Island County authorities are searching for Colton Harris-Moore, 17, in connection with a recent string of Camano Island burglaries.
CAMANO ISLAND — Whether it’s locals gossiping over coffee at the Elger Bay Café, fishermen picking up bait at the country store or snowbirds lounging in their luxurious summer homes, one 17-year-old boy is the talk of the island.
And depending on who’s talking, Colton Harris-Moore — a ninth-grade dropout believed to be responsible for scores of burglaries on the island over the past 11 years — is alternately described as a calculating criminal, master survivalist or modern-day Robin Hood.
But Island County Sheriff Mark Brown has a one-word description for Harris-Moore: “Wanted.”
It seems everyone on this 40-square-mile island nestled between Whidbey Island and North Snohomish County has an opinion of the teenage fugitive and what should be done with him. Some believe he’s a product of a troubled childhood and deserves sympathy and psychiatric care, while others say he’s an opportunistic burglar who deserves to be greeted with gunfire.
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One thing is certain, the Sheriff’s Office says: After an April escape from a Renton halfway house, where he was serving time for burglarizing Camano Island homes, Harris-Moore is back on the island and up to his old tricks. Only no one is amused.
The teen’s alleged recent burglary spree, which Brown says involves identity theft, stealing credit cards and cars and taking up residence in empty homes, has forced many of Camano Island’s more than 17,000 summertime residents out of their rural comfort and to do something they never thought they had to — lock their front doors.
“It’s a huge invasion of our sense of security,” Josh Flickner, manager of the Elger Bay Grocery, said earlier this week as he stood in front of a “wanted” flier with Harris-Moore’s photo.
The anger isn’t directed only at Harris-Moore. Many on the island are frustrated that the Island County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t been able to track down the teen despite organized searches, stakeouts and even a tracking dog.
While some suspect that Harris-Moore may be getting help on an island that has vast areas of forest, residents wonder how the teen could manage to elude law enforcement for so long.
Earlier this week, Brown stepped before more than 150 angry residents during a public meeting that gave voice to community fears about the teen and their mounting frustration over the sheriff’s unsuccessful search. If Brown felt a sense of déjà vu, it was because he had heard it all before during a similar meeting last year, just before Harris-Moore’s arrest.
Harris-Moore pleaded guilty to three counts of residential burglary in June 2007 — he had originally been charged with 23 counts — and was sentenced to nearly three years behind bars.
Escape in April
He was sent to Green Hill School in Chehalis, but in February was moved to Griffin Home, a minimum-security facility on Lake Washington in Renton. He escaped from the facility before a nighttime bed check in April, Brown said.
Equally frustrating to Brown and his deputies is that some on the island believe Harris-Moore is being demonized by law enforcement and media. Some point out that the teen is not a violent criminal and may simply be a troubled youth. Some think he may be stealing items from homes only to share them with friends.
South Camano Island resident Larry Newton thinks police should cut Harris-Moore a break.
“He’s a 17-year-old, come on. He’s just a young, stupid boy,” Newton said before Wednesday’s community meeting.
During the community meeting, Brown urged residents to stop feeling sorry for Harris-Moore and stop viewing him as “some type of Robin Hood or a cult hero.”
Brown said there have been 41 burglaries on the island since Harris-Moore’s escape from the halfway house. Investigators believe he is responsible for many of them but haven’t determined the number. In many of the break-ins, the lanky, 6-foot-4 teen is thought to be climbing onto roofs, unscrewing skylights and dropping through them.
Carol Star, who lives next door to the teen’s mother, said her house has been broken into three times over the years. Police say that Harris-Moore is responsible for all of the crimes.
“I’m afraid he’s going to break in when I’m there,” Star said. “You feel so violated.”
Sheriff’s Detective Ed Wallace said Harris-Moore stole Star’s Mercedes-Benz C-Class last week while Star was on vacation. Around 11:30 p.m. July 17, a deputy tried to stop the car, which was being driven erratically near Elger Bay Grocery and Café, but Harris-Moore turned into the store parking lot and police saw him jump from the car as it was heading toward the building.
The car struck a trash bin and clipped a propane line, said Shirley Morgan, who owns Elger Bay Café.
“We are so lucky the whole place didn’t blow up,” Morgan said.
After the crash, deputies searched for Harris-Moore, but he hasn’t been seen since.
“We’re assuming he’s laying low and the car chase scared him,” Wallace said.
While inspecting stolen items recovered on Wednesday afternoon, Wallace said he found photos of Harris-Moore that the teen took with a stolen digital camera. One photo showed the teen lying in the woods dressed in a collared shirt with a Mercedes-Benz emblem on the chest.
Ben Smith, a south Camano Island resident, considers Harris-Moore “a feral kid” who likely has a camp in the woods. Smith said that Harris-Moore broke into his summer home and lived there last year. Police said the teen returned recently to swipe razor blades, deodorant, clothes, food and toothpaste.
Harris-Moore grew up in his mother’s single-wide trailer, on a wooded property littered with trash. He dropped out of Stanwood High School in the 10th grade.
Some residents believe Harris-Moore’s mother, Pamela Kohler, is helping her son and protecting him from arrest. She recently told a local newspaper that she thinks her son is living on south Camano Island and will turn himself in when he is ready. She has denied knowing his whereabouts.
Kohler, whose property is posted with no-trespassing signs, could not be reached for this story.
Morgan, like many on the island, is convinced that Harris-Moore has people helping him hide.
“I think he’s a celebrity to some people, to some of his friends,” she said. “I wish he would give thought to what could happen here. I wish he would get caught and get the help he needs.”
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org