Colton Harris-Moore, the 19-year-old "Barefoot Bandit" who allegedly stole cars, boats and airplanes to dodge U.S. law enforcement, was captured Sunday in the Bahamas as he tried to make a water escape and was brought handcuffed — and shoeless — to face justice, abruptly ending his two-year life on the lam.
When Colton Harris-Moore appears at his arraignment in the Bahamas this week, he will enter a plea in a courthouse accustomed to an international spotlight.
“The last big thing the country had was the John Travolta matter; before that it was Anna Nicole [Smith]. This falls somewhere in between,” said Mario McCartney, a Nassau criminal-defense lawyer.
The 19-year-old “Barefoot Bandit,” on the lam since fleeing a Renton halfway house in 2008, was arrested about 2 a.m. on Harbour Island after a brief, high-speed boat chase.
“It was like something you might see in the movies,” said Ellison Greenslade, commissioner of the Royal Bahamas Police Force.
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The capture unfolded at Romora Bay Resort and Marina. Resort manager Anne Ward said she was socializing with friends when she received a text message: “It was saying the ‘Barefoot Bandit’ is at your marina,” Ward recalled.
She said she contacted Kenneth Strachan, the marina’s security director, who was guarding the 40-slip facility.
“Kenny told me that, yes, yes, he had noted a young man come to the marina in a little getaway skiff, a 15-foot boat, and jump on the dock. He had khaki pants, a T-shirt, no shoes, a knapsack and a 9-mm [gun] on him,” Ward said.
Ward said the youth told the guard, “They’re after me, they’re after me. They’re going to kill me.”
At that point, police were on the trail of Harris-Moore on the island of Eleuthera after recovering a 44-foot power boat stolen from a marina on Great Abaco Island, about 40 miles away.
Ward said Harris-Moore took off running down the dock, with the security guard, in his 50s, chasing him.
Harris-Moore ran off the dock and up a hillside staircase leading to some homes, Ward said.
Police on the island — there are about half a dozen — as well as the security guard and Ward, dispersed through the area to look for Harris-Moore.
By then, marina staff had cut ignition wires in the skiff in which the youth had arrived, just in case he returned.
Not able to start the skiff, Ward said, Harris-Moore jumped into a 30-foot boat “and somehow managed to get it started. He didn’t get too far off. It was low tide, and he grounded it.”
Police, meanwhile, along with the security guard, had jumped into two other boats at the marina and chased him.
Ward said they pulled up alongside Harris-Moore, who was trying to get the boat moving. Police officers shot the boat’s engines.
Knowing the chase was over, she said, the youth then put the gun to his head.
“They talked him out of it,” Ward said.
She said the youth threw the knapsack, containing a laptop and an iPhone, into the water. It was later found by police.
Greenslade, the Royal Bahamas Police Force chief, confirmed that police seized a firearm and other items from Harris-Moore during the arrest. Greenslade said the suspect was seen by a local doctor shortly after his arrest and he “appears to be in very good health.”
Harris-Moore was flown to Nassau, the Bahamian capital, on New Providence Island, and led off the plane — barefoot — in ankle shackles, handcuffs and a bulletproof vest. Dressed in a gray T-shirt and camouflage shorts, he hung his head low and never looked up to acknowledge the crowd gathered on the tarmac. He didn’t respond when a man yelled, “Hey, Colton, how are you doing, buddy?”
At the local jail, Harris-Moore made a collect call to his aunt in Washington state and asked for a number for his mother, Pam Kohler, of Camano Island.
Since the youth went on the lam, Kohler said, “I’ve like changed my phone number about four times.” She said Sunday that she hadn’t heard from her son since his arrest.
If he calls, she said, she’ll pass on to him the phone numbers for John Henry Browne, a high-profile Seattle criminal-defense attorney whom she has retained to represent her son.
Browne said he believed Harris-Moore was “going through a rude awakening. … Maybe he thought it was kind of a lark, and now he’s handcuffed in a bulletproof vest.”
Legal future in Bahamas
Bahamian authorities said Harris-Moore will be arraigned this week, but they have not detailed potential charges.
He’s suspected of crash-landing a stolen plane a week ago on nearby Great Abaco Island, where he was blamed for at least seven break-ins. Police picked up his trail on Eleuthera Island after recovering the 44-foot power boat stolen on Great Abaco. He also is accused of several burglaries on Eleuthera.
Since Monday will be observed as Independence Day in the Bahamas, a former British colony, Harris-Moore likely will not appear in Magistrate Court until Tuesday, McCartney said. The magistrate judge is expected to set a bail amount and ask Harris-Moore to enter a plea. If he pleads guilty, McCartney added, Harris-Moore likely would be sentenced immediately.
A not-guilty plea would start a legal process that would result in another court appearance later in the year. Harris-Moore also would be given a chance to decide whether he wanted his case to remain in Magistrate Court, where he could face a bench trial, or in Supreme Court, where his case would be presented before a jury, McCartney said.
“In some crimes, like murder or manslaughter, once a judge rules there is enough evidence to go to trial, it is pushed to the Supreme Court,” McCartney said, adding that Supreme Court judges can impose much harsher sentences.
If Harris-Moore is charged only with property crimes, he could face up to six months in a Bahamas jail or a monetary fine, McCartney said. But because the teen entered the country illegally, allegedly violated aviation laws by flying into Bahamian airspace illegally and possibly committed other crimes, the penalties could be much harsher, McCartney added.
McCartney said his firm, Lex Justis, hasn’t been contacted to represent Harris-Moore, but the attorney quickly added that he would like to have him as a client.
Last fall, Travolta appeared in Supreme Court for an extortion trial involving a former Bahamas senator and a paramedic who reportedly attempted to release potentially damaging statements about the actor with regard to his 16-year-old son’s death during the family’s vacation in the islands. There was a mistrial in the case, the BBC reported.
Bahamian courts also played a key role in a 2007 Anna Nicole Smith case in 2007 when Larry Birkhead was declared father of the late model’s baby daughter. Birkhead and Smith’s companion, Howard K. Stern, battled in the courts until a paternity test indicated Birkhead was the child’s father.
A “nightmare” at home
Back in Washington state, Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said in a news release Sunday that he’s “thankful that Colton Harris-Moore has been taken into custody by the Bahamian authorities.”
“Now agencies whose citizens have been victimized by this fugitive can begin coordinating the legal process of holding him accountable for the numerous crimes he has committed,” Brown wrote.
San Juan County Sheriff Bill Cummings issued a news release congratulating Bahamian authorities on arresting Harris-Moore without anyone being hurt. That department will begin talking with other jurisdictions to coordinate the legal process, Cummings said.
Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, said federal prosecutors will work with Island County, San Juan County and other areas where Harris-Moore is accused of committing crimes to determine which cases would be tried first and “whether or not cases would be consolidated.”
Harris-Moore is alleged to have committed mostly theft and burglary crimes in at least six states.
Steve Dean, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Everett office, said the agency is investigating the theft of an airplane that Harris-Moore allegedly stole in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and crashed in Granite Falls, Snohomish County.
Transporting stolen property across state lines is a federal offense, and the agency could expand its investigation against Harris-Moore to include any other other similar thefts, Dean said.
When the U.S. government is seeking extradition of a suspect, as it will in Harris-Moore’s case, paperwork normally is filed after the first hearing in the Bahamas, McCartney said.
Browne, the Seattle lawyer, said Sunday morning he was waiting for a phone call from Harris-Moore “to see if I can help him.”
“If he wants to call me, he will,” Browne said.
Browne said he was put on retainer by Kohler in early June. That same month, Kohler sent a message to her son through the CBS show “48 Hours/Mystery”: “Be careful, I love you and get in touch with John Henry Browne — please.”
On Sunday, Kohler said she heard about her son’s arrest on the radio news at 4 a.m. Browne said Kohler contacted him Sunday morning.
If he does represent Harris-Moore, Browne said, he likely would tell him to waive fighting extradition back to the United States.
He estimated Harris-Moore’s alleged U.S. crime spree could net him a negotiated sentence of seven to 15 years in a U.S. prison — if authorities can come up with the proof.
The various jurisdictions involved in the United States could decide to consolidate the various charges in federal court in Seattle.
Otherwise, Browne said, “it would be an administrative nightmare to take care of the allegations” county by county.
Browne said he assumes Harris-Moore would be provided with a public defender by Bahamian authorities.