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Barefoot bandit's mom proud, worried about son's exploits

This July 2009 self-portrait provided by the Island County Sheriff's Office shows Colton Harris-Moore, who is suspected in about 50 burglary cases since he slipped away from a halfway house in April 2008.

The mother of a teen fugitive whose moonlighting as a self-taught pilot has won him a legion of online fans has some advice for her son, if he's reading: "He needs to work on his landings, from what I hear."

In an interview with The Globe and Mail Friday, Pam Kohler, the Washington State-based single mother of 18-year-old criminal legend Colton Harris-Moore, said she doesn't know whether her son is responsible for a series of daring plane and car thefts that police in several U.S. and Canadian jurisdictions are investigating. If he is, though, she can't help but be a little bit proud.

"He's always been interested in jets and airplanes," she said. "He's never had formal flight training. Do I believe he stole the planes? I don't know. I don't approve of it. But if he taught himself to fly, I'm very proud of him."

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Ms. Kohler said she hasn't seen her homeless son for about two years and has been "worried sick" about him in spite of the fact that he frequently calls home, most recently about one week ago. "He has the kind of phone like the President has. It's a Blackberry that can't be traced," she said, acknowledging that she cannot explain the technology.

Mr. Harris-Moore, known as Colt to his mother and thousands of admirers, who have set up fan clubs online, has been wanted by police since he escaped from a Washington juvenile detention facility in April of 2008, and began staging burglaries more daring than the home robberies that first landed him in detention.

I would like to emphasize that this guy is not a folk hero. He is a criminal and he has caused tremendous damage to me and to many other people Iowan Pat Gardiner, whose plane was recently stolen and crashed

He has been seen by police or caught on surveillance videos several times, frequently in bare feet, which led local newspapers to dub him the "barefoot bandit" in their headlines. And his antics seem to grow increasingly screwball: He allegedly stole a neighbour's Mercedes and jumped from the moving car as a policeman tried to stop him in July of 2008, and suspicions that he stole several boats and three planes, each of which have been found after hard landings, have inflated his media profile.

With that, his fan base has also risen. Earlier this week more than 3,000 people were members of the Colton Harris-Moore Fan Club on Facebook (it was briefly taken down because of an apparent violation of its terms of use, but it has been reinstated) and one Seattle-based member began selling T-shirts bearing the teen's mug shot from the website

Ms. Kohler said her son is well aware of his fans.

"Oh yeah, he has a laptop and he Googles himself," she said.

Some of what he's found, though, has been more tall tale than truth.

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"He's never lived in the woods," Ms. Kohler said, addressing stories that have suggested her son is a "feral boy" who lives in the trees. She also said he claims not to have been involved in one of the three plane crashes for which he is a suspect. But she hasn't had the chance to ask him about them all. Instead, their telephone conversations revolved around issues such as health and the well-being of the family dog, which has been "barking her head off" at police who, Ms. Kohler said, have been "hiding out in the woods" around the trailer in which she lives.

"I've told them and told them, this place is a hot spot. He's not stupid enough to come here."

She hasn't been able to lure her son home.

"I've talked my head off. I've tried bribing him. I've tried everything. I have a lawyer that he can turn himself in to," she said, adding: "He's the kind of kid who's going to do what he wants to do."

But Mr. Harris-Moore is warming to the idea of giving up living on the lam, she said.

"He told me the other day he will in about a year. I said, why? He said there's too much media right now. He's afraid he might not get a fair trial."

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If Mr. Harris-Moore does surrender any time soon he will have a lot of answering to do.

Iowa resident Pat Gardiner would like to know whether - and why - Mr. Harris-Moore stole his $350,000 plane, which was flown from a northern Iowa airport and crashed in a wooded clearing near Granite Falls, Wash., at the beginning of the month.

"The hangar was locked and the plane was locked. They were all broken into with some kind of crowbar tool," said Mr. Gardiner, a retired city councillor from California who farms cattle in Iowa. "To start the plane, he used some kind of tool and broke the starter lock and turned it on, just like you'd start a car."

Mr. Gardiner travelled to the crash site this week with insurers, who deemed his plane unsalvageable. "There's a tremendous amount of damage in the front. There's oil spread all over the inside of the plane, the seats … deliberately spilled, I think," he said.

Like Ms. Kohler, Mr. Gardiner finds it baffling that a teen could teach himself to fly the Cessna. Usually it would take about 50 hours to become qualified, he said, adding that the feat is not something "to be glorified."

"I would like to emphasize that this guy is not a folk hero. He is a criminal and he has caused tremendous damage to me and to many other people," he said. "If he continues to be on the loose, someone is going to get hurt or killed from this guy. It's not something to be taken lightly."

Increasingly, Ms. Kohler, who said she "doesn't have anything to do with all this," finds herself onside with Mr. Gardiner and law enforcement.

"He would never intentionally hurt anyone," she said, adding; "I'm afraid if he gets caught by police, they're going to hurt him."

With a contribution from Erik Lacitis of the Seattle Times

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About the Author
Global food reporter

Jessica Leeder is the Globe’s Atlantic Reporter, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In previous roles, Jessica has reported for the Globe from Afghanistan and post-quake Haiti, assignments for which she won an Emmy and a National Newspaper Award, respectively. She has also written about the politics of global food, entrepreneurialism and small business, and automotive news. More

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