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Authorities target 'barefoot burglar' in Bahamas

A  teenage thief who hopscotched his way across the U.S. and escaped in a stolen plane to the Bahamas lived up to his legend Wednesday, eluding a manhunt after allegedly committing a series of break-ins.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A wily teenage thief who hopscotched his way across the U.S. and escaped in a stolen plane to the Bahamas lived up to his legend Wednesday, eluding a manhunt after allegedly committing a new series of break-ins on a normally quiet island.

Bahamian police interviewed burglary victims while searching for Colton Harris-Moore on sun-speckled Great Abaco Island days after the fugitive who has been dubbed the “Barefoot Bandit” crash-landed the plane and made his way to shore.

His arrival coincided with an annual regatta that may make it easy for him to blend in among the crowds of visiting tourists.

A Royal Bahamian Police Force bulletin warned that the 19-year-old should be considered “armed and dangerous.” Back in the U.S., he has become a folk hero of sorts, with a fan club hawking T-shirts emblazoned with his image, songs about his exploits and tens of thousands of followers on Facebook.

Bar and restaurant owner Alistair McDonald said he was one of the thief’s latest victims.

McDonald said surveillance video captured the suspect inside his establishment in Great Abaco’s Marsh Harbour before dawn Tuesday. He said the teen at one point looked directly into a security camera, then shone a flashlight into it to blur the image and turned all three security cameras to face the wall.

“He seemed pretty relaxed and at ease,” McDonald said, adding he thinks the thief was looking for money or got spooked because he left without stealing anything, not even a bottle of water. He gave the tape to police.

Service station owner Dwight Pinder said his shop on the southern tip of Great Abaco was burglarized Sunday night, shortly after the plane crash in a nearby marsh. The thief stole a Gatorade and two packets of potato chips, leaving a bundle of food and drinks on the counter — a sign he apparently left in a rush.

Pinder told The Associated Press that the thief was so skilled that he didn’t even scratch the lock he picked.

A nearby house was also burglarized, with the thief making off with a brown Chevrolet Tahoe that was later found abandoned in the town of Marsh Harbour.

Assistant Police Commissioner Glenn Miller said Harris-Moore is a suspect in the burglary of at least seven homes and businesses on Great Abaco, the largest of dozens of small islands and cays that are a part of the sprawling Bahamas archipelago east of Florida. The island is small, but its dense clusters of trees provide good cover for a proven outdoorsman like Harris-Moore.

Police scoured the island for the lanky teen, who is 6 feet, 5 inches tall but still has a boyish face that has led some to compare him to the Leonardo DiCaprio character in the film “Catch Me If You Can.”

National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest said local authorities were working with the FBI, which posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to Harris-Moore’s capture.

“If he is there to be caught our police will catch him,” Turnquest said.

Assistant Superintendent Hulan Hanna said police believed the fugitive was still on Abaco.

“We have taken steps to neutralize the areas he may try to use to leave the island,” Hanna said. “We have been talking to people on the ground, we have distributed fliers featuring his photo throughout the island.”

Caroline Smith, a clerk at a marina in Marsh Harbour, said the manhunt on the typically quiet island of 16,000 residents has people buzzing with rumors.

“I’ve heard he stole a car. Someone else says he stole a boat. Everybody’s talking a whole lot,” Smith said.

Harris-Moore grew up in the woods of Camano Island in Puget Sound about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Seattle. His mother has said he displayed a love of thieving at a young age.

His first conviction — for possession of stolen property — came at age 12. Within a few months of turning 13, he had three more. Each brought a 10-day stint in detention or community service.

In 2007, he was sentenced to nearly four years in juvenile detention after being caught in an unoccupied home when a neighbor noticed the lights on. But he did well enough at the detention center that he was transferred to a halfway house, where he sneaked out of an open window more than two years ago.

He has since been linked to dozens of burglaries, including several airplane thefts. During the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, a plane that may have been stolen by Harris-Moore skirted a flight zone set up for the event. It never entered restricted airspace during its erratic journey, helping the pilot evade authorities.

He was pinned with the nickname “Barefoot Bandit” for allegedly committing some crimes while shoeless.

Pam Kohler, Harris-Moore’s mother, said she wasn’t surprised her son might be able to make the 1,000-mile (1,610-kilometer) flight from where the plane was stolen in Bloomington, Indiana, to the Bahamas after teaching himself how to fly.

She has publicly defended her son, and claims the allegations against him are exaggerated. She told The Associated Press she would have preferred he fled to a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States.

“The furthest he gets from the U.S., the better,” she said from her home on Camano Island in Washington state. “I’m glad he’s able to enjoy beautiful islands, but they extradite. It doesn’t help matters at all.”

Kohler said she is worried about his safety.

“Colt is not to be flying a single engine-plane,” she insisted, saying she was worried about engine failure. “When I heard that, that just upset me. The rules are he carries a parachute with him and he takes two-engine planes. Tell him he needs to call me.”

On Elbow Cay, one of dozens of tiny islands scattered around Great Abaco Island, residents said they were being vigilant.

“We’re keeping an eye out for him and just hoping he doesn’t do anything crazy,” said Valery McPhee, who runs a convenience store in the enclave of Hope Town.

He could try to blend in with tourists vacationing on the islands. The Regatta Time in Abaco is an annual ritual for sailors, mostly from nearby South Florida. Organizer Kathy Ralph said some 50 boats are participating in races and the competition, the area’s biggest annual event, has drawn more than 2,000 spectators.

On Orcas Island north of Seattle, which has been one of Harris-Moore’s favorite stomping grounds in the past year, an official said he hoped news of the teenager’s adventures abroad meant he wouldn’t be coming back soon.

“Speaking on behalf of the business community, we’re thrilled,” Chamber of Commerce Director Lance Evans said. “We’re hopeful that authorities anywhere he finds himself will catch him.”