Thursday, December 31, 2009


Reports on the pursuit of Colton Harris-Moore sometime make it sound like there’s a Mission Impossible-style headquarters where the FBI and squads of detectives work round the clock focusing their cutting-edge crime-fighting tools and toys on catching Colt, while SWAT commandos constantly comb the woods to hunt him down. Not so.

The truth is that on Camano Island in Island County and Orcas Island in San Juan County — the places where Colt has been most active since his April 2008 escape from a minimum-security group home — he’s primarily chased by local sheriff’s deputies that belong to the counties' small police departments. Yes, at times when the sheriffs think Colt is definitely on their island, they detail extra deputies, overtime, and sometimes pull in help from surrounding counties (in November, the Snohomish County sheriff’s helicopter was used to search the Camano woods because the Island County police don’t have a chopper). But maintaining a full-time task force dedicated to catching Colt would bust the already recession-reduced budgets of both departments. In fact, Island County is in such bad shape that sheriff Mark Brown is being forced to further reduce his available manpower by laying off one of his deputies:

Here in San Juan County, one Orcas Island deputy recently told me that he just hopes Colt is apprehended before next summer: “He hides somewhere else for the winter, but the last two years he’s come back here in the summer and man, chasing him is hard work.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas from Colt's Melanie

Colt's beagle-mix, Melanie, has had her own experience with the Island County Sheriff's Department. When deputies found one of Colt's camps amid the towering cedars of his mom's property, Colt narrowly escaped into the woods. Melanie, though, was also at the camp and wound up at the pound for a couple of days.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


According to his mom: Yes, Colt reads the posts on his Facebook Fan Club. He even reads some of the funnier posts to her when he calls. “He sees all the marriage proposals from girls all over the world,” says Pam. So far, gals, he hasn’t accepted any of the offers. As Pam told me: “He has other things on his mind right now.”

So is all the attention good for him? The psychologists I interviewed for my feature story in the January 2010 issue of Outside Magazine (on sale the second week of Jan) say "No way." They say that with Colt’s extreme risk-taking personality, the attention and adulation could cause him to escalate his behavior to even more dangerous levels – though I can’t think of many more dangerous things than [allegedly] flying planes without first taking lessons.

I think Colt’s certainly smart enough not to take some of the crazier ideas put forward by Facebook boosters, like “Steal Air Force One,” and there’s no evidence he’s the one who took the new Boeing Dreamliner on its first test flight this week, but there’s definitely a danger if he starts to believe the hype that he’s invincible… or bulletproof.

Monday, December 14, 2009

WHY CAN'T THEY CATCH COLT? Part 1: Call Your Mother

Colt’s mom, Pam Kohler, recently called me and said that Colt had phoned her twice in the last week. Colt, being a good son, calls him mom from the road (or the forest, or the sky, or space, or 20,000 leagues underwater… wherever the hell he is at the time). So the question is: With all the CSI super crime-fighting abilities of our federal, state and local law enforcement, why haven’t they simply homed in on him?

I spoke with a source in law enforcement who has run wads of wiretaps in cooperation with the FBI against the Mafia. Here’s what he has to say [any text in brackets are my comments, and my speculative conclusion is at the bottom]:

[Oh, and by the way: Colt’s mom says he’s fine, doing great, relaxed and happy].

“The technology does exist to "Ping" a cell phone which is LE [law enforcement] talk for finding the exact location, or at least within 500 feet of a cell phone while in use. The problem is the components are very expensive (roughly 250K per unit) and not all law enforcement agencies possess it, especially not local forces like the county sheriffs who are chasing Colt. Both the FBI and US Marshall's Fugitive Squads have it, but even in these agencies the equipment is not in widespread use and is certainly not stored in each one of the field offices.

“Another problem [for the police] is, in order for the equipment to be effective it must be within a certain radius of the cell phone while it is in use. So, instead, most LE agencies rely on "tower" information obtained from the carrier, which as the term indicates, identifies the location of the tower that the cell phone is transmitting from. But, obviously, that is after the fact, and in most jurisdictions, that information can only be granted by the equivalent of a court order based on probable cause.

“Land lines are a different matter. Assuming that the Feds or a local-federal task force are up on a wire "tap," that means they have met the legal requirements of probable cause — which has to be freshed and refreshed every 15 days — and they’ve fulfilled the requirements of "minimizing" [this is legal talk for making sure law enforcement doesn’t listen to privileged conversations between a person and his lawyer, or any conversations not directly related to a crime] they’ll have placed a trap and trace, and DNR (Dial Number Recorder) which automatically and immediately provides the number from which the caller is calling from. From that information, they can derive the location of the caller.

“Again, obviously, the subject is using a mobile and for a good is mobile.

“Now if the phone is "GPS enabled" which most cell phones are ... Law enforcement can use GPS technology to triangulate and determine the location. Problem is that the GPS enabled option is easily disabled by the possessor, thus eliminating that option.”

So… back to me now. We all assume that Pam’s phone is tapped. Law enforcement, understandably, won’t comment on that. But if so, and Colt ever called from a land line, he’d already be in jail. So we assume he’s using a cell phone, or probably a series of cells, or pre-paid cells or a "soft phone" or number masking or "spoofing" services. A source told me that Colt does know how to turn off the GPS tracking on a cell phone. GPS-equipped cell phones have a setting that allows you to set it to “911-only” or “location on.” The 911 setting lets the police know where you are if you’re in trouble and call 911 — a very good thing if you’re ever in an accident or a fire or get lost. The “location” setting, though, lets everyone know where you are at all times… That’s how they’re eventually going to sell advertising to you for every business you drive by.

Even with GPS turned off, a cell phone will still leave tracks via the towers it accesses to make a call. Naturally, though, a moving cell phone is a moving target…

So, in short: With the limited resources being used to chase him (see: Why Can’t They Catch Colt Part II, coming up soon), Colt has apparently found ways to cover his tracks as long as he stays smart and careful. And as one of the sheriffs chasing him told me: “I happen to think that he’s probably a pretty darn bright kid.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009


In the summer of 2008, a one-kid crime wave washed ashore on the island where I live in Puget Sound, Washington State. A number of our local businesses and homes were hit, and it seemed like the work of a common, if prolific, cat burglar. But when Colton Harris-Moore allegedly boosted a Cessna 182 from our tiny airport and flew it across the Cascade Mountains in November of that year, I knew this was no ordinary thief — especially since he’d never taken a flying lesson.

Since then, I’ve followed Colt. The January issue of Outside Magazine will feature an 8,000-word story I’ve written that details my intensive search for the truth behind the legend of the 18-year-old outlaw some call “The Barefoot Burglar.” I’ve recreated some of his more spectacular alleged crimes, and spent considerable time getting exclusive interviews with Colt’s classmates, friends and mother, along with forensic psychologists, lawyers, flight instructors, experts on our fascination with outlaw legends, and, of course, some of his victims and the police who are trying to catch him.

I’ll continue to report on this story as long as Colt remains at large. It’s going on 20 months now since he broke out of the Griffin Home, near Seattle, and he’s a suspect in as many as 100 crimes. I’ll use this blog to post updates along with parts of my research that didn’t fit in the Outside story but that go a long way toward answering questions such as: Is Colt a sociopath? What is his mother, Pam, really like? What’s his dog, Melanie (who he calls “Meshee”) like, how many times has she been arrested, and did she really sniff out a SWAT guy hiding in the woods? Did Colt really fly those planes? Why can’t the FBI and all the county sheriffs catch him? Is he a criminal mastermind? How can some newspapers get so many facts wrong about a story? Is it despicable or strange that so many people are following this story and rooting for Colt? If a Blackhawk helicopter with infrared sensors couldn’t find Colt hiding in the woods, does that mean he’s a vampire? Yes, while crime is serious stuff, this story is also a lot of fun to follow and speculate on — as long as Colt doesn’t get hurt, or worse, wind up hurting someone else.

Stay tuned.