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‘Barefoot Bandit’ started life on the run early

CAMANO ISLAND, Wash. – The "Barefoot Bandit" is not all Colton Harris-Moore has been called in his short splash of life.

Neighbors say his mother screamed things at him so vicious that they cringed when her words echoed through the giant evergreens that cover much of this island in Puget Sound. Classmates say he could be a bully – when he attended school.

Yet perhaps his most benign nickname is the most telling. Long before stealing boats and planes made him a marvel of elusiveness, an Internet antihero, Harris-Moore, 19, was suspected of stealing cookies and frozen pizza from the Kostelyk family, a few gravel roads from the squalor that was his home, a trailer on a dead end here, barely an hour from Seattle. The Kostelyks had waterfront property and a freezer full of food. He lived inland and had nothing.

"We called him ‘Island Boy,"’ recalled Linda Johnson, whose mother, Maxine Kostelyk, was among Harris-Moore’s first suspected victims. "He came back over and over again – frozen pizza, cookies, ice cream. He was a tall boy, and he was growing."

By the time he was captured on a stolen motorboat in the Bahamas last week, racing from the police with video-game gall, the 6-foot-5 Harris-Moore had become a sensation. After escaping from a juvenile halfway house here more than two years ago, he eluded authorities across North America using his wits and his fleet (sometimes bare) feet. The police said he made makeshift homes in empty houses for days or weeks at a time and somehow taught himself to fly, mastering the art of crash-landing and walking away.

Even in the age of the search engine, Harris-Moore seemed untraceable and unknowable, part high-tech Huck Finn, part cunning criminal.

An examination of his early life and troubles suggests a picture far less cinematic. According to court and public documents and dozens of interviews, Harris-Moore was nobody’s hero, not even his own. On the contrary, whether he was hiding in the Kostelyks’ treehouse, watching for delivery of the high-powered flashlight the police believe he ordered with a stolen credit card or flying solo to the Bahamas in a stolen Cessna this month, isolated in the tiny cockpit for more than a thousand miles – Harris-Moore, for much of his life, was alone and hungry.

That was true even as he was being celebrated by thousands of fans on Facebook.

"He says he’s not into any of that," said Monique Gomez, a lawyer who briefly represented Harris-Moore in the Bahamas. "He just wants to get this behind him."

Gomez added, "I think if he had proper direction, he wouldn’t have done what he did."

Harris-Moore had a volatile childhood and was often in conflict with his mother, Pam Kohler. His father appears to have been absent. According to public documents, child protection officials had been referred to the family at least a dozen times by the time Harris-Moore was 15.

A social worker’s report from the time he was first arrested, at 12, drew a succinct conclusion, at least from the boy’s point of view.

"Colton wants Mom to stop drinking and smoking, get a job and have food in the house," the report said. "Mom refuses."

When Harris-Moore was 4, someone reported Kohler after seeing "a woman grab a small child by the hair and beat his head severely," according to a psychiatric summary 12 years later. By the time he was 10, an investigation involving "negligent treatment or maltreatment" had been initiated.

Kohler does not appear to have been prosecuted for a crime related to the complaints.

Kohler, 59, declined to be interviewed. A lawyer she has hired to handle news media inquiries and film and book proposals based on her son’s story said he had not seen allegations of abuse against Kohler in public records.

Several neighbors on Haven Place, the gravel road on the southern end of Camano Island where Harris-Moore grew up and his mother still lives, recalled often hearing mother and son screaming at each other into the night. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they feared Kohler.

A hand-painted sign at the end of her wooded driveway warns: "If you go past this sign you will be shot."

Asked whether it was an empty threat, one neighbor said, "She shoots."

The neighbor recalled a land surveyor telling how he had heard gunshots fired in his direction when he was surveying the property next door.

According to records and interviews, Harris-Moore was disciplined frequently in school. One fifth-grade classmate, Mariah Campbell, recalled other students making fun of Harris-Moore’s dirty clothing and said he could be mean to classmates.

"Because he never did his homework," Campbell said, "he never got to go to recess or anything."

About age 12, Harris-Moore had several psychiatric conditions, including depression, attention deficit disorder and intermittent explosive disorder, according to a later psychiatric report. He was prescribed antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs.

He dropped out of school after ninth grade.

"He never wanted to go home," said Christa Postma, who added that she became friends with Harris-Moore in middle school "because we both got in trouble all the time."

The crimes of which Harris-Moore has been convicted or is suspected of committing show an increasing focus on technology and transportation, involving the theft of laptops and mountain bikes, GPS devices and power boats. But it is hard to find anything in his past that suggests he would soon be capable of commandeering airplanes and flying them out of the country without any cockpit training, much less without getting caught.

He is suspected of taking at least five planes – including once during the Vancouver Olympics – and crash- landing all of them. He walked away each time.

The skies above Puget Sound rumble with small planes going to and from its islands. Kohler has told reporters that her son could identify different models as they flew overhead. The Internet is filled with speculation that Harris-Moore taught himself to fly using simulation software on the laptops he is suspected of stealing. But there is little evidence of how he really learned.

"That will be the question that everybody will want to ask him when he talks, if he talks," said Ed Wallace, a detective with the Island County sheriff’s office.

The "Barefoot Bandit" label is a relatively new nickname here, too, stemming from real footprints found at some crime scenes last year and drawings of footprints that the police believe Harris-Moore made at other scenes.

"He took the mantle and was wearing it proudly," said Sheriff Bill Cumming of San Juan County.

Neighbors say they do have memories of Harris-Moore going barefoot at times when he was a boy. Back then, he complained to caseworkers that his mother did not press him to be more responsible. Caseworkers noted more than once that Kohler declined to follow up on the counseling and treatment programs that were prescribed for her son.

Postma, the friend from eighth grade, who now works in quality control at a fish processor in Alaska, said that she had been in counseling, and "that really helped me."

Several people in Harris-Moore’s neighborhood said he seemed to be on a search for parental substitutes as a boy – asking people to make him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or watching them do basic chores, then stealing their mailboxes or computers. Some noted that even as his efforts to avoid capture escalated into spectacle, cheered on by virtual friends on the Internet, he stayed in contact with his mother.

Harris-Moore arrived back in Washington on Wednesday and was due in court Thursday. He faces one federal charge of stealing an airplane and transporting it across state lines and potentially faces dozens more charges, including burglary, theft and credit card fraud.

At the end, his mother publicly encouraged him to escape to a country that does not extradite to the United States. Instead Harris-Moore ended up in the Bahamas.

"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 Harris-Moore burglarized it, destroyed the alarm system and ate an entire blueberry cheesecake from the cooler.


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