SEATTLE — Kyle Ater remembers the three-letter chalk message left on the floor of his Orcas Island grocery store after it was burglarized for the second time by the Barefoot Bandit. Next to cartoonish drawings of footprints was written, “C-YA!”
Nearly two years later, that prophesy is coming true. Ater said he’d be there in Island County Superior Court today when Colton Harris-Moore, now 20, is expected to plead guilty to dozens of felony charges stemming from a crime spree that took him — in stolen boats, cars and planes — all the way to the Bahamas.
Harris-Moore’s daring run from the law earned him international notoriety, not to mention a movie deal to help repay his victims, after he flew a stolen plane from Indiana to the Bahamas in July 2010, crash-landed it near a mangrove swamp and was arrested by Bahamian authorities in a hail of bullets.
“I want to see the phantom with my own eyes,” Ater said. “There were so many people affected by his crimes, and probably even some that don’t know they were affected. They’re still looking for their cellphone, or wondering why their propane bill was so high that month.”
Friday’s proceedings before Judge Vickie Churchill consolidate cases against Harris-Moore in three Washington counties. He has already pleaded guilty to federal charges in Seattle and will be sentenced for those crimes early next year. He will serve his state and federal sentences at the same time.
State prosecutors plan to ask for a nine-and-a-half year sentence Friday, while Harris-Moore’s attorneys, John Henry Browne and Emma Scanlan, are seeking a six-year term, citing his bleak childhood in a Camano Island trailer with an alcoholic mother and a series of her convict boyfriends. They laid out the details of his upbringing in psychiatric and mitigation reports filed with the court.
“Colt blames no one but himself,” wrote Pamela L. Rogers, a mitigation investigator who reviewed Harris-Moore’s case. “He made bad choices and takes full responsibility and expects to be held accountable for those bad choices. … He desperately hopes to one day have a career and a family and make contributions he can feel good about — and he’s willing to work hard for that.”
Harris-Moore’s first conviction came at age 12, in 2004, for possession of stolen property, and according to Rogers’ report, his first experience with burglary came when he broke into the homes of his classmates to steal food because his mother spent most of her Social Security income on beer and cigarettes — something she has denied.
Over the next three years he was convicted of theft, burglary, malicious mischief and assault, among other crimes. At one point he was arrested when a detective posed as a pizza-delivery driver.
In 2007, the boy was sentenced to three years in a juvenile lockup after pleading guilty to three burglary counts in Island County. But he fled the minimum-security facility in April 2008 and was soon back to his old tricks, breaking into unoccupied vacation homes, stealing food and sometimes staying there.
As red-faced investigators repeatedly failed to catch him, his antics escalated: He began stealing planes from small, rural airports and crash-landing them — at least five in all.
“What was characterized by the media as the swashbuckling adventures of a rakish teenager were in fact the actions of a depressed, possibly suicidal young man with waxing and waning post-traumatic stress disorder (following his first plane crash in November 2008),” wrote Dr. Richard S. Adler, a psychiatrist who evaluated him for the defense lawyers.
Waves of burglaries broke out on Orcas Island, where Ater runs his Homegrown Market and Deli, in late 2009 and in early 2010, after stolen planes were found at the airport there. The second time, Harris-Moore left Ater’s new security system in a utility sink, under a running faucet. He took cash and a tray of croissants, and Ater’s insurance company jacked up his rates.
Mike Parnell, a former owner of the Oakley sunglasses company who lives on Orcas, was repeatedly victimized. Harris-Moore hid out for long periods in the second level of his hangar at the airport, and when Parnell and his family would go on trips in their plane, Harris-Moore would take their car to their house and eat their food. At one point, Harris-Moore entered their home while Parnell was there with his wife and three children and grabbed his wife’s car keys off a counter.
“We were all fearing for our lives,” Parnell said Thursday. “The kids wouldn’t sleep in their own bedrooms. We purchased night vision goggles. I’m glad that day is finally approaching when we will finally know what the consequences are, and I hope it’s sufficient for the way our whole island suffered.”
Harris-Moore’s final spree came after he stole a pistol in eastern British Columbia and took a plane from a hangar in Idaho, where investigators found bare footprints on the floor and wall. That plane crashed near Granite Falls, Wash., after it ran out of fuel.
He made his way to Oregon in a 32-foot boat stolen in southwestern Washington — stopping first to leave $100 at an animal shelter in Raymond, Wash. From Oregon, authorities said, Harris-Moore traveled across the United States, frequently stealing cars from the parking lots of small airports. In Indiana, he stole another plane and made for the Bahamas, more than 1,000 miles away, where authorities finally caught him in a manhunt that spanned multiple islands.
Fox bought the movie rights in a deal that could be worth $1.3 million, and Dustin Lance Black, who won an Academy Award for writing the movie “Milk,” about the gay rights activist Harvey Milk, is working on the screenplay. He’s met with Harris-Moore several times at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, according to Lance Rosen, Harris-Moore’s entertainment lawyer.
Harris-Moore doesn’t get to keep any of the money under the terms of his federal plea deal.