Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bad Times Part II

Another of the greatest hits (actually factual misses) from the Sunday Times story on Colt, which I’ve mentioned before. The main reason I’m picking on that story is that for whatever reason, it has spread virally and has been picked up by dozens of blogs causing all kind of misinformation. Again, I feel these stories as they actually happened are already audacious enough.

“He evaded a police pursuit by crashing a Mercedes-Benz into a roadside gas storage tank, using the explosion as a diversion to escape back into the woods where, he says, he feels like a Native American.”

The facts: Colt did take a Mercedes-Benz. It belonged to a neighbor, Carol Starr, in whose house Colt also found the Mercedes polo he’s wearing in the famous self-portrait seen accompanying every story. Police saw the Benz driving erratically, heading north on South Camano Drive. When they tried to pull it over, the Mercedes bolted. After crossing Mountain View Rd, the Mercedes driver braked hard and turned into the parking lot of the Elger Bay CafĂ©.

The police were approximately 100 yards behind, but arrived just in time to see the Mercedes’ door fly open and — according to an eyewitness account of a man who was in the patrol car doing a citizen “ride along” — Colt jump out. The car was still in gear and moving, but this wasn’t a 30-mph rolling dive. Colt got out of the car and ran across the street, through a field and into the woods. The car kept rolling, and there is a propane storage tank at the back end of the parking lot… but somehow, the car made a perfect shot between the tank and the corner of the building with inches to spare.

No crash into the gas tank, no explosion. Of course, Colt didn't need an explosion to get away yet again (and we don't know if that was his plan). All he needed was his speed and agility.

If it had kept rolling, the Mercedes would have probably gone off a hill that’s about 20-feet-high. It’s steep, so I guess you could call it a cliff. Instead, it hit a big plastic trash dumpster and stopped. The police ran up and turned the engine off.

As to the Injun claim: I know of no direct quote from Colt where he says the woods make him “feel like a Native American.” BUT, his mom did tell me that they do, indeed, have Sioux blood in the family on her side.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Colt Worldwide

Colt's story continues to circle the globe. This article just appeared in The National, a newspaper out of the United Arab Emirates. It's another rehash, but the reporter did a good job getting her facts straight, and even made some calls to flesh out the story.

Each time a story on Colt appears in a new place, it's amazing to see how it universally strikes a chord with people, especially young people. The reporter for The National asked me about why I think Colt's story appeals to people, whether I think there were opportunities for him to not to have turned criminal, where I think he is, and whether I think there will be a happy ending to all this.

My full answers are below -- her questions in red, my answers in black. (For those not in the media, this is pretty typical when you're asked to do an interview... you talk or write for an hour, and they wind up using 30 words in the final story. It's okay, though, I've done the same thing to people I've interviewed.... karma.)

The reporter asks about Colt's appeal:

Colt's case engenders strong feelings on both sides. People who look at the news reports or sensationalized tv reports tend to fall firmly in one of two camps on Colt: that he's an outlaw hero or that he's simply a no-good crook.

He is a threat and he is, obviously, a criminal, so it's pretty simple to understand why some people don't like him and get angry at anyone who'd support him.

On the other side, it's more complex, but just as understandable. Colt absolutely fits into the mold of the classic outlaw hero, something that not just Americans but people the world over have a long history of finding fascination with, identifying with and living vicariously through. If you don't look too deep into the case, you can construct a narrative where Colt's just a poor, disadvantaged kid with a lousy home life who felt he had no choice but to run away. In this narrative, he survives by breaking into million-dollar homes to forage for food and clothing and is chased and opposed by the entire power of the government. When cornered, he acts like James Bond and jumps into the nearest car, boat or plane and escapes.

The fact that he hasn't physically hurt anyone during his latest 19-month spree makes it easy for people to believe in this narrative and easy for them to pull for Colt. In their view, Colt really isn't a "bad guy." Jesse James, Billy the Kid etc were also extensively followed in their times, and both of them actually killed people, including innocents. Billy the Kid was basically a hit man. Still, people romanticized them. With Colt, again, it's much easier because of the narrative: He's an underdog surviving on his wits in an unfair world of high unemployment, bank bailouts and corrupt systems; he's not hurting anyone; and he's only robbing from the rich to give to the poor -- himself.

I think this narrative is especially attractive to young people, who are by nature rebellious and see in Colt their own minor rebellions, whether against parents, school, the police, authority in general.

Of course the truth about Colt is much more complicated, but you have to look deeper to see it -- learn who the victims were, talk to them, talk to people who grew up with Colt, friends, neighbors, teachers, the police. Once a story like this gets clouded, gets grayer, it's harder to sensationalize, harder to soundbite, harder to make it black and white so people can take easy sides. At that point, it loses some of its mass appeal. Of course to me, that's when it just starts to get interesting and becomes a more important story in a larger sense, the whys and hows.

The reporter asks about missed opportunites that might have saved Colt, either by his mom or our social systems:

Colt's case absolutely shows failures at many levels. There were obvious parental failures. Colt was also "in the system" from an early age, and there were multiple attempts to help him, which for various reasons didn't take. In school, he was socially promoted even though in some years he failed every one of his classes.

I'm continuing to report on this story, and I'm looking at the societal side of all this (social programs, schools, parental rights versus social systems like child protective services). I've discovered that the State of Washington is relatively progressive when it comes to its juvenile justice system and social programs. There are programs in place that, when they identify a kid like Colton who is to the extreme of a risk-taking personality, they'll get them into rock climbing or motocross or something else that lets them satisfy that need as a reward for good behavior such as staying in school. Nothing like that was ever offered to Colt, though, but I don't know why yet.

Of course, most of us know people who had rough upbringings and still found their place in society. Colt made some bad decisions on his own, such as the choice to escape the group home. He was attending classes there, and by all reports doing pretty well. A promising sign for Colt is that according to the reports from forensic psychologists who've interviewed him, he understands that he's done and doing wrong, he doesn't blame society or his upbringing, and he doesn't show any of the classic signs of being a sociopath. I've also found no evidence that he's ever used drugs. Those factors, to me, are a sign that Colt could salvage a future for himself.

The reporter asked where I think he is:

He's definitely not living out in the woods. I believe he's living in a house with friends, apparently on the mainland, as he probably did last winter. It appears he was last on Camano Island in November. He tends to hibernate in the winter when it's cold and wet out here. The summers are beautiful, though, and the forests become very lush and easy to move around in unseen. The police I've talked to would not be surprised at all if Colt shows up again on Camano or in the San Juans come spring and summer.

The reporter asked if I think this will end happily...

Happily's a tough one. I sincerely hope it all ends peacefully. Colt turned 18 after he escaped, so if/when he's caught he'll go into the adult justice system. In there, unfortunately, they don't force inmates to attend classes. In juvie, they are forced.

Other then Colt or a police officer or a bystander getting hurt, the worst outcome I could imagine would be Colt going to prison and doing his time as a student of Criminal U, coming out "hardened." He is a smart kid, and I've been told a number of stories that show he's definitely not all bad -- several people I've interviewed have talked about him having "a good heart." Ideally, Colt would make a deal and turn himself in, do some time, and then all the attention this has garnered would attract someone with the means to give Colt a shot at earning a decent future once he gets out.

I've already had people contact me asking me to get word to Colt that they'd be willing to offer him a job and give him a chance when this is all over. That, to me, would be a happy ending to it: to see Colt ultimately find a place in society where he can (legally) display his talents and pursue his interests. Maybe as an Alaskan bush pilot, combining his love of flying with the great outdoors... He could have a charter company called "Fly Colton."


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Colton Harris-Moore "At Large" Clock

One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is: Is Colton Harris-Moore still at large?

Some confusion comes from the accounts of arrests made after he'd previously been on the run. At one time, Colt was wanted by the police and remained at large for seven months before being caught after a short stand-off at an unoccupied Camano Island home in which he'd been hiding. He was arrested and sentenced to a max-security juvenile prison. After a year, he was transferred to the not-so-secure group home from which he escaped. He's been at large and getting larger ever since.

All the alleged plane thefts, pirating of boats, and sprees through Island County, the San Juan Islands, Point Roberts, British Columbia, Idaho and back to Western Washington have all happened since Colt bolted the group home. For the full story, read my article in Outside Magazine, available here online and at newsstands.

When did he escape and how long has alluded capture? On the left-hand sidebar of this blog, you’ll now see a “count-up” timer set to the time Colt climbed out of the window and went on the lam. It will run for as long as he remains at large.

Friday, January 22, 2010


So what’s the deal with Colton being the “barefoot burglar”?

Colt’s Wiki speculates that he takes off his shoes to “conceal his footprints.”

Sure, just like you’d take off your hat to conceal your hair color.

Colt’s mom told me that her little Huck Finn would spend a lot of the summertime barefoot. Nothing strange about that, even up here in the Pacific Northwest. The islands we live on in Puget Sound lie within rainshadows. We’re surrounded by the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island and, on the eastern side, the Cascades. The Olympics and the western hills of Vancouver Island are some of the rainiest places on the continent. Within their rainshadows, though, we get only a fraction of the precipitation (for instance, the San Juan’s receive half of Seattle’s rainfall), and it’s sunny and 72 for most of the summer. Nice weather for flip flops and barefoot beaching.

Colt has been seen barefoot at some crime scenes, though, including on the security tape from Vern’s Bayside Restaurant (and bar and pool hall) on Orcas Island. There have also been bare footprints found at several other scenes (including a plane hangar) that have yet to be concretely tied to Harris-Moore.

And therein lay a potential future big problem for Colt.

As one of the county sheriffs who’s been chasing Colt told me: “We take fingerprints, not toe prints.”

If/when Colt gets caught, his footprints — which are just as unique and identifiable as fingerprints — could give police the evidence they need to indict for more crimes than Colt’s currently wanted for.

Thus my wonder at the Wiki wackiness about Colt going barefoot “to conceal his footprints…”

If you leave shoe prints at a crime scene, the police need to first positively identify the shoe, and then positively tie you to those shoes, which can be very difficult or impossible if you put a layer between you and the purchase. But leave a bare footprint or toe print at the scene, and the police have incontrovertible proof you were there.

So why would he go barefoot? Just because he likes it? Maybe. There are a lot of people who enjoy the freedom of going shoeless — they even have clubs and support groups. Colt commits most of his crimes in the warmer months, then hibernates in the winter… so that fits.

Other security cameras have caught him on tape wearing shoes and boots, though. And his mom told me she bought Colt an expensive pair of running shoes and gave them to him while he was last in detention. That was nearly two years ago though… So here’s a theory:

Colt’s reportedly gone from 6’2” to 6’5” in that time. Makes sense, then, that his feet have grown as well. As a wanted man whose face has been all over the news and even on Wanted posters here in the Northwest, Colt can’t risk just sauntering in to the Foot Locker at the Everett Mall.

He breaks into vacation homes, but how many have size 14 or so shoes lying around? Colt also has a history of ordering merchandise online, but none of the police reports I’ve seen mention Zappos. Maybe he just has a hard time finding shoes that fit...

For the record, Colt, I only wear a 10.5.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


It's now 631 days since Colt bolted from the prison home. Things have been relatively quiet on Camano and Orcas Island -- other than the pitter patter of television and radio production crews.

ABC Nightline got chased off Colt's property by the man I mentioned in my Outside article (Mr. Booby Trap). He also placed a new notice at the end of the driveway to go along with the NO TRESPASSING signs. This one announces that trespassers will be shot on sight.

An interesting moment in the Nightline segment was a sound bite from a neighbor who says he's heard Colt's mom yelling for Colt to be quiet. No one I've interviewed, though, believes Colt is currently on Camano.

This week, both Inside Edition and the Canadian newsmagazine 16:9 are here filming segments on Colt. Producers are running into problems with access, though, and most people involved are tired of talking about Colt and the case.

NPR also ran a segment on Colt last weekend. It was accurate except for the lead-in, which said he's been at large "for eight months." One bit of reporting that they've added is that Colt was in his pajamas when he escaped the group home. They also got a new quote from DJ Bob Rivers where he sews some doubt about whether Colt could have taught himself to fly. It's an interesting question that I'll have more on soon.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


According to my sources, there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Colt will be taking over Conan O'Brien's 12:05 time slot on NBC.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


The January Outside with the Colt feature should be on all the newsstands today. I'm looking forward to seeing that Jacob Thomas illustration as a full size spread.

Monday, January 11, 2010


There’s been some outrageous reporting and rumor-mongering around Colt’s story. Mythologizing that always happens around an outlaw character like this is entertaining (Colt’s seven feet tall; he’s the spawn of D.B. Cooper and a female sasquatch; he winters in the Pakistani mountains hunting Osama Bin Laden). But bad reporting isn’t.

Many published stories have gotten facts and timelines wrong — no big deal unless you’re into facts and accuracy. The rankest piece of feckless and nearly fact-less reporting I’ve seen so far comes from this article in England’s The Sunday Times. I'd say it was only good for fish wrap, but you wouldn't want to stink up your fish by putting it inside this rag. There’s no byline to the story, which should tell you something. Maybe Rupert Murdoch wrote it himself.

I’ll be posting some of my favorite lines from the story along with some fact-checking by me because I think Colt's story is compelling enough without the bullshit. Here's the first:

“His [Colt's] weakness is pizzas, which he asks to be delivered at the edge of the woods.”

Uh, no. Sure, Colt loves pizza like every other sauce-blooded American teenager, but he doesn’t have them delivered to the woods. Has anyone ever tried asking Papa John to drop off a sausage and pepperoni to the third oak tree south of the bridge? This bunkum is derived from combining the factual story about one of the times Colt got arrested with, I assume, way too much lager.

The Island County police came to his mom’s property looking for Colt during one of his first times on the lam and they found a tent set up under the cedar trees. Pizza boxes were piled in the campsite. The next time they drove down the gravel road in front of the property, they saw the local pizza guy. They stopped him, and when he said he was making a delivery to Colt’s mom, they took the pizza and borrowed the delivery guy’s jacket, which one of the cops put on over his uniform. He knocked on the trailer door, and… whaddayaknow, Colt answered. On went the cuffs.

I asked Colt's mom, Pam, about that night. “I actually told the cops that it had been a good idea,” she said. “I had to hand it to them: They got him that time.”

As a side note related to tasty, tasty ‘za: Somehow a rumor started on Colt’s Facebook site that he’d been sentenced to three years in prison for stealing two slices of pizza. The amount of detail was incredible: “Dude, he didn’t even get to eat it!”

Totally untrue. Colt was sentenced to three years in juvenile prison after he plead guilty to three out of 23 counts of burglary and possession of stolen property — none of which were slices of pizza. The stuff included cameras, jewelry, remote-control toys and computer equipment.

Next up on the BS meter:

“Colt thanks his victims by leaving them notes and cheeky photographs of himself.”

And if you haven't read the full feature story in Outside Magazine yet, check it out. The Ballad of Colton Harris-Moore.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


My feature story on Colton Harris-Moore will arrive on newsstands January 12th and is already on Outside Magazine's website here: The Ballad of Colton Harris-Moore. Colt is still at large more than 616 days after escaping incarceration. As of yesterday, his mom tells me that he called and that he's doing fine and had a nice holiday. Response from Washington State law enforcement and the FBI: Grrrrrr.

I'll continue to update and report on all facets of this story right here at Outlaws & Outcasts.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

COLT’S FANS: Reasonable or Reprehensible?

At first, the media sensationalized Colt’s story with jaunty newspaper and TV headlines comparing him to Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can fame (remember, that movie was primarily a comedy that had you rooting for con man Abagnale as played by DiCaprio). However, after law enforcement officials and some commentators came out strongly saying that it was wrong, even deplorable, to give the kid that kind of attention, the media began chewing on its own tail. There was a rash of law-and-order backlash, hissy fit articles, and TV talking heads denigrating the Facebookies on Colt’s fan club for “romanticizing” a criminal. Once the police and mainstream press staked out a clear position that the Colt “hero” cult was, as one said, “disgusting,” the effect was instantaneous and utterly predictable: The Colton Harris-Moore Fan Club gained 3,000 members in a single day. Since then, again and again, each time there’s a new story that busts on Facebook fans, the club grows bigger.

Of course the fan club itself has a good number of posts from people who flame anyone in the “Fly, Colton, Fly” camp as pathetic. So what’s up with the back and forth? If you follow the story and root for Colt to stay free, you’re a crook? If you want him to get caught or killed, you’re a narc? Rebellious kids with computers love Colt, but mature adults who get their news the old fashioned way (interrupted by erectile dysfunction and constipation commercials) hate him? Anarchists for Colt; conservatives for cops? Or is it more complicated than that?

Professor Graham Seal literally wrote the book about the English-speaking world’s long-time fascination with outlaw legends and what makes us elevate criminals to some kind of hero status (I’ll discuss whether Colt should be considered an anti-hero or Byronic hero in a later post). I asked Seal if today’s tough, recessionary times make it ripe for an outlaw break out. “Economic hardship does produce outlaw heroes,” he says, naming John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd who shot their way out of the Great Depression and into the public eye.

What about the bickering between the “Colt’s cool” and the “Colt’s just a douchebag crook” crowds? Seal says “Outlaw heroes aren’t celebrated simply because they’re criminals — there are always plenty of those around.”

Indeed, talk to the police in Island County (Colt’s home) and you find that Colt’s not even their most prolific criminal.

“We just arrested and convicted a young man named Nicholas Yost, who we believe did twice as many burglaries around here as Colton,” says Island County detective, Ed Wallace. “But nobody’s talking about him.”

And then there’s the 20-year-old former accomplice of Colt’s from the nearby town of Stanwood, a guy who also carries a rebel-ready handle — Harley Davidson Ironwing — and also escaped from a group home. But neither Nick nor Harley have fan clubs, let alone ones with more than 15,000 members from all over the world. Why not?

To really make it into the outlaw pantheon, professor Seals says, the guy (and it’s nearly always a man, he says) has to go beyond common criminality. He also needs “a few actual or mythic characteristics, such as the ability to elude capture… as well as a bit of style.”

Nicholas Yost’s m.o. was to smash down people’s doors, steal and then pawn their TVs. Boring and thuggish. Colt, at least while he’s on the run, often breaks into unoccupied vacation homes in tourist destinations just to shower, sleep and forage for food and cash — basically living off the fat of the land.

Colt’s eluded capture for long periods of time: first for seven months and this latest time for over 18 months. He’s also escaped many close calls with police. Harley Davidson Ironwing? Yes, he escaped (or rather just didn’t come back after a day of work release from a prison home), but he got caught five days later shoplifting in a mall.

Now add in Colt’s manner of escape and evasion: Allegedly stealing boats, luxury cars and even planes when he wants to get someplace else quick. Hell, when James Bond gets into a tight spot and needs to escape whatever idiosyncratic, pussy-petting psychopath who wants to rule the world that week, he commandeers the nearest boat, sports car or plane … and sells a lot of movie tickets. Even if you’re a law-abiding citizen or a Colt hater, you gotta admit he’s got something like style, or if not, at least a big pair of brass danglies.

I don’t think reasonable people are minimizing Colt’s many, many victims. And no, I’m sure none of them would, as is the most common bitch, “like it if he robbed their house.” The one constant refrain of his “supporters” seems to be “Don’t hurt anybody!” Seal agrees when I theorize that Colt’s non-violence is essential to making it socially acceptable to root for him.

So, I think that saying it’s abhorrent to acknowledge, even grudgingly admire what this now 18-year-old kid with very little education, guidance or support has done while on the run is like saying that no one should ever call attention to the sun being shiny, because it also gives people skin cancer.

From computer hackers to Hell’s Angels to Osama Bin Laden, charismatic outlaws always attract their own constituency of supporters and romanticizers. Even Eric Rudolph -- the anti-abortion, anti-gay murderer and Olympic bomber -- found succor and sympathy in the hills of Appalachia. For awhile, “Run Rudolph Run” T-shirts were all the rage at white supremacist hoedowns. With Colt, at least until he crosses a vaguely defined line of the acceptable outlaw code by physically hurting someone, there will exist a broader appeal. For now, it’s relatively clean and easy for “fans” to think of him as Denis the flying Menace, as their Jesse James Bond.

Stay tuned for more with Professor Seal on the psychology of why we sympathize with outlaws like Colt.