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Teen fugitive captures imagination of many

Colton Harris-Moore, 18, escaped from a holding facility last year. Police say he's since stolen two boats, crashed three planes and burglarized homes and stores. Some call him a teen Jesse James.

November 08, 2009|Kim Murphy

CAMANO ISLAND, WASH. — Colton Harris-Moore has been a one-boy crime wave since he was 7 years old.

He has broken into houses, stolen cars and burglarized markets, hardware stores and cafes for years on this rural, woodsy island north of Seattle.

Since early 2008, when he escaped from a juvenile holding facility, Harris-Moore, now 18, has been leading police on a fruitless chase through Washington, Canada and Idaho -- stealing two boats and crash-landing three planes (he taught himself to fly on his computer, authorities suspect) along the way, police say.

Now it looks like he may be back.

Police are investigating a wave of burglaries over the last few weeks on Camano Island and nearby Whidbey Island. There are no official suspects, but many here are convinced that the youth whose Facebook fan club numbers more than 7,000, often described as a teenage Jesse James, is responsible.

On Camano Island, where residents say sheriff's deputies have been combing the woods on foot and sending search helicopters up at night, Harris-Moore more often is considered, simply, a thug.

"If someone says he's not intelligent, I would say that person is a fool," Josh Flickner said. It was Flickner's market that Harris-Moore, with police in hot pursuit, famously plowed into with a stolen Mercedes before running off while the car was still moving.

"But the people who have called him Robin Hood or James Bond on his Facebook fan club, it makes me want to vomit," Flickner said. "It just makes me sad that there's so many people in our society who would give glory to someone whose only intention is to thrive on the hurt of others."

Harris-Moore's baby face -- which belies his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame -- is familiar to most people in Washington state. Mug shots, surveillance camera photos and Harris-Moore's self-portrait photo have been plastered for months in newspapers and on market bulletin boards and television news programs.

The fugitive's mother raised him in a run-down, single-wide trailer in the woods on the south end of the island. Posted along the driveway these days are multiple "No Trespassing" signs.

By the time Harris-Moore turned 12, he had a conviction for possession of stolen property. Over the next few years he racked up convictions for theft, burglary, malicious mischief and fourth-degree assault.

Neighbors said most often he stole not valuables but necessities: tools, blankets, food.

"He's broken in here a couple of times. He steals vitamin water, beef jerky, hot dogs. He doesn't like junk food," said Patty Arnett, a clerk at the Tyee Grocery on south Camano.

At one point he broke into the South Camano fire station and stole a thermal imaging camera, officials said, giving him night-vision capability in the woods.

Neighbors said Harris-Moore may have begun stealing as a child because his mother was unemployed and sometimes threw him out of the house.

"He had a horrible childhood," said Carol Star, Harris-Moore's next-door neighbor. "I could hear every kind of bad language out of her mouth, screaming and yelling at him. One time I yelled over there, 'I'm tired of hearing that! Knock it off!' And she screamed back, 'F--- you!' "

Robin Lowell, whose daughter was Harris-Moore's childhood friend, said theft became "a survival mechanism" for the boy.

"When you're told every day of your life that you are worthless and you are no good and get . . . out of my house, that's what you do. You get out," Lowell said. "And in order to eat, to have a place to sleep, you do what you need to do."

Harris-Moore became adept at setting up camps in the dense woods that cover the majority of Camano Island.

Island County sheriff's deputies, having found a load of pizza boxes at one of his camps, once caught him by posing as pizza deliverers. Another time, officers arrested him when they found a light on in an abandoned house.

But in April 2008, Harris-Moore escaped from a minimum-security juvenile home in Renton, Wash. Since then, he has been suspected in a rash of burglaries across northern Washington and into Canada.

His crimes may have reached a new level that November when authorities say a Cessna 182 belonging to a Seattle radio talk show personality was stolen from a hangar on Orcas Island and flown to a "hard landing" on the Yakama Indian Reservation.

Then on Sept. 11 this year, a Cirrus SR22 was stolen and flown to another of the San Juan Islands. The thefts accompanied a series of burglaries across Orcas Island.

San Juan County Sheriff Bill Cumming said Harris-Moore, who has long had an interest in aviation, is a suspect in both thefts; although he is not known to have any formal flight training, he did once buy a flight manual using a stolen credit card.

Officials believe he left the San Juan Islands in September on a stolen boat, which was found at Point Roberts, at the Canadian border.

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