A modern-day folk hero in the tradition of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barefoot Bandit captured the imagination of a country going through hard times.
It was July of 2010 when I first heard of Colton Harris-Moore, the 20-year-old serial burglar known as the Barefoot Bandit. For two years, he outran and outwitted local police, border officials, and the FBI. He made his home in the woods. He broke into lavish vacation homes in Washington State, raiding refrigerators for pizza and pudding cups. Using stolen credit cards, he purchased night-vision goggles and GPS equipment. He navigated some of the most treacherous waters of the Pacific Ocean, hopping from island to island in purloined pleasure boats. As a child, he’d been fascinated by planes; somewhere along the line, with very little formal education, he taught himself to fly. In his final desperate and daring act as a fugitive, he crash-landed a $650,000 Cessna in the Bahamas and became the target of an international manhunt.
At the time, my cubicle was situated directly beneath an over-achieving air-conditioning vent, and every day, bored and freezing, I would move closer to my space heater and obsessively refresh The New York Times online. When I found Harris-Moore’s story, I read every bit of coverage I could find. I linked one of the articles on Facebook and posted my favorite quote:
“He wasn’t really trying to get away,” said Kyle Ater, who found bare footprints drawn in chalk on the floor of his natural food store on nearby Orcas Island on the morning after the police say Mr. Harris-Moore burglarized it, destroyed the alarm system, and ate an entire blueberry cheesecake from the cooler.
Within minutes I had a slew of comments, the most clever of which seemed to get at the heart of what made the story so appealing. “Eating blueberry cheesecake from the freezer, much like skateboarding,” wrote a friend, “is not a crime.”
There was something captivating about the exploits of this tall, lanky teenage thief. From my frigid workspace I took notice of his growing status as a kind of folk hero and cheered him on. The articles told of an abusive and neglected childhood—he seemed like a kid who’d never been given a chance, who’d gone through much of his life hungry, and who was now joy-riding an airplane to a tropical island. If I had to be trapped behind a desk, he didn’t. And, I thought, good for him.
Jackson Holtz’s book Fly, Colton, Fly is the first comprehensive account of Harris-Moore’s life and crimes. It details his childhood on Camano Island in Washington, living inland in a squalid trailer with his alcoholic mother and a series of abusive men. It is a sad but tragically typical story: Harris-Moore acted out in school, he was sent to remedial education, he was often covered in bruises, the neighbors could hear his mother screaming at him from across the woods. By the time he was in seventh grade he was in trouble with the law for vandalism and theft. He had several psychiatric diagnoses, including attention deficit disorder, depression, and intermittent explosive disorder. (The latter diagnosis is linked to a series of impulse control disorders including kleptomania and pyromania.) His mother never followed up on treatment.
The young boy was growing quickly—he would eventually reach 6-foot-5—and he was hungry. But rather than work and provide, his mother binge-drank and got into violent altercations with her son. At 12 years old, Harris-Moore was already well on his way to becoming the Barefoot Bandit. By the time he was 16, he had escaped a group home and embarked on what would become an infamous crime spree.
Holtz, a reporter for the Herald Everett in Washington, does an honorable job of portraying his subject as well as the victims of Harris-Moore’s crimes. He interviews many in Camano Island who felt terrorized by the teenager, who shattered their veneer of safety. But this kind of insistent naiveté concerning what a small town “should be” feels hollow and deliberately simple: it’s difficult to feel a great deal of sympathy for someone whose million-dollar vacation home was ransacked for mere provisions and a wireless signal. It’s tough to feel sympathetic to the complaint that these homeowners now feel they have to lock their doors. Common sense is a tame price to pay.
Truly the great strength of Fly, Colton, Fly is in the recounting of Harris-Moore’s years on the run and his continued ability to outpace and out-think law enforcement. Like a modern-day John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde, the Barefoot Bandit accomplished his crimes with a degree of panache. Between stints stealing cars and credit card numbers, he found time to do things like break into a veterinary clinic near Seattle and leave behind a note that read:
Drove by, had some extra cash. Please use this money for the care of animals. —Colton Harris-Moore, (AKA: “The Barefoot Bandit”)
Bonnie and Clyde rose to fame during the Great Depression; their legend benefited greatly from photography and the media. It must be nearly impossible to view the infamous photo of the diminutive Bonnie Parker, her foot resting on a stolen car, cigar in mouth, pistol in hand, and not feel drawn to her in some way. At a time when most Americans had nothing, Bonnie and Clyde took it upon themselves to get theirs and to enjoy getting it. And the public largely ate it up, consuming the photos and breathless news accounts.
For the Barefoot Bandit there was Facebook, Twitter, and the endless content-generating monster of the 24-hour news cycle. And it should not be discounted that the country was experiencing a near-collapse of the economy, an event shouldered disproportionately by the poor and working class, and caused in large part by the largesse of the greediest among us. For the most part, Harris-Moore didn’t take from those who didn’t have—his preference was for powerboats, airplanes, luxury cars, and high-end electronics. In the most famous photo of the Barefoot Bandit he lies on the ground, surrounded by ferns and camping equipment. He’s listening to an iPod; his shirt is emblazoned with the Mercedes Benz logo. Even in choosing a path wholly outside of society, he personified American culture. He was a kid. A smart kid.
When the Bahamian police finally caught up with Harris-Moore, he seemed almost relieved. His lawyer explained, “He wants to go home,” and remarked that he was “a brilliant young man, highly intelligent, very nice, very personable.” But later, once he had been extradited back to U.S. soil, Harris-Moore “didn’t enjoy his years on the run and didn’t want to be considered a role model.” For all the posturing, the Facebook fan pages, and the knowledge that his crimes were the work of an over-smart teenage trickster, he now faces a decade or more in prison. No matter how exhilarating it must have been to soar above the ground in a luxury private aircraft, piloting it over land and deep blue waters, it is important to remember that Harris-Moore, despite his public following, was always alone. It seems the only person he kept in regular contact with, after all, was his mother.
So where does that leave the rest of us, the ones that found solace in the great adventures of the Barefoot Bandit? Holtz has written a well-measured and -researched account of the young man’s life, and it seems the author understands the collective impulse behind rooting for the outsider. But he shows us the stark truth of Harris-Moore’s existence: “He spent his first decade being abused, his second decade committing crimes, and will probably spend the third decade of his life locked up.” It’s better than Bonnie and Clyde or Dillinger or Jesse James fared, to be sure. But it seems that in order to suit the public, whose desire is often to lift someone up and then tear him down, the movie version will require a different ending.