To his thousands of fans, 18-year-old Colton Harris-Moore is a modern day Jesse James (without the bad), part Robin Hood (without the good), and a little bit James Bond (without the panache).
The frustrated Washington state sheriffs he has drawn into a six-year game of cat-and-mouse have other names for him though - names like "burglar," "felon" and "barefoot bandit."
Mr. Harris-Moore, who logged his first criminal conviction at the age of 12 and has become known for going without footwear, appeared to ratchet up the stakes in a long-running police search for his whereabouts recently when signs of his trademark antics were discovered on the Canadian side of the U.S. border north of rural Idaho.
Since the fugitive busted out of a juvenile detention facility in April, 2008, Mr. Harris-Moore, known as "Colt" to his fans, has grown into an anti-establishment rebel legend. U.S. newspapers have documented his increasingly crafty thefts, which now go beyond the simple robbery of cash and surveillance equipment to encompass the climbing of multi-storey buildings, destruction of heavy-duty safes and the stealing of luxury cars, boats and small aircraft.
Online, his story has gone viral, spawning a Facebook fan club with thousands of members and even a pro-Colt T-shirt sales business that law-enforcement officials hunting for the teen call "disgusting."
Hear a radio interview with Colton Harris-Moore's mother
Police in tiny Creston, B.C., became entwined with the legend of Colt last month when they found an abandoned BMW that had been reported stolen in Vancouver. On its own, the car did not set off any cross-border alarms. But next, police began investigating a spate of bizarre break-ins at hangars around Creston's sleepy airport. Several aircraft were tinkered with and one single-engine plane was "moved around a considerable amount on the runway," according to RCMP Staff Sergeant Gordon Stewart.
His officers began to connect the multi-jurisdictional dots days later, when word spread that similar break-ins had occurred 55 kilometres south at the Boundary County Airport in Idaho. On Sept. 29, the thief managed to fly off with a stolen Cessna 182 in the pre-dawn light - a trademark act that the young Mr. Harris-Moore, a self-trained but unlicensed pilot, seems to be trying out as his new calling card.
"Construction workers were out there at 5:45 in the morning. They saw the airplane take off, but they didn't think anything of it, really," said Jessica Short, the airport office manager, adding that a stunned pilot discovered the missing plane.
Then they found the barefoot prints.
Those prints have been a recurring trademark over the course of more than four dozen break-ins for which Mr. Harris-Moore has been convicted or is alleged to have committed since 2004, when he sprung himself from the single-wide trailer he grew up in with his mother by launching a criminal career. He's been on the run since 2008, although surveillance videos have occasionally recorded him burglarizing homes in and around Camano Island, located in Puget Sound, about 50 kilometres north of Seattle.
He's also been sighted on Orcas Island, an area popular with vacationers, accessible only by boat, for the past two summers. Locals suspect that he sticks around in the off-season. He's been known to sneak into empty homes to take advantage of their owners' amenities, including the Internet, which he uses to order surveillance equipment that he has shipped (unbeknownst to absent homeowners) to his borrowed addresses.
"This guy has got energy from hell," spat Marian Rathbone, who with her mother owns Vern's Bayside Restaurant, a popular dining spot. Vern's first fell victim to Mr. Harris-Moore two summers ago when he broke in to empty $12,000 from the restaurant's safe and use its credit cards and computers to order two security cameras and a small aircraft-instruction DVD, which he had delivered to the store a week later.
"He had obviously been watching the tracking numbers because he busted in that night [to get the parcels]" Ms. Rathbone said.
The robbery - and the fact that Mr. Harris-Moore was so "cocky" as to deliberately leave behind a single dollar bill and her twisted, bent credit cards - left Ms. Rathbone more angry than shaken. So she spent good money installing a security-camera system, which helped this summer when Mr. Harris-Moore broke in again.
"We have film of him coming into the office, right. The first thing he does is go around the corner and look exactly where the safe was last year," she said. "So you know it's the same guy."
In spite of the video evidence, Mr. Harris-Moore has stealthily evaded police capture. But as news of his antics continues to spread, particularly as he ventures into the air, he has garnered himself a devoted fan base. His Facebook fan group had more than 3,000 members Thursday.
Adin Stevens, a Seattle-based T-shirt designer, registered the website www.coltonharrismoorefanclub.com to handle the steady stream of orders for the Colton Harris-Moore Fan Club T-shirts he designed after learning about the case a few months ago. Available for $10 Thursday, they come up to size XXL and bear his mug shot and name below the words "Momma tried."
"I relate to him a lot. I remember what it's like to be a teenager," Mr. Stevens said Thursday, adding: "I don't really look at it as too much of a moral issue compared to the extraordinary story of what he's doing. He's not out to hurt anybody. That's obvious."
Increasingly, though, there are concerns that, at the very least, Mr. Harris-Moore is going to hurt himself. He appears so far to have stolen three small planes, all of which he has crashed in hard landings. The Cessna stolen from the Idaho airport was discovered Oct. 1 in a forest clearing 600 kilometres west, southeast of Granite Falls, Wash. County police said in a statement that "the plane clearly made a hard landing, but it appeared survivable." There was no sign of the pilot.
In fact, never is there any sign of Mr. Harris-Moore. Police across the five jurisdictions investigating crimes the teen is suspected of committing are all hesitant to connect him to the crimes, but they admit to sharing information.
"Certainly we want to catch him," said Mark Brown, the Camano Island sheriff. "Part of the problem is the sensationalist tone this has taken. What we absolutely need and hope for is a successful capturing of a felon … without having to use violence or having violence used against us."