The Ballad of Colton Harris-Moore
In the Northwest's San Juan Islands, best known for killer whales and Microsoft retirees, a teen fugitive has made a mockery of local authorities, allegedly stealing cars, taking planes for joyrides, and breaking into vacation homes. His ability to elude the police and survive in the woods has earned him folk-hero status. But some wonder if the 18-year-old will make it out of the hunt alive.
Around 10 A.M, everything went to shit. Sixty-mile-an-hour wind gusts grabbed the little Cessna 182, shook it, twisted it, threw it down toward the jagged peaks of the Cascade Range, then slammed it back up again.
Pilots of small planes obsess about the weather. Ill winds, icing, poor visibility all can bring a flight to a terminal, smoldering conclusion. However, when you're a 17-year-old kid with exactly zero hours of flight training other than what you've gleaned online and from DVDs, and you're sitting in the pilot seat of a stolen airplane trying to make a quick getaway from a whole lotta law that's on your tail for busting out of a prison home and going on your second cop-teasing crime spree, well, you've got other things on your mind besides the weather.
It's believed the kid had cased the small airport on Orcas Island, in the San Juans off the coast of Washington, for at least a week, hiding in the trees behind a flimsy deer fence to watch takeoffs and landings, waiting patiently until a late-model Cessna 182 Skylane fuel-injected dependability, easy to fly, rugged as hell touched down and rolled into the hangar farm. Sometime after sundown, he'd pried his way inside the hangar, where he had all night to check out the plane, read the GPS and autopilot manuals, and dig around to find the ignition key the owner had tucked away in a fishing-tackle box. At sunrise, he'd raised the hangar's wide metal door, attached the tow bar, leaned his six-foot-five, 200-pound frame against the one-ton plane, and slowly rolled it out.
Between YouTube and flight sims, any computer literate can find more than enough info to pilot a plane in theory. Microsoft Flight Simulator reproduces the dash of the 182 exactly, and once the thief climbed into the pilot's seat, his fingers found all the gauges and controls quickly, adjusting fuel mixture and rudder trim. The newer fuel-injected engines turn over easily, and with so many private planes on Orcas, none of the neighbors took special notice of the early-morning growls of the Skylane's 235-horsepower Lycoming. He revved up and taxied south toward the still-sleeping town of Eastsound, then spun the plane until its nose aimed straight down runway 34 which ends abruptly in the cold, slate-gray waters of Puget Sound. He went full-throttle and popped the toe brakes. Instantly the plane lurched forward. The virgin pilot kept his cool, applying enough pressure on the right rudder pedal to counteract the propeller torque and keep the Cessna on the skinny, half-mile strip long enough to hit 60 miles per hour, lift off, and mainline an epic hit of euphoria.
From what the pilot's mom, Pam Kohler, tells me, this was not only her son's first solo takeoff but the very first time he'd ever been in a plane. Here's a kid who'd been told over and over, by teachers, by the police, by so-called friends, and by nearly every adult he'd ever had contact with, that he would never do anything. Suddenly he's flying high, soloing in a bright white plane with whooshing red stripes.
He banked toward the sun, which was rising above snowcapped Mount Baker, and turned south, flying alongside Orcas's Mount Constitution, at 2,402 feet the highest point in the San Juan Islands. Within ten minutes, Camano Island, his home, came into view. There's a landing strip on Camano, but that wasn't an option his face already adorned Wanted posters all over that island. So he continued south-southeast, leaving Puget Sound for the mainland and managing to avoid the heavy commercial air traffic around Sea-Tac. South of Seattle, he banked east, putting the frosty white bulk of Mount Rainier in his right-side window, and headed across the Cascades.
The mountains create a lot of weather, and on a good day, this means lively turbulence. On November 12, 2008, it meant wind gusts exploding against the little Cessna like aerial depth charges, causing one massive buzzkill.
"The ride would've been extremely uncomfortable," says Eric Gourley, chief pilot for San Juan Airlines and a flight instructor with somewhere north of 13,000 hours in the air. Gourley spent time as an Alaskan bush pilot, so "uncomfortable" to him means the equivalent of spinning inside a commercial clothes dryer. He's a fellow resident of mine on Orcas Island and taught the owner of the stolen plane popular Seattle radio personality Bob Rivers how to fly. Now he just shakes his head, considering a kid with no training flying over the Cascades that morning, saying it's "almost unbelievable" he made it.
The police believe it, though. Once past the violent updrafts, the kid flew on until 11 A.M, when he attempted to land in a scrub field on the Yakama Indian Reservation about 300 miles from where he took off. The Cessna came in hot and hit hard, bouncing back into the air before impacting again and nosediving into a gulley, the propeller blades tearing up the earth. The pilot trashed the plane, but he walked or ran away, the minimum test of a successful landing. When police got to the scene, they found the cockpit splattered in puke. Other than bits of his breakfast, though, the pilot left no trace and disappeared into the woods.
Before he was suspected of stealing the plane, the kid had been just Colton Harris-Moore, high-school dropout, juvenile delinquent, and petty thief who sometimes left bare footprints at crime scenes. After he climbed out of the Cessna and disappeared in the wilds of Washington State home of Sasquatch, D.B. Cooper, Twin Peaks, and Twilight he became Colt, latest in a long line of gutsy outlaws to capture the world's imagination.
WHEN YOU LOOK at the facts, it's easy to understand why he's garnered so much attention: His name is Colt, carrying the gunslinging resonance of the Wild West. He's escaped a jail (albeit a baby jail) and evaded several sheriffs, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and even the FBI for 20 months. He's underdogging it alone in the Northwest wilderness, yet he's followed by bloggers and Facebookers worldwide, the modern equivalent of yesteryear's sensationalized dime-novel hero. During his many close calls, the cops claim Colt has "vaporized," "vanished," and "ran like lightning." When the posse does close in, he allegedly rustles luxury cars, boats, and even planes. And something no one's mentioned is that one of his hideouts on Orcas Island, Madrona Point, is an honest-to-God, can't-make-this-stuff-up ancient Indian burial ground. Hell yeah, this looks like the birth of an outlaw legend.
"Colton was first suspected of theft in 2001, when he was ten years old," says Detective Ed Wallace, of the Island County sheriff's department, which has been chasing Colt almost constantly ever since. Born March 22, 1991, the young outlaw tended toward the childish in his criminal tooth-cutting petty thefts and malicious mischief. Classmates remember him and a couple of cronies getting busted for breaking into their school, Stanwood Middle, located in mainland Snohomish County just across the bridge from Camano Island, where Colt lived with his mom in a single-wide. By December 2003 Colt had accumulated eight incident reports at school for theft and vandalism, among other infractions, resulting in multiple suspensions. According to Snohomish County court records, when confronted by the principal, Colt said he "could not stop stealing and didn't know why." In sixth grade, the kids at school began calling him Klepto Colt.
Christa Postma, one of his former classmates, says that while Colt was always getting into trouble, he was "a nice kid" and "seemed really smart, though he didn't know how to put that into his schoolwork." The two of them would hang outside the Stanwood Library after school, and that's where, she says, Colt met up with a future accomplice, a guy two years older, with the rebel-ready handle Harley Davidson Ironwing. "When Colt wasn't around Harley, he'd be totally chill," she says. "When Harley showed up, Colt would suddenly be all, I'm so big and bad." Ironwing, who's serving time in Washington Corrections Center, recently talked to an Everett Herald reporter for a story subtitled "Harley Davidson Ironwing says he trained Colton Harris-Moore how to survive by stealing."
By the age of 15, Colt had been to juvie more times than most kids his age had been to McDonald's. When not in detention, he often lived under a sentence of community service. In 2006, as soon as he finished one stretch at the Denny Youth Center, in Everett, police were already poised to arrest him for crimes they'd investigated while he was away. That July, one day before he was due in court, Colt disappeared into the hinterlands of Camano Island.
Roughly 70 percent of Camano remains wooded primarily thick stands of cedar and maple with a soft sea of waist-high ferns filling the understory. From the road, you can't see past the first line of trees, and even when you hike in, the exuberant growth means you'd literally have to stumble onto anyone who kept a low-profile camp. No matter how lush, though, living off the land is harder than it sounds and always dirtier, smellier, and hungrier. Going into the wild killed Christopher McCandless in Alaska. Eric Rudolph the anti-abortion Olympic Park bomber was finally nabbed when he slithered out of the Appalachian boonies to go dumpster diving for food. Tramping through Camano's many parks and preserves that butt against residents' backyards, Colt came up with an idea that remains his identifying M.O.: When your ecosystem is a vacation destination, the vacationers lie at the bottom of the food chain. Instead of camping full-time, he began breaking into Camano's 1,000-plus holiday homes many of them empty much of the time to shower, forage for food, and sleep.
Ever the opportunist, Colt found that, along with cans of tuna, people leave all kinds of property in their weekend homes. He helped himself to laptops, cash, jewelry, camcorders, cell phones, a telescope, a GPS unit, iPods, radio-controlled toys like boats and a helicopter, and a Trek mountain bike. There's not much evidence that he pawned the loot, just collected it. Sometimes the homeowners left behind credit cards. Another Colt innovation: Simply punch in those numbers online and you get custom burglary, with overnight delivery of such on-the-lam necessities as bear mace, aviation magazines, a police scanner, and "evidence eraser" software. This was a risky escalation, though, because Colt now had to return to the scene of the crime to collect his packages once they'd been delivered.
On February 9, 2007, seven months after he'd gone on the run, Island County cops finally corralled Colt when he screwed up and turned on a light in a supposedly vacant home. He surrendered after a short standoff and pled guilty to three of 23 counts of burglary and possession of stolen property. After a year in the max-security Green Hill School, Colt was transferred to the minimum-security Griffin Home, near Seattle, to serve out the rest of his three-year sentence. But around 9 P.M. on April 29, 2008, he decided he'd had enough of confinement and reportedly climbed out a window.
Today, Colt remains at large and getting larger, a suspect in more than 100 crimes, mostly felonies. It's been 20 months since he busted out and began playing Grand Theft Auto: The Reality Version, and he's wanted in five Washington counties Island, Snohomish, San Juan, Whatcom, and Kitsap as well as in Idaho. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police joined the chase when he bolted north of the border this past September, allegedly stealing cars and breaking into homes to scrounge for food. And because they believe he flew across state lines in October in another stolen Cessna, Colt's got the FBI on his tail.
This time, the authorities were chasing a suspect alleged to be the lanky teen near the crash-landing site of a $500,000 Cessna 182 turbo that had been heisted in Idaho, flown back across the Cascades, and somehow set down in one cracked, wracked, and jacked-up piece on a hillside clearing in Granite Falls, Washington. Police marshaled two counties' worth of SWAT in armored personnel carriers, canine units, a sheriff's helicopter, and a Department of Homeland Security Blackhawk. Their search of every outhouse, henhouse, doghouse, and meth house Granite Falls has a rep turned up nothing. Once again, the suspect melted into the Washington woods.
After this latest escape, the media set up all three rings, bringing in the Today show, CNN, CBS, Fox, CBC, and all the Seattle network affiliates and radio talkers to fetishize the fact that Colt had committed some crimes while barefoot, and to sling lazy shorthand references like Catch Me If You Can. The story had already gone viral online, and when it was picked up by print and TV worldwide, the Colton Harris-Moore Fan Club on Facebook was friended from as far away as Ireland, Italy, and Australia. A ballad about Colt showed up on YouTube, and T-shirt sales FLY, COLTON, FLY! and MOMMA TRIED soared.
The law, in particular the sheriff's office of Colt's own Island County, was not, to put it mildly, amused. When he was asked on CBC TV about Colt's Robin Hood hero status, Sheriff Mark Brown's round-and-ruddy face turned a new hue.
"He's certainly not my hero," he said, adding ominously, "I hope that you and I and everybody else, when he does make that fatal mistake, are not responsible for something other than an arrest being made without an incident."
LYING JUST 30 MILES north of Camano and offering some 3,000 ready-to-pluck vacation homes, the San Juan Islands and in particular Orcas, the largest and most heavily wooded of the archipelago became Colt's second-happiest hunting ground. Floating out here in Puget Sound, on America's far western frontier, Orcas collects more than its share of the anti-authority-minded. When about 100 of us gathered around a huge bonfire just before Halloween to drink beer and chow on barbecued venison (called "hillside salmon" when it's out of season), talk naturally turned to Colt. Everyone knew his victims or at least frequented their restaurants and shops. One guy had been hit twice, his store burgled and then his boat allegedly stolen and run aground during another getaway. Between slurred extremes of "I'm glad he's sticking it to the cops" and "Hope he sticks his head in my house, 'cause he'll die of lead poisoning," there was a universal appreciation of Colt's balls and brains.
With only some 4,000 full-timers on Orcas, we're all at most one degree away from each other. Residents include ex-CEOs of chemical companies and defense contractors, millionaire Microsofties who optioned out in their thirties, Hollywood glitterati, an Apollo astronaut, and even The Far Side's Gary Larson. And then there's the rest of us: retirees, a working middle class of small-business people, organic farmers, contractors, and cabinetmakers, and an eclectic mix of wood-carvers, potters, painters, musicians, and writers. Many struggle to cling to an island where the cost of living reflects its isolation. The cool Salish Sea, filled with killer whales, giant octopus, and Steller sea lions, acts as a moat, keeping the world at bay, but every single thing must be imported except fresh air, the spectacular outdoor lifestyle, and whatever you can find at the farmers' market. It's worth it, though: It's that wonderful. This is the kind of place where, B.C. before Colt ignition keys lived in the car's cupholder and very few of us locked our homes.
This past summer's crime wave appeared limited to Eastsound, Orcas's zero-traffic-light and one-cow town. (The cow's name is April and she lives at the top of Enchanted Forest Road.) Madrona Point, the Lummi Indian burial ground where Colt secretly camped, is a thickly wooded peninsula dangling below town, conveniently located just steps away from all the shopping. Eastsound was easy pickings for Colt, and since it lies half an island away from the rural cabin where my wife, Sandi, and I live, Colt was the furthest thing from my mind on this August 22, when I woke to a noise at 3 A.M
All manner of deer, raccoons, mink, otters, owls, and other critters rustle around here at night, but none had ever moved lumber. The sound of wood clacking also roused our dog, a Leonberger named Murphy, and he padded heavily into the bedroom, snuffed at the window screen, and raised his hackles. The first rain we'd had in more than a month plinked off the metal roof, and the thought of pulling on shoes and a rain shell, finding a flashlight, and stumbling around under the cabin which perches at the edge of a rocky cliff seemed way too exhausting, especially since this was probably just a deer bombed on fermented huckleberries. The following night, again around 3 A.M, I woke to the eerie sensation of someone staring at me in the pitch blackness of the bedroom. Murphy was on alert at the window again, hackles raised. I sat up and listened but couldn't hear anything except the rain.
The next day, I learned that during those two nights someone had broken into a B&B, a restaurant, a marina, and a dock store all within a mile or so of our place. When I realized that the dense woods surrounding our cabin connected directly to all of those spots, my hackles went up, too. That's also when Sandi started talking about putting up curtains while we turned the cabin upside down looking for our one house key.
Usually, life on our little island remains so blissfully devoid of what a city dweller would call "action" that our hormone-charged teens call it "Orcatraz." Before Colt, we read the sheriff's log for its Lake Wobegon like entertainment. My favorite entry from this past summer: On August 3, "an 83-year-old Eastsound woman reported...one pair of fur-lined moccasins...and three almost-new pair of beige women's underwear were stolen from an unlocked old fruit-packing barn."
The last time an Orcas crime was even considered newsworthy for the mainland papers was 22 months ago, when a numbnut who'd drifted ashore for a while decided to punish the "rich, white people" of the island for the death of Luna the killer whale (who'd swum into a tugboat's propeller 185 miles north of Orcas, up in Canada). He jumped a fence at a power station and, fully protected by Playtex kitchen gloves, tried to cut a high-voltage line with a pole saw. When a lineman got to the scene, the vigilante's pants were still smoking. No matter how delusional, though, at least that guy had a message, something Colt has yet to feel the need to offer.
"Jesse James and other outlaws weren't celebrated just because they were criminals," says professor Graham Seal, author of The Outlaw Legend: A Cultural Tradition in Britain, America and Australia. "They were seen to embody a spirit of defiance and protest, allowing the dispossessed to strike a vicarious blow against their oppressors." Seal says that Colt "sure sounds like an outlaw legend in the making," especially considering his elusiveness, style, and growing number of supporters. So who's living vicariously through Colt? So far, he's a blank screen, ready for projection. Rebelling against the government, the cops, your parents? Colt's got you covered.
The only hint of a motive I can dig up is a note Colt wrote to his mom after the Camano Island deputies found one of his campsites, filled with stolen merchandise. His dog, Melanie, was at the camp, and the police took her. "The cops wanna play, hu!?" Colt wrote. "It's war! Tell them that."
DAVIS SLOUGH RUNS wet at high tide, making Colt's home turf, Camano, officially an island, even though it's a drive-to. Over the past 20 years, most of the island's rustic fishing and crabbing camps have fallen to luxe waterfront homes, but the talk still tends toward what's biting and how Dungeness crab season is shaping up.
Heading toward the lower end of the island, where Colt grew up, I pass the dinky prefab that serves as a base for Camano's small group of sheriff's deputies and their black-and-gold patrol cars. Soon the homes spread out and it's mostly wooded acreage, private property as well as parks, with plenty of room to hide. I leave the pavement at Haven Place, marked by a long line of mailboxes and several FOR SALE signs.
After reading a couple hundred pages of Island County court documents concerning Colt's childhood, I got the impression that, at times, this place had been anything but a haven for him. Reports name a dozen Child Protective Services referrals dating from the time he was one. They also reference "numerous" reports that "Colton's mother has been heavily affected by alcohol abuse throughout his formative years" and state that his father was gone by the time Colt was four, though back for at least one family barbecue, which ended with Colt calling 911 and the father being chased through the woods and arrested on outstanding warrants. The court documents state that Colt's stepfather was a heroin addict. A third potential male role model was described by Colt's mom as "not playing with a full deck." A court psychologist's evaluation says that young Colt was diagnosed with ADHD, depression, and intermittent explosive disorder and placed on four medications. Quotes from Colt at age 12 include "I am tired of this stuff" and "I need help."
I turn down a dark driveway, slowly roll past several no-nonsense NO TRESPASSING signs, and park beside three other pickups in varying states of decay. Across a small clearing slumps a dingy white single-wide trailer with extra bits and pieces cobbled on, including a small wooden deck. I climb the loose cinder blocks, piled three high, that stand in for steps. Looking out from atop the rain-slicked deck, it's a beautiful, peaceful piece of property, completely screened by lush green drapes of cedar. The junk cars, the busted lawn furniture, the aluminum shed frozen in mid-collapse nothing is really so far out of the ordinary for the rural areas around here. It's just a little more so. At the far side of the clearing, amid the soaring cathedral of cedars 100 feet tall, stands some kind of statue. It's about four feet high, without much shape, but could be a Virgin Mary.
"That's an armadillo that used to stand outside a liquor store," says Pam Kohler, Colt's mom. "The chickens got to it, though, and pecked off some of the Styrofoam." The statue, she says, like the trailer, was on the property when she bought it 24 years ago. She leads me inside, where I'm greeted by 20 pounds of wagging tail named Melanie.
"Colt wanted a beagle, so we went to the shelter and they brought this one out," says Pam. "I think she's some kind of hunting dog. This summer she got one of the biggest snakes I've ever seen, and just last month she's barking at something in the yard, so I walk over and it's a SWAT guy hiding in the trees in his full G.I. Joe outfit."
The first time I talked to Pam on the phone, we were interrupted when six police officers showed up at her door. All the jurisdictions have been there and, lately, officers from an auto-theft task force who, she says, have told her they think Colt has stolen between 40 and 60 cars. "Those guys brought me a plate of chocolate-chip cookies," she says. "It's all weird."
I get the sense, though, that the weirdness started before Colt's current troubles. Pam, at 58, appears literally hunched over from the weight of a life that hasn't been what she expected. We sit down at a small table in the kitchen. She's not smoking, but the air is so saturated Pall Malls, by the butts in the ashtray that it claws my eyes. She talks of a marriage to an Air Force man (she was Pam Harris then), a life in Southern California, another in St. Louis, and then moving back to her home state, Washington, cashing in her retirement fund to buy these five acres on Camano, where, after five years of trying and 20 years after the birth of her first son, along came Colt. Pam says she had a federal job back then, in the accounting department of the National Park Service down in Seattle. "Commuting three hours a day when I had a newborn baby, that was awful." The Air Force husband was gone, and Colt's biological father was in and out of the trailer and their lives. Pam remarried when Colt was four, giving him a stepfather named Bill, a Vietnam vet whom, she says, he was very close to. "They did everything together," she says. Then one day, when Colt was ten and Bill had gone off to help move some relatives to Florida, the phone rang.
"Someone from Island County sheriff called and asked if I was Bill's wife. I said yes, and they just said, 'Well, he's dead.'" No funeral, no closure other than the jug of ashes in the closet and Bill, she says, never wanted to be cremated. Pam doesn't know how he died. "They wanted me to pay for a coroner's report, and that just don't jive with me not cool."
"After Bill died, I freaked," says Pam. "I cried all the time, and I drank a lot and went into a deep depression. I'm sure it affected Colt, too." Her job ended, and the only money coming in was from Social Security widow's benefits. She took some criminal-justice and psychology classes at Skagit Valley College. "I wanted to be a lawyer," she laughs, then sighs. "But then crap just started happening, trucks breaking down, nobody to help me." She stopped going, and money got tighter. "We starved," she says. Court documents from around that time report, "Colton wants mom to stop drinking and smoking, get a job, and have food in the house."
Melanie climbs onto the couch in the living room, where a nice TV stands next to the woodstove. A hallway so narrow that my arms brush both walls leads back to a bathroom and the bedrooms beyond, including Colt's, the one that a deputy's affidavit says sported a padlock hasp one time when they showed up looking for him, so Pam took a hatchet to it. In the kitchen, I sit below a piece of plywood screwed into the wall where there used to be a window. Three years ago, Pam says, a neighbor who accused Colt of stealing his car stereo terrorized them every night for a month by throwing potatoes, a can of corn, and circular-saw blades at them, breaking windows in both the trailer and her truck.
NEIGHBORLY RELATIONS DO seem complicated along this stretch of road. One of the times the local police came closest to catching Colt was when they spotted a black Mercedes owned by Carol Star who lives next door to Pam driving erratically. When they gave chase, the Mercedes turned into the parking lot of the nearby Elger Bay Café and out jumped Colt while the car was still moving. He disappeared into the woods as the car rolled between a propane tank and a wall with inches to spare, coming to rest against a dumpster just a couple of yards from a 20-foot cliff. Star says Colt had already robbed her house several times, and it was from a stolen camera found in her car that Island County Detective Ed Wallace recovered the now infamous picture that Colt had shot of himself and then deleted. It shows Colt relaxing amid the ferns, wearing a Mercedes polo and a Mona Lisa smile. It's the same picture that now graces WANTED posters throughout the state.
"That's a terrible photo of him," says Pam, though she likes another WANTED pic taken by a security camera at the Island Market, on Orcas. "We didn't take many photos when he was growing up," she says, handing me a dusty frame holding a 1997 group shot of a Stanwood/Camano Junior Athletic Association soccer team along with a portrait of Colt in his uniform. In the pictures, he's a cute towhead with a big, bright smile. When I spoke with the parents of another kid on that team, though, they said that Colt had come to only the first couple of practices and the photo session and that he never actually got to play. It's a shame, because from the accounts of a half-dozen deputies who've chased but never caught fleet-footed Colt in the woods of Camano and Orcas, he's a natural athlete.
"He was a fat, happy baby," Pam remembers. "I used to call him Tubby." She pauses for a moment, then recalls other nice memories from Colt's childhood: camping in the Cascades ("Maybe I shouldn't have taught him all that survival stuff"), summer days on the water, she and Colt dancing to Sinatra's "Summer Wind" out on the deck. Pam remembers once taking Colt to a local beach but having to leave him there alone because she had a headache. "When I went back to pick him up, he'd set up a whole Robinson Crusoe camp, propping his towels up on sticks for a shelter." Colt had also dived up 40 Dungeness crab in deep water without a mask or any other equipment. "He had them all lined up on the beach," she says. "I told him to pick the five biggest to take home for dinner, and he let the rest go."
Colt's problems with the police, Pam says, started on his eighth birthday, when she bought him an expensive bike. "He goes out to ride it, and next thing an Island County cop car pulls into the driveway with Colt inside. The deputy gets out and opens the trunk. He says, 'Is this Colt's bike?' I got pissed! Just because we live in this kinda dumpy old trailer they figure, 'How could Colt get a nice bike like that? Well, he musta stole it.' I know Colt was scared, and it had a big effect on him." Since then, Pam says, everything that happens on the island is blamed on Colt. "He hasn't been alive long enough to do all the crimes they say he's done." Of the burglaries he is responsible for, Pam doesn't think he's stealing because he wants things. "Anything he needed, I always found a way to get for him," she says. "He had a computer, a PlayStation, then the new PlayStation, a whole bunch of James Bond movies I got on eBay he loves those. He also had two flight-simulator games..."
Pam brings out an art project Colt did while in detention. It's a psychologist's wet dream of a collage, packed with luxury brand names and images of Rolexes, cruise ships, smartphones, gold bars, credit cards, and, most prominently, a private jet. One snipped quote reads: MAKE MONEY NOT MISTAKES.
Pam says she was never able to control Colt. "He always did just what he wanted," she says. "Like now with him running from the cops; he's doing it because he likes to see if he can. He thinks it's easy...and he's sure making them look like fools." Pam says Colt calls her from the road and they get along fine now, talking for hours about everything and laughing a lot. "When he was younger, though, we fought about everything...you name it." And after Bill died, she says, everything got worse. I ask her about the medications they put Colt on to manage his behavior. "A psychiatrist had him on something," she says, "then wanted to keep raising the dose and trying different things. One day, Colt came over to me in the yard and sat down and he would hardly ever sit down and he just hung his head. God, he was so depressed. So I said he's not going to be used as a guinea pig, and I took him off the drugs and stopped taking him to that doctor."
Colt grew up with the roar of low-flying jets as a daily event Camano Island lies curled just east of its big sister, Whidbey Island, home to a large naval air station and Pam says he always loved planes. She bought him sheets of balsa wood to make models, and he thumbed through his plane-identification book so much that it fell apart. "From the time he was a little kid," she says, "he could look up at any plane in the sky and tell you what make it was, what engine it had, when it was built, and whether it was a good, safe one."
Colt listed "pilot" as his occupation on his MySpace page, and Pam says she and his aunt promised him flying lessons if he graduated high school. She shrugs. "Evidently he didn't need flight school."
I page through a new book Jane's Aircraft Recognition Guide that Colt sent Pam last Christmas. ("He's smart enough not to send things direct; he first sends them east and has them forwarded to me.") She's very interested in which ones he flew. "I'm not saying it's right," she says, "but if he flew those planes, I'm very, very proud of him." She does hope, though, that Colt will take her advice and get himself a parachute before he steals another one.
THE RISK TO COLT GROWS greater each passing day, with each alleged new crime and each additional jurisdiction pulled into the hunt. He can't walk into a Quickie Mart anywhere within 500 miles without being recognized. But still they haven't caught him.
The FBI fields an entire cyber-crime task force using advanced CIPAV spyware to find all kinds of ether-based bad guys and obviously the Bureau has plenty of experience tapping phones and tracking cells. But the FBI remains close-lipped about the ongoing investigation.
At the county level, there's a lot of frustration mixed with embarrassment. The cops try to minimize it, but you can tell they're getting more pissed the longer this drags on. According to his spokesman, Island County Sheriff Mark Brown is "way over" talking about this case. These small departments are in a tough position, hammered by residents on one side for not pulling out all the stops to catch Colt, and on the other for wasting too much of their dwindling budgets chasing what is, at the end of the day, simply a property thief, not a rapist or murderer. The FBI is busy hunting terrorist sleeper cells, and the police in Washington State have had six of their own murdered in the past three months. In the overall law-enforcement scheme, Colt is as several cops have told me just "a giant pain in the ass."
When the Island County sheriff's deputies failed to quickly recapture Colt, some locals considered taking matters into their own hands. Joshua Flickner, whose family owns the Elger Bay Grocery, remembers Colt from the time he was a kid, and describes the "evil" in his eyes. Flickner says the crime that sent Colt into the woods for the first time happened at his store. "We had him on the security camera emptying our ATM using a stolen credit card four or five days in a row. That woman was his first identity-theft victim, and she was just in here. I've talked to dozens of his victims. You don't see the victims. All he's doing is hurting people financially, psychologically, he's hurting people, yet here we are putting him on a pedestal, glorifying him, idolizing him. He's got a Facebook site...I want to vomit, OK?"
Flickner went to Sheriff Brown about forming a posse to comb the Camano woods, but the offer was declined.
Up here in San Juan County, Sheriff Bill Cumming is also surprised Colt hasn't been caught. "Burglary, burglary, commercial burglary, burglary, commercial burglary, commercial burglary..." Cumming runs down a long, long list of felonies almost all of them on Orcas that he believes Colt may have committed. "We've processed all of these crime scenes, and some we're sure was him; others may go nowhere because the suspect wore gloves...others, maybe he'll tell us about them someday."
With a criminology degree from UC Berkeley, an easy laugh, and a visage that's part Gene Hackman and part Jimmy Buffett, the 61-year-old Cumming hits the right tone as sheriff of the laid-back San Juans; he's held the job for 24 years. He doesn't believe Colt committed every unsolved crime on his books, but he also doesn't think his department knows yet the extent of his activities.
For most of Colt's time on the lam, Cumming reminds me, the feds and others haven't been involved; it's just been too few underfunded deputies tasked with shaking a few million bushes. He offers a "no comment" when I ask him about a rumor I heard around the bonfire that one of his deputies had been sitting in an Orcas home when Colt came to pick up a package he'd ordered online. The story goes that by the time the cop got out of his chair, Colt had leapt off the porch without touching the stairs and vanished into the trees. Like the Island County sheriff's department, Cumming's guys have had Colt in their grasp there just weren't enough hands there at the time to hold on. On September 13, 2009, Orcas deputies got close enough during a foot pursuit to positively identify Colt, but he danced away. "We could hear him laughing," one deputy involved in the chase told me. Colt ran through a churchyard and into the woods, circling around to Brandt's Landing, where he stole a boat and rode off into the sunrise, escaping to Point Roberts, on the mainland.
What happens once they do catch him? "There are no easy answers," says Cumming. "We arrest people we're not social workers and from an enforcement point of view, the longer we can lock him away, at least we know he's not committing more crimes during that time. However, any thoughtful person who looks at long-term protection issues knows that this person will come back to the community and who do you want to come back?"
A local woman who spent years as a crisis worker counseling at-risk youth, and who asked to remain anonymous, says she believes "Colt didn't intend for all this to happen. It's gotten away from him now." She met Colt when he was about 14 and had been sentenced to serve a week of community service at the park where she works. She says Colt showed up without food or anything to drink but had to work full days outdoors. "I fed him, gave him water, and he was just so very grateful." Colt worked hard sawing and hauling wood, pulling weeds, and cutting brush, she says, and was very smart, showing a "ridiculous amount" of knowledge about the local plants.
Colt, she says, wasn't anything like the extreme cases she's seen. "He really struck me as a good-hearted kid who'd always been looked at with negative expectations and didn't have a lot of motivation to feel good about his life. Yet when given an opportunity, I mean he just worked his butt off. How is it possible," she wonders, "that all these groups of people and systems in place miss children like this, over and over again?"
Two weeks after Colt finished his community service, he rode his bike the ten miles back to the park. "He was kinda shy, handed me three small bags and just said, 'Here.' I'd told him we had a very small budget for new plants, and he'd gone out and hand-harvested seeds from local flowers that he thought would grow well in the park. I said, 'Oh my God, thank you so much!' And he's like 'Yeah, all right. Well, I guess I'll go, bye.' He started to walk away but then turned around and said, 'Thank you for being so nice to me.' I was literally teary-eyed."
Colt, unfortunately, has escalated beyond youth programs he turned 18 last March. "One of the problems of our justice system is that he'll be tried as an adult for any new crimes, so he'll end up in jail," says Eric Trupin, a child psychologist and director of the University of Washington's Division of Public Behavioral Health and Justice Policy. "That's unfortunate for this kid, but, again, he is a risk to the community. He's gonna hurt somebody if he keeps this up."
NOVEMBER IS THE SHITTIEST month on Puget Sound. Halloween leaves behind malevolent winds and drooling skies. The shockingly short days have to compete with the four months of sunny, 72-degree days and 9 P.M. summer sunsets that went before. Down on Camano, another wave of burglaries sweeps across the island like a cold front. One woman's home is hit twice within a week. She knows Colt's back because, she claims, over the years he's robbed her eight times, always for cash and food. She says this time he took some pizzas.
On my last trip down to Camano, a black-windowed SUV pulls up as I sit in front of the Elger Bay Café. The four deputies inside are loaded for bear, and I'm told they're a search team. When I stop by Pam's trailer, a friend of hers shows me his plans for booby-trapping the property with modified shotgun-shell "toe-poppers" in order to keep the cops and the media and the weirdness away. Pam's very interested in the price of bulletproof vests. "I'm going to get Colt one," she tells me. "I don't care if he wants it or not. I'm getting him one and he's going to wear it. Sometimes a mother has to put her foot down."
With multiple warrants for his arrest plus cash rewards offered by the Orcas and Camano chambers of commerce, Colt can't trust anyone, can't risk turning on a light in a house that's supposed to be empty, and hopefully won't risk breaking into an occupied home. The islanders are edgy. While this remains the safest and friendliest place I've ever lived, nearly everyone I know, from the most liberal tree hugger to the most conservative clear-cutter, is armed some disturbingly so and has been since long before Colt showed up.When homes started getting hit again on Camano, Pam's neighbors say, police helicopters were up searching at night. The colder it gets outside, the easier it is for the thermal-imaging gear to pinpoint a small campfire or a warm face poking out of a sleeping bag. The fact that the infrared hasn't spotted him means that Colt's back to house-hopping, he's slipped loose of the dragnet yet again, or just to help along the legend he's a vampire.
In another strange twist, Ed Wallace says that Island County is now seeing copycats. "Burglars are hitting homes, stealing cash, and then grabbing a pot pie before they leave. That way, everything gets blamed on Colt."
Speculation on how this will all end remains a popular local pastime, second only to coming up with ways to catch Colt using various combinations of tranquilizer darts and tiger traps. If he doesn't surrender peacefully or wind up forming the red bull's-eye in a burnt circle of ground where a stolen Cessna augers in, a lot of people think Colt will end up gunned down by the police. A shot fired during the Granite Falls chase and an assault rifle stolen from a deputy's car with Colt a suspect in both events could lead to quick draws. That's not what the cops are saying, though. In fact, they're not saying much about the case anymore. "I'm very cognizant of the fact I don't want to be part of the problem with this young man by giving him notoriety, creating myths behind him that endanger the community and do not bode well for him in the long run," says Bill Cumming, who along with Trupin believes that Colt narcissistically digs the infamy and that it may cause him to escalate to tragic levels.
Colt's Facebook fan club now has more than 15,000 members. A big Swedish contingent came aboard recently, along with a number of marriage and wanna-do-you proposals and plenty of helpful suggestions for the "Barefoot Burglar," such as "You should steal the space shuttle."
Pam calls me one Sunday morning to say that Colt phoned her the previous night. "He's safe and in good spirits," she says. "And he's nowhere near Camano Island. He's on the mainland, staying with friends at a house protected by all kinds of high-tech security and cameras." Colt, she says, does computer work for them and gets paid $600 a week. "I told him to send me some money," she laughs.
Pam says Colt told her before that he may lie low for a while, maybe a year, to let things die down before coming in from the cold and turning himself in. She doesn't think, however, that he'll get a fair trial. Pam believes the best place for him would be out of the country, someplace without an extradition treaty. She said Colt's goal was always to fly wealthy people around in jets until he got rich enough himself to buy a yacht and live on a tropical island. "That's still what his plans are," she says. "He wants to come get me, and we'll go live the good life."
Back home on Orcas, walking down the path toward my little cabin, I hear a noise in the woods. It's dusk and raining. Maybe it's just a bird rapping its bill against a tree, but something's a little off. Since all the break-ins, every simple sound seems to echo a little louder. I move into the trees and pick my way carefully down the steep slope to a spot under a big fir where bald eagles like to perch and eat. The skulls, spines, and fine bones of fish and seabirds litter the forest floor. There's no one around and no sign anyone has been. All I hear now is tree frogs, the only living things besides the resurgent moss that are happy about the ceaseless rain. I look up at the cabin. My wife has switched on the lights, and through the big window I can see her moving around the bedroom. As I stand here in the woods, in the dirty blue light and cold drizzle, the sight of the cabin's honeyed glow epitomizes the idea of warm and cozy, of safety, of home.
I climb back up the hill, duck under a wet cedar branch, and walk inside, where I'm greeted by my big dog and a toasty fire. I feel sorry for Colt. And then I lock my door.
This is not a paywall, but...
Outside Online aims to deliver readers the world, dispatching our writers and photographers to the ends of the earth to report the one-of-a-kind stories that have inspired and informed generations of readers. We hear from our audience every day about how much they love our long-form journalism. But it’s no longer sustainable for us to give it away for free. Making a financial contribution to Outside is not tax-deductible, but it will help pay for the writers, editors, fact-checkers, designers, and photographers that stories like these demand—and will ensure we can keep publishing them for years to come. Please support Outside Online today.Donate Now Continue Reading