Friel. “Again, he is a real amazing story of resilience, and he made it through without turning to drugs, gangs or violence. There was an opportunity to commit violence and he didn’t. I’ve got hopes for him.”

Friel said that under a plea agreement, any proceeds from the film -- from which Harris-Moore cannot personally profit -- are to go toward restitution for his crime victims.

“If the movie comes together it could pay the vast majority of his restitution,” Friel said. “When he walks out of prison at 25, he doesn’t have a $1.3 million debt hanging over his head.”

The rest is up to him. At his sentencing hearing, Harris-Moore apologized for his crimes and told the judge, “I would say to younger people they should focus on their education, which is what I am doing. I want to start a company. I want to make a difference in this world, legally.”


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