Teen ‘Barefoot Bandit’ gains folk hero status

TEENAGER Colton Harris-Moore, is achieving folk hero status as the “Barefoot Bandit” in the US and Canada after a string of burglaries and daredevil escapes from the law.

Romanticised by some as a latter-day “Billy the Kid” figure but regarded by others as a common thief, the 18-year-old has a criminal record stretching back to when he was just 12 and a penchant for kicking off his shoes before fleeing.

Fans say the Washington teen is without doubt one of the greatest and most notable outlaws to come from an otherwise boring area. Some of his achievements include the Kamikaze theft and crash landing of three airplanes (with no flight training) as well as commandeering a couple boats.

Caught in 2007 and sentenced to detention in a halfway house near Seattle, the teenager from Camano Island, north of Seattle, escaped the following year and his legend began to grow.

Shortly after breaking out, he was pursued driving a stolen Mercedes-Benz near his mother’s home when he jumped from the moving vehicle and ran into the woods, leaving police with a wrecked car filled with loot.

Among stolen possessions recovered was a digital camera the fugitive used to take a self-portrait. The photograph, complete with self-assured smirk, has become the public face of a teenage robber who has become something of an internet idol.

Burglaries continued on Camano Island and while Harris-Moore remained out of sight, police and neighbours were sure it was him behind the thefts. Within months he was suspected of more than 50 burglaries across three counties.

For the next year, Harris-Moore, whose six-foot five-inch build means he stands out in a crowd, was a ghost as far as the police were concerned.

Then, in September of this year, on the remote San Juan Islands that straddle the watery border between Washington State and Canada’s Vancouver Island, he was spotted on a surveillance tape during an attempted robbery.

While stealing $2,500 (€1,740) from the ATM machine of another business the same night, he cut himself, leaving traces of blood that were matched to his DNA.

The “Barefoot Bandit” legend took on a new dimension in October when a private plane crashed near the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle. It had been stolen in Idaho, near where a rash of burglaries had occurred.

Searchers never found the pilot, but police suspect it was their man.

More crimes were attributed to the teen, including another plane theft, this time in late 2008.

Harris-Moore’s mother, Pam Koehler, does not doubt her son could be a pilot if he wanted to be.

“He’s smart. He took an IQ test a few years ago and he’s three points below Einstein,” she said. “I hope to hell he stole those airplanes – I would be so proud.”

Since October, nothing has been heard of him but a Hollywood producer wants to make a movie of Harris-Moore’s life and compared him to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the film Catch Me If You Can.

Harris-Moore has a fan club on social networking site Facebook and a Seattle man has even started selling T-shirts bearing his picture alongside the words “Momma Tried”.

But the man named Time Magazine’s “most wanted teenage thief” for 2009 is not so popular with the authorities.

Island County sheriff Mark Brown, whose office has had to deal with the criminal pursuits of Harris-Moore since he was 11, growled: “He is an adult felon. I will not have him made into some kind of folk hero.”

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