In the fall of 2009, the world learned of the latest in a long line of audacious American outlaws, an 18-year-old with the dime-novel name Colt. He reared up from a far corner of the West to tweak a series of sheriffs, burglarize a bunch of homes and stake his claim to infamy by rustling boats and airplanes, despite not knowing how to navigate or fly.
The plane heists, naturally, got a ton of attention. Ultimately Colt stole five of them, wrecking three in off-field crash landings. But before Colt taught himself to steal and fly Cessnas, he’d been pirating boats. What started as a few joy rides in Washington state ended in a blast of machine-gun fire in the Bahamas, where, aboard a boat, his outlaw days finally came to an end.
Colton Harris-Moore grew up on Camano Island, Washington state, one of the evergreen isles that sprout from the Salish Sea. He was raised rural in a wretched trailer by a mom who, Colt says, spent each month’s welfare in two weeks, mostly on cigarettes and beer. Some of Colt’s first crimes were break-ins to steal food.
An outcast in his small community, diagnosed with ADHD and, later, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and medicated on Prozac at age 10, Colt was, nonetheless, an island boy living in a boater’s paradise. What to do, though, if you’re a poor island kid with no boat? If you’re not afraid of a little larceny, the coastline serves as one big boat show.
By the summer of 2004, 13-year-old Colt had been hauled before a judge for multiple boat thefts. He was sentenced to 50 days in juvenile court plus 48 hours of community service and six months of probation. Still, he was just warming up.
At 17, Colt escaped from a halfway house where he was finishing out a three-year sentence for several burglaries. He hit the San Juan Islands.
In the summer of 2008, Orcas Island’s tight-knit community of 4,500 full-timers realized that they were in the middle of a crime wave, something almost inconceivable on this sleepy isle. There was a string of burglaries and identity thefts, including one in which a flight training course had been ordered with stolen credit cards. Then, in November, a Cessna disappeared from the airport and crash-landed on an Indian reservation across the Cascade Mountains.
The next summer, residents woke to a bizarre and ominous sight: a shiny blue 25-foot Regal sitting high and dry on the pebbly shore. The ignition had been busted out with a screwdriver and the boat hot-wired. The sheriff quickly discovered it had been stolen from the funky little harbor town of La Conner, about 30 miles south of Orcas.