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Long-distance plane theft has people thinking about barefoot bandit

By Gabriel Falcon, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Plane was stolen from Bloomington, Indiana, airport and flown to the Bahamas
  • Details of the incident bring Colton Harris-Moore to mind
  • Airport manager says authorities told him the "barefoot bandit" could be near
  • Aviation expert says the thief is endangering people on the ground

(CNN) -- A small high-performance plane stolen from an Indiana airport over the weekend was found in shallow waters off an island in the Bahamas, officials said, and the details surrounding the incident have people wondering if the "barefoot bandit" was involved.

The elusive fugitive, Colton Harris-Moore, 19, is suspected in previous thefts of small planes.

After spending years on the run along the West Coast, Harris-Moore had surfaced in recent weeks in the Midwest, police said.

Bruce Payton, director of Monroe County Airport in Bloomington, Indiana, told CNN a 2009 Cessna 400 Corvalis was reported missing on July 4. Payton said the plane was taken from a locked hanger inside an area surrounded by a 12-foot-tall barbed wire fence.

"We've never had an airplane stolen from this airport before, not to my knowledge," Payton told CNN, "and I've been here since 1978."

He said the owner of the aircraft was contacted by the U.S. Coast Guard and was told that the emergency locator transmitter for the Cessna was sending out a beacon off the coast of an island in the Bahamas.

Payton said the sheriff's department contacted him on June 30 and said a stolen vehicle had been recovered near the airport. "The details associated with the stolen vehicle fit the M.O. of the person known as the barefoot bandit," he said the authorities told him.

Harris-Moore was dubbed the barefoot bandit because he allegedly broke into homes in Oregon and Washington without shoes. Police suspect he may also have stolen boats and cars in addition to airplanes.

Over the past month, the teen has been linked to a string of thefts and break-ins in South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, police said. Authorities said Harris-Moore may have broken into two airports: Chan Gurney in Yankton and Karl Stefan Memorial in Norfolk, Nebraska.

After authorities told him about the possible connection between the recovered stolen vehicle and the barefoot bandit, Payton said, "I made several contacts with the state Indiana Aviation Association and asked them to put out a bulletin to all airports."

But he said any "uncontrolled" airport would be vulnerable to an airplane thief.

"We're a general aviation airport, a corporate class general aviation airport," Payton said. "Our air traffic control is not manned 24 hours per day. We have a controlled airspace from 6:30 in the morning until 9:30 p.m. Aircraft can still go from this area and operate under federal aviation rules as they do at all uncontrolled airports."

"The bigger question people should be asking," Payton said, "is how could an airplane fly from Bloomington, Indiana, and fly across states and airspaces and international waters and never be detected?"

Harris-Moore has become an outlaw hero to tens of thousands of people who have joined a Facebook tribute page.

Jim Tillman, a retired pilot and aviation expert, said his alleged crime spree should not be romanticized.

"This kid is a punk. He's a brat who is breaking laws all over the place." Tillman told CNN. "You are dealing with a thief who is violating federal law and endangering anybody on the ground. There is no glamour in this, none whatsoever."

Tillman said that it "wouldn't be too difficult for Harris-Moore to fly the plane to the Bahamas. Flying an airplane is not as tough to do as a lot of people would like to think it is, but it isn't like stealing a car. You've got an airplane moving over 200 knots, it's got a whole bunch of gasoline on board, it's just dangerous."

Tillman said many pilots are not required to file flight plans. "As long as you don't fly in restricted areas, around airports, military institutions," he said.

He also had a message for those who may idolize Harris-Moore for his alleged escapades.

"He's just an idiot pushing his luck" said Tillman.