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Barefoot Bandit: Folk hero or crook?

By Ashley Fantz and Gabriel Falcon, CNN
  • Washington state teenager Colton Harris-Moore reportedly began stealing at age 12
  • He became famous for allegedly stealing cars, boats and planes -- while barefoot
  • The teenager was on the run from the law for two years
  • He was captured Sunday morning after a high speed boat chase in the Bahamas

(CNN) -- The Barefoot Bandit has more than 80,000 Facebook fans who see him as a folk hero, a modern-day Jesse James. But police say Colton Harris-Moore is a criminal, pure and simple.

The beginning and end of 19-year-old Harris-Moore's two-year run as a wanted fugitive is the stuff of Hollywood. Indeed, one studio has optioned his story. But police and some of his victims don't think he should be glamorized as he makes his first court appearance Tuesday.

"They can never imprison a mind like yours Colton," wrote one admirer on Harris-Moore's Facebook fan page Monday, a day after he was captured during a high-speed boat chase in the Bahamas.

"I can understand on one level people being interested in his activities, but I think most thoughtful people, when they stop and think about it, realize he's a common criminal," said Bill Cummings, a sheriff who has been tracking Harris-Moore for years. "Those who see him as a folk hero aren't looking any deeper than the surface."

The strapping 6-foot, 5-inch high school dropout was raised by a single mother in a trailer on Camano Island off the rugged coast of Washington state.

Local media accounts, including a detailed profile in Monday's edition of The Herald in Everett, Washington, cite court records that tell the story of a turbulent childhood.

They can never imprison a mind like yours.
--Facebook fan

When Harris-Moore was a boy, his classmates called him "Klepto Colt," wrote journalist Bob Friel, who lives on nearby Orcas Island. Friel's lengthy profile was published in Outside magazine in January.

Friel wrote that he pored through hundreds of pages of court records, learning that young Colton had been referred to Child Protective Services a dozen times.

It's not clear how Friel gained access to these juvenile court records, which are usually sealed. Friel is writing a book on Harris-Moore's life.

As a thief, Harris-Moore started out small -- shoplifting and breaking into homes, police say.

He earned his nickname by living in the woods and leaving bare footprints at some of his alleged crime scenes. One detective called him "a feral child."

Helen Simmons, a store owner on Camano Island, told CNN affiliate KOMO what Harris-Moore allegedly stole from her: "Beef jerky, potato chips, food," she said. "Never beer, never wine, just food."

He might have remained an obscure juvenile criminal, but he gained national fame after he took to the skies, allegedly stealing and crash-landing airplanes despite never having any formal flight training.

Video: Who is the 'Barefoot Bandit' suspect?
Video: Mother of 'Barefoot Bandit' speaks
Video: Caught in the Bahamas

"Fly, Colt, fly!" an admirer wrote months ago on his Facebook page. The phrase has been reprinted on T-shirts and decals. Songwriters have rhapsodized about him. Time magazine published a story headlined, "America's Most Wanted Teenage Bandit." People magazine has profiled him, making him a bona fide celebrity.

A movie about his high-flying escapades, tentatively titled "Taking Flight: The Search for a Young Outlaw," is in the works. His mother issued a brief statement Monday saying she's glad her son is safe and that no one was hurt during his capture.

"I have not yet been able to speak to him," Pamela Kohler added. "It has been over two-and-a-half years since I have seen him, and I miss him terribly. I hope that it will be possible for me to see him sometime soon. However, I don't yet know when that might happen."

CNN affiliate KIRO interviews Pamela Kohler

Kohler hired a Seattle attorney for her son, but since he is an adult, the final decision rests with Harris-Moore. The attorney, John Henry Browne, told CNN affiliate KOMO that he hopes all the pending charges can be consolidated into a single federal case in Seattle.

Harris-Moore has dodged arrest warrants since 2008, and until early Sunday morning, eluded even the FBI, which had posted a reward for his capture.

Until recently, the teenager stuck close to home, reportedly hiding out in the Northwestern wilderness, including an ancient Indian burial ground accessible only by water or air, Outside magazine reported. He is also suspected of crimes in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, South Dakota and Indiana and other states.

In his Outside magazine profile, Friel tried to figure out why Harris-Moore seemed to delight in thumbing his nose at the police.

"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," Friel wrote. "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.' "

Harris-Moore's Facebook fan page includes his now-infamous self-portrait. It was found by police in a stolen camera left behind in a stolen Mercedes. He is lying on the dirt, gazing into the camera with his lips slightly upturned in a smirk.

In the end, his notoriety brought about the Barefoot Bandit's downfall. Authorities suspect he stole a plane in Indiana over the July 4 weekend, which was found in the Bahamas.

A week later, a security guard at a Harbour Island resort in the islands recognized Harris-Moore as he arrived on a 15-foot skiff.

Those who see him as a folk hero aren't looking any deeper than the surface.
--Sheriff Bill Cummings

It was 2 a.m. Sunday, and the wanted teen was running up a dock at the resort. He carried a gun and a knapsack slung over his shoulder, said resort manager Anne Ward. The guard called Ward for help. By the time she arrived, Harris-Moore had jumped on another boat, trying to escape.

But the teen misjudged the depth of the water and the boat ran aground. By this time, a crowd had gathered to watch the drama.

Harris-Moore tossed his computer into the water and put a gun to his head.

"He was going to kill himself," said Ward. "Police talked him out of it."

Harris-Moore began acting out at age 10 and, according to The Everett Herald, started stealing early. By 12, he was accused of breaking into a local business, setting fire to a school and destroying property at a Thriftway grocery store, the newspaper reported.

He pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property and in 2006, he was ordered to be in court at a juvenile justice center, a date he skipped. He soon started breaking into homes on Camano Island, and the Sheriff's Department issued a warrant for him, the newspaper reported.

It's not clear how the newspaper got access to Harris-Moore's juvenile records. Harris-Moore pleaded guilty to three counts of burglary and was sentenced to more than three years in the custody of the state juvenile detention facility. He escaped from there in 2008 and has been on the run until now.

The teenager's fans have embraced Harris-Moore's exploits, drawing comparisons to Frank Abagnale Jr., the con artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in "Catch Me If You Can."

"He's become the poster child for the disaffected American who doesn't care and is proving it by thumbing his nose," said Dr. Casey Jordan, a noted criminologist and professor at Western Connecticut State University.

"The potential was there for him to evolve into violent crimes, but it didn't happen," Jordan said. "I see a lot of his attention seeking behavior as a cry for help."

But Harris-Moore's alleged victims are not so charmed.

Josh Flickner, who works at a grocery store in Washington state, is outraged that some people are comparing Harris-Moore with a modern-day Robin Hood.

"I know schoolteachers and other average, middle-class people that he's stolen from," said Flickner. He also said Harris-Moore used a stolen credit card at the store years ago.

"I remember him coming in, usually with his mom," Flickner told CNN. "And I remember him always looking really suspicious, and he would stand in front of like the candy section and just stare at me to see if I was watching him," Flickner added.

"Needless to say whenever he came in, we were always watching him."