SEATAC — Jonathan Standridge and Colton Harris-Moore made an odd couple as they sat together in the visiting room of a Washington state prison one day last spring.
Standridge, 57, is a project manager at Boeing, one of the world’s most important aviation companies. Harris-Moore, 21, is the Barefoot Bandit, a world-famous airplane thief who is serving a seven-year sentence after a sensational run from the law in stolen boats, cars and planes.
As it turned out, they had a lot to discuss. Aerospace design. Books. And second chances.
“What have you heard about me?” Harris-Moore asked, Standridge recalled.
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“I’ve read all about the Barefoot Bandit,” Standridge said. Harris-Moore replied: “That’s not who I am.”
Ever since, Standridge has returned to the prison in Aberdeen, a two-hour drive from his lakeside home in the Seattle suburb of SeaTac, at least once a month, hoping to have a positive influence on what has been a bleak, if sometimes thrilling, young life, and to repay a favor someone once did for him.
“This is a young man that is fully engaged in the rehabilitation process that we in society ask of those folks who are in our prison system,” said Standridge, who has tutored Harris-Moore in the airplane business and a lot more.
The progress is threatened by new burglary and theft counts that could add to Harris-Moore’s sentence, he said.
Standridge was lining up other aviation specialists to meet with Harris-Moore when the prisoner was transferred to the Skagit County Jail last month. Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich said he filed the charges because the plea agreement other prosecutors reached with Harris-Moore in 2011 was too lenient.
Harris-Moore grew up poor on Camano Island, north of Seattle, raised by an alcoholic mother and a series of her felon boyfriends — a feral childhood he wouldn’t wish on his “darkest enemies,” he once wrote to a judge. He earned his first conviction at age 12, in 2004, for stolen property, and things only got worse. After he walked away from a halfway house in 2008, he embarked on a two-year burglary spree, breaking into unoccupied vacation homes and stores, and stealing money and food.
Some of the crimes were committed barefoot, and by 2010, he had rocketed to international notoriety as he stole small airplanes in the Northwest, flew them with no formal training and landed them with various degrees of success. A few were only lightly damaged, but two crashes were so severe he could have been killed.
His final run was a cross-country dash to an airport in Indiana, where he stole a plane, crashed it in the Bahamas, and was arrested in a hail of bullets.
He pleaded guilty to dozens of charges, apologized, and sold the rights to his story to FOX, which plans a movie. Any proceeds will repay his victims.
That, Standridge tells him, is the past — useful in determining how we got where we are, but not what we will become.
A chance encounter led Standridge to Harris-Moore. At last year’s Seattle International Film Festival, he met Lance Rosen, Harris-Moore’s media attorney. As they made small talk, Rosen grew more interested in Standridge’s work and finally asked: Would he be interested in mentoring Harris-Moore?
Intrigued, Standridge sent Harris-Moore a letter in prison. Harris-Moore wrote back, and Standridge was hooked.
“The key ingredient I look for in something like this is somebody who has passion — passion for life, passion to move forward,” Standridge said. “It immediately came off the pages of this first letter that we had a highly motivated young man who was looking to change his life.”
Love of airplanes
Stocky and well-spoken, with short, receding white hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee, Standridge is married and has a 19-year-old daughter. He came from a background very different from Harris-Moore. He was born in Oklahoma City to a loving, engaged family and later moved to Illinois. Nevertheless, as a young man he was directionless and fell into heavy drug use, he said. After wasting most of his 20s, he enlisted in the Navy in 1984.
At boot camp, he got caught with drugs and instead of sending him home, the Navy captain in charge of the base offered him a second chance — warning Standridge that he’d be following his career.
Standridge spent seven years in the Navy, four on the flight deck of the USS Constellation aircraft carrier, where watching the F-14 fighter jets fostered a love of airplanes that began in boyhood, when his father would take him to watch the planes at Will Rodgers World Airport in Oklahoma City.
He went on to graduate from Seattle University in 1997, the same year he began working for Boeing. He stresses that his involvement with Harris-Moore is on his own time, not a company-sanctioned initiative.
At their first meeting, Harris-Moore walked into the visiting room amid a line of other convicts. Sunburned from being in the prison yard, he wanted to know why Standridge was taking such an interest in him. Standridge told him the story of the Navy captain.
“Even today I think about it. Without that second chance, I would not be where I am today,” he said. “That is what I’m passing on to Colt, the opportunity for that future.”
He made Harris-Moore promise that he’ll repay the favor when he gets his life re-established. They shook hands on it.
While he declined to get into some specifics about their conversations, Standridge said Harris-Moore badly wants to get a pilot’s license and hopes one day to design prototype aircraft.
Harris-Moore has said that he wanted to get an aeronautical-engineering degree while in prison. They talk about planes, corporate governance, management techniques, body language and books — Steve Jobs’ authorized biography was a favorite of Harris-Moore’s, he said.
Only rarely and in passing do they discuss his time on the run.
When Harris-Moore learned that Standridge grew up in the Midwest, they commiserated about the size of the mosquitoes he encountered on his way to Indiana.
Sometimes Harris-Moore draws his ideas for plane design on a piece of notepaper to show Standridge.
“He is in a very good place. He likes where he’s headed. He likes the person he has become,” he said.