COUPEVILLE, Wash. — The young man who gained international notoriety as the "Barefoot Bandit" while evading police in stolen planes, boats and cars during a two-year crime spree was sentenced to more than seven years in prison Friday.
Judge Vickie Churchill said "this case is a tragedy in many ways, but it's a triumph of the human spirit in other ways." She described Harris-Moore's upbringing as a "mind-numbing absence of hope" and said she believed he was genuinely remorseful and contrite.
"He survived," Churchill said.
Friday's proceedings consolidated cases against Harris-Moore in three Washington counties. He has already pleaded guilty to federal charges in Seattle and will be sentenced for those crimes early next year. He will serve his state and federal sentences at the same time.
Wearing handcuffs and an orange jail uniform, Colton Harris-Moore spoke softly in court while entering his pleas and sat next to his lawyers with his eyes downcast, looking even younger than his 20 years.
In a statement provided to the judge, he said his childhood was one he wouldn't wish on his "darkest enemies."
Still, he said he took responsibility for the crime spree that brought him international notoriety.
Freedom in flight
Harris-Moore said he studied manuals and online videos to teach himself to be a pilot, and the thrills he experienced while flying stolen planes renewed his passion for life and will help him rehabilitate while in prison.
"The euphoria of the countdown to takeoff and the realization of a dream was nearly blinding," he said of his first illicit flight on Nov. 11, 2008. "My first thought after takeoff was 'Oh my God, I'm flying.' I had waited my entire life for that moment."
He said he'll use his prison time to study and get ready to apply to college, with the hope of earning an aeronautical engineering degree.
Several victims and a few curious citizens watched Harris-Moore enter his pleas in Island County Superior Court, along with Harris-Moore's aunt.
"He was a menace," Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks told the court. "His burglaries threatened and distressed people. People were afraid to leave their houses."
He pleaded guilty to a total of 16 counts from Island County, including identity theft, theft of firearm and residential burglary. Then the hearing continued with Harris-Moore pleading guilty to 17 counts from San Juan County.
Harris-Moore's daring run from the law earned him international fame and a movie deal to help repay his victims after he flew a stolen plane from Indiana to the Bahamas in July 2010, crash-landed it near a mangrove swamp and was arrested by Bahamian authorities in a hail of bullets.
State prosecutors asked for a nine-and-a-half year sentence. Browne and attorney Emma Scanlan, sought a low-end, six-year term, citing Harris-Moore's bleak childhood in a Camano Island trailer with an alcoholic mother and a series of her convict boyfriends. They laid out the details of his upbringing in psychiatric and mitigation reports filed with the court.
Criminal record begins
Harris-Moore's first conviction came at age 12, in 2004, for possession of stolen property, and according to the reports, his first experience with burglary came when he broke into the homes of his classmates to steal food because his mother spent most of her Social Security income on beer and cigarettes — something she has denied.
Over the next three years he was convicted of theft, burglary, malicious mischief and assault, among other crimes. At one point he was arrested when a detective posed as a pizza-delivery driver.
In 2007, the boy was sentenced to three years in a juvenile lockup after pleading guilty to three burglary counts in Island County. But he fled the minimum-security facility in April 2008 and was soon back to his old tricks, breaking into unoccupied vacation homes, stealing food and sometimes staying there.
As red-faced investigators repeatedly failed to catch him, his antics escalated: He began stealing planes from small, rural airports and crash-landing them — at least five in all.
"What was characterized by the media as the swashbuckling adventures of a rakish teenager were in fact the actions of a depressed, possibly suicidal young man with waxing and waning post-traumatic stress disorder (following his first plane crash in November 2008)," wrote Dr. Richard S. Adler, a psychiatrist who evaluated him for the defense lawyers.
Waves of burglaries broke out on Orcas Island, where Kyle Ater runs his Homegrown Market and Deli, in late 2009 and in early 2010, after stolen planes were found at the airport there. The second time, Harris-Moore left Ater's new security system in a utility sink, under a running faucet. He took cash and a tray of croissants, and Ater's insurance company jacked up his rates.
'Fearing for our lives'
Mike Parnell, a former owner of the Oakley sunglasses company who lives on Orcas, was repeatedly victimized. Harris-Moore hid out for long periods in the second level of his hangar at the airport, and when Parnell and his family would go on trips in their plane, Harris-Moore would take their car to their house and eat their food. At one point, Harris-Moore entered their home while Parnell was there with his wife and three children and grabbed his wife's car keys off a counter.
"We were all fearing for our lives," Parnell said Thursday. "The kids wouldn't sleep in their own bedrooms. We purchased night vision goggles. I'm glad that day is finally approaching when we will finally know what the consequences are, and I hope it's sufficient for the way our whole island suffered."
Harris-Moore's final spree came after he stole a pistol in eastern British Columbia and took a plane from a hangar in Idaho, where investigators found bare footprints on the floor and wall. That plane crashed near Granite Falls, Wash., after it ran out of fuel.
He made his way to Oregon in a 32-foot boat stolen in southwestern Washington — stopping first to leave $100 at an animal shelter in Raymond, Wash. From Oregon, authorities said, Harris-Moore traveled across the United States, frequently stealing cars from the parking lots of small airports. In Indiana, he stole another plane and made for the Bahamas, more than 1,000 miles away, where authorities finally caught him in a manhunt that spanned multiple islands.
Among the courtroom spectators Friday were 18-year-olds Annie Cain and Hayley Hanna, who drove from nearby Langley to be at the courthouse at 5:30 a.m. — four hours before the hearing.
"We wanted to be here just because he's so young, and everything he did, it's fascinating," Cain said.
Hanna got to the point even more quickly: "He's a badass," she said.
"This man is a serial burglar," San Juan County Prosecutor Randall Gaylord told The Associated Press. "I'm glad he's going to be held accountable, and I'm really glad he's taking responsibility for these things. I hope he gets through this chapter in his life, is resilient and is able to move on."
Fox bought the movie rights in a deal that could be worth $1.3 million, and Dustin Lance Black, who won an Academy Award for writing the movie "Milk," about the gay rights activist Harvey Milk, is working on the screenplay.
Harris-Moore doesn't get to keep any of the money under the terms of his federal plea deal.
Msnbc.com contributed to this report by The Associated Press.
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