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Bahamas intensifies hunt for 'Barefoot Bandit'

/ Source: The Associated Press

The wily resourcefulness of a fugitive teenage thief was on display again Thursday as he eluded an intensifying manhunt on a sparsely populated island in the Bahamas — while earning some grudging respect from locals.

Soldiers in camouflage uniforms and police armed with shotguns fanned out with German shepherds as the search for Colton Harris-Moore entered its fifth day on Great Abaco Island, where police believe he has been hiding out since ditching a stolen plane offshore. Authorities suspect the teen dubbed the "Barefoot Bandit" has been hiding in thick groves of trees and emerging at night to break into homes and shops and steal provisions.

"We are intensifying our search and we are going to be relentless until we catch him," Assistant Police Commissioner Glenn Miller said.

As the 19-year-old fugitive continues to evade the island-wide dragnet, some of Abaco's 16,000 residents have expressed the same admiration that Harris-Moore has won in corners of the United States during his two-year run from the law. Since escaping from a halfway house, he has become a folk hero of sorts, with escapes allegedly involving stolen cars, boats and airplanes.

"I tip my hat to the fellow," said Clayton Sands, a 54-year-old Bahamian who, like nearly everyone else, has been following every twist in the case. "For him to duck and dodge the police in two countries at 19, that's impressive."

Wanted posters featuring the blue-eyed, 6-foot, 5-inch teen have been plastered across this one-stoplight sailing town, where tourists and locals debated prospects for the fugitive's capture. A playful video circulating among islanders showed a footprint etched in the parking lot outside a Marsh Harbour government building.

"I don't think they're going to get him. He's not going to come out in the daytime," said Andrew Gates, 42, a heavy-equipment operator. "He's a smart guy."

The few people who have crossed paths with Harris-Moore say he does not seem nervous.

Bartender Colby Curry said the fugitive entered his sports bar Tuesday evening, drank a locally made Kalik beer and left after five minutes. He said Harris-Moore was wearing a cap over a shaved head, and no shoes.

"He was really calm," said Curry, who only realized it was the fugitive after police called the bar because Harris-Moore had been reported in the area. "He seemed like just a regular guy."

But there are limits to the warm island vibe. The Bahamas is a socially conservative society and Abaco is unaccustomed to crime, so Harris-Moore should not be able to count on prolonged tolerance.

Police and soldiers were patrolling the island's coastlines and airports — potential escape routes — as investigators followed a trail of seven break-ins leading north from the mangrove-lined inlet where the Cessna was abandoned Sunday in knee-deep water. The FBI has offered a $10,000 reward for his capture, and the island chain's government dispatched detectives from the capital, Nassau.

To his admirers, part of Harris-Moore's appeal is that he's not known for violence. But the FBI's wanted poster warns that he might possess stolen firearms and should be considered dangerous.

Last year, Washington state deputies responding to a break-in near where Harris-Moore allegedly crashed a stolen plane pulled back on their search after hearing a gunshot. Later, they found a makeshift campsite and a stolen weapon, according to a federal complaint unsealed in Seattle this week.

Miller said Harris-Moore could be hiding in the buttonwood trees and other vegetation that cover Abaco, a mostly undeveloped, 650-square-mile (1,680-square-kilometer) island that is about half the size of Rhode Island. Unconfirmed sightings of him in the bush have been reported as recently as Wednesday night.

Police have released few details of the investigation, in part to keep Harris-Moore from gaining any more popularity than he already has.

"We don't want him to be in the Bahamas as a celebrity. We are trying to demystify (him), so when he leaves, he leaves here in custody with the American law enforcement personnel," said Hulan Hanna, an assistant police superintendent.

Burglary victims say the thief appeared to be looking mainly for cash and Internet access. At the Curly Tails restaurant in Marsh Harbour, where Harris-Moore was apparently videotaped by security cameras during a Tuesday morning break-in, owner Alistair McDonald said the burglar moved cables on the modem and carried his own laptop computer.

An experienced outdoorsman, Harris-Moore grew up in the woods of Camano Island in Puget Sound, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Seattle, and quickly ran afoul of the law. Within a few months of turning 13, he had been sentenced to 10-day stints in detention or community service at least four times for a series of thefts.

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 behaved well enough 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 and at least four other airplane thefts. He earned the "Barefoot Bandit" nickname because he allegedly went shoeless for some of his crimes and left behind footprints.

The latest caper began when Harris-Moore, who has no formal flight training, allegedly stole the single-engine Cessna from an airport in Bloomington, Indiana, and flew it more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to this low-lying island chain off the Florida coast.

Authorities said the plane was reported missing only after its emergency-locator transmitter began sending a signal off the coast of the Bahamas.