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'Barefoot Bandit' grounded in prison for 7 1/2 years

Colton Harris-Moore went on a burglary and airplane-stealing spree from Washington state to the Bahamas, but a judge shows a little mercy.

December 16, 2011|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • Barefoot Bandit Colton Harris-Moore confers with his attorney in a Coupeville, Wash., courtroom. He was sentenced to 7 1/2 years for a burglary and airplane-stealing spree that ended in the Bahamas.
Barefoot Bandit Colton Harris-Moore confers with his attorney in a Coupeville,… (Ted. S. Warren, Associated…)

Reporting from Seattle — The notorious "Barefoot Bandit" was sentenced to 7½ years in prison Friday for an improbable odyssey of burglaries, thefts and stolen-aircraft joy rides across eight states that turned him into a cult hero around the world — and in the remote wooded islands where he grew up, an object of fear.

Judge Vickie Churchill declined to impose the full 10 years sought by prosecutors for Colton Harris-Moore, 20, citing the young defendant's offer to make restitution to his victims, his expressions of remorse and a dramatic history laid out in court of a childhood full of abuse, neglect, poverty and alcoholic parents that led him to begin stealing food and shoes from neighbors at age 13.

"It's a tragedy that he had to steal food because he had nothing to eat as a young boy. That he had to bear the taunts and jeers of classmates who ridiculed him because he lived in a derelict mobile home. That he had an alcoholic as a mother.… This is a case also about the triumph of the human spirit," the judge said.

Harris-Moore, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit with his wrists shackled, said almost nothing during the daylong hearing, casting his eyes down at the floor even when he was whispering to his lawyers.

The hearing set up a stark juxtaposition between two opposing views of a young man who drew thousands of followers on Facebook before his arrest last year in the Bahamas, where he arrived on a stolen plane from Indiana.

Prosecutors portrayed Harris-Moore as an ingenious thief who taught himself to fly stolen planes, turned pursuing police into Keystone Kops, left neighbors terrified after repeated burglaries and used people's stolen credit cards to order merchandise for them, then broke into their houses to steal it when it arrived.

But the defense — in a series of written statements from family members, neighbors and a consulting psychiatrist — painted Harris-Moore as a young man crippled with learning disabilities and other "lifelong neurocognitive impairments" as a result of his mother's heavy drinking while pregnant. Harris-Moore began stealing necessities from neighbors when the family's welfare checks were spent on alcohol and cigarettes, he said in court documents.

The food always ran out by the second week of the month. The third week, Harris-Moore's statement said, would be the beginning of what his mother would call "the starvation days," and she would pawn things — in one case the only video game console he ever had — to help ride out the rest of the month.

"My childhood was one that I would not wish on my darkest enemies," he said in a letter to the judge.

The defense report told of a family trailer strewn with garbage and mold in which Harris-Moore had to share a bed with his usually drunk mother. Witnesses told of Harris-Moore phoning them so they could hear the sounds of his mother shouting and firing a shotgun in the background.

She shared the trailer at one point with two men, both of whom occasionally beat Harris-Moore, yet the boy, described by neighbors and other relatives as sweet and shy, considered all of them part of his family.

The report included a childhood drawing that Harris-Moore did of a large heart addressed to his mother and both of the men in her life, whom he regarded as father figures. "I love Bill — I love Mom — I love Gordy," he wrote.

"Colton's first memory … is when his mother told him we'd all be better off if he'd been born dead. That's his first memory," said his lawyer, John Henry Browne.

Flying was Harris-Moore's lifelong passion; the defense presented intricate drawings of planes and helicopters he scrawled as a child. In his letter, he wrote of spending more and more time alone in the woods and at nearby airports, studying aircraft manuals, listening to aircraft VHF frequencies and watching planes take off and land.

The day in 2008 when he stole and flew his first plane was "the single most defining event and terrifying day" of his life, he wrote.

"My first thought after takeoff was, 'Oh my God, I'm flying.' I had waited my entire life for that moment. However, my second thought immediately after was that I probably was going to die."

Harris-Moore managed to crash-land and walk away from the stolen plane — an event that prosecutors said led to a total loss of the expensive aircraft, owned by a well-known radio personality.

Harris-Moore has signed a movie deal with Fox that could be worth $1.3 million, with all the money destined to repay victims.

In arguing that Harris-Moore should spend at least 10 years behind bars, government attorneys said the youth, far from being mentally handicapped, proved ingenious at stealing planes, boats, SUVs and other expensive items in a spree that left residents of secluded Camano Island, where he grew up, and nearby Orcas Island afraid for the first time to be alone in their homes at night.

"The defendant wreaked havoc on people … throughout the Northwest [and] across the country," prosecutors said in their sentencing memorandum. "He brazenly burglarized and stole from people, indifferent to the harm he caused."

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