NASSAU, Bahamas – For two years he stayed a step ahead of the law, stealing cars, powerboats and even airplanes, police say, while building a reputation as a 21st-century folk hero. On Sunday, Colton Harris-Moore’s celebrity became his downfall.
Witnesses on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera recognized the 19-year-old dubbed the “Barefoot Bandit” and called police, who captured him after a high-speed boat chase, Bahamas Police Commissioner Ellison Greenslade said at a celebratory news conference in Nassau, the capital.
Greenslade said shots were fired during the water chase, but he did not say who fired them. He also said Harris-Moore was carrying a handgun that he tried to throw away.
Another senior police official, however, said police fired to disable the motor on the suspect’s stolen boat, and that Harris-Moore threw his gun in the water. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case, also said that police recovered a laptop and a GPS locator from the suspect.
Police flew Harris-Moore in shackles to Nassau. True to his nickname, the teen was shoeless as he walked off the plane wearing short camouflage cargo pants, a white shirt and a bulletproof vest.
Harris-Moore is blamed for several thefts in the Bahamas in the week since allegedly crash-landing a stolen plane there, and Bahamian authorities said he will be prosecuted for those crimes before the start of any U.S. extradition proceedings.
The 6-foot-5-inch Harris-Moore had been on the run since escaping from a Washington state halfway house in 2008. He is accused of breaking into dozens of homes and committing burglaries across Washington, as well as in British Columbia and Idaho.
He is also suspected of stealing at least five planes – including the aircraft he allegedly lifted in Indiana and flew more than 1,000 miles to the Bahamas, despite a lack of formal flight training.
Although implicated in dozens of crimes, Harris-Moore has been formally charged with just one: the 2009 theft of a turbo Cessna from a Bonners Ferry airport. The stolen plane was found crashed in Western Washington, where authorities say it ran out of fuel.
Some of his alleged actions appeared intended to taunt police: In February, someone who broke into a grocery store in Washington’s San Juan Islands drew cartoonish, chalk-outline feet all over the floor.
Island police had been searching for the teen since he allegedly crash-landed the plane on Abaco, where he was blamed for at least seven burglaries. The search expanded to Eleuthera after police there recovered a 44-foot powerboat reported stolen from Abaco.
Police said several people reported seeing the teenager Wednesday night in the waters between Eleuthera and Harbour Island, a nearby tourist destination known for its art galleries, but did not know about the Barefoot Bandit until after discovering a series of break-ins the next day. Harris-Moore’s mistake was to return to the same area.
James Major, who rents cars on Eleuthera opposite Harbour Island, said a witness on his side of the channel reported a sighting of Harris-Moore to police early Sunday. He said locals had been on the lookout since the fugitive was blamed for trying to steal four boats and breaking into two buildings at the ferry landing.
“He might have been dangerous to the public,” Major said. “Everybody is glad he was caught.”
Greenslade said the high-speed chase began around 2 a.m. Sunday after police received tips that the suspect was on Harbour Island.
The chase ended in the waters off the Romora Bay Resort & Marina on Harbour Island, where security director Kenneth Strachan reported seeing a young man running through the bush barefoot with a handgun, according to Anne Ward, who manages the property.
“When Kenny spotted him, he had a knapsack over his shoulder and a gun and he was yelling, ‘They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me.’ He was running up the dock,” Ward said.
Ward said the fugitive ran back to the water and stole another boat but ran aground in the shallows, where police shot out his engine.
“At one point, the boy threw his computer in the water and put a gun to his head. He was going to kill himself. Police talked him out of it,” Ward said.
Police declined to comment on whether Ward’s account was accurate.
Harris-Moore is a skilled outdoorsman who honed his abilities growing up in the woods of Camano Island in Puget Sound about 30 miles north of Seattle.
Harris-Moore’s mother, Pam Kohler, has said he had a troubled childhood. His first conviction, for possession of stolen property, came at age 12. Within a few months of turning 13, he had three more.
Kohler has defended her son, saying the allegations against him are exaggerated. She previously told the AP that she hoped he would flee to a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States.
Reached early Sunday at her Camano home, Kohler said she’d heard the news about the arrest but had no comment.
Victims of the crimes Harris-Moore is accused of were happy to see him in custody.
“These people that support him, they’ve never been violated by having him break into their homes or businesses,” said Joni Fowler, manager of a cafe on Orcas Island north of Seattle where Harris-Moore is accused of taking as much as $1,500. “Just knowing he has a huge network of supporters makes me really worry about the state of this country.”
Fowler said she hopes Harris-Moore’s arrest and upcoming court appearances will pop his mystique and fame – “once everybody figures out he’s no God.”
Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle, said that once Harris-Moore faces charges in the Bahamas, her office would seek to extradite him to Washington and coordinate with local jurisdictions about how his case would proceed.
Shauna Snyder, a private investigator on Whidbey Island near Camano, said she set up a legal defense fund for Harris-Moore at the request of his mother. She said that although she didn’t know how much had been raised so far, the fund has been getting donations.