Judge treads lightly on Barefoot Bandit

Colton Harris-Moore and his attorney, John Henry Browne, listen as the judge discusses the charges against the young man known as the Barefoot Bandit.   - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Colton Harris-Moore and his attorney, John Henry Browne, listen as the judge discusses the charges against the young man known as the Barefoot Bandit.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

The real Colton Harris-Moore bears little resemblance to the image of the brazen Barefoot Bandit who captured worldwide headlines with his exploits during a two-year crime spree.

Instead, his defense attorneys, a forensic psychiatrist and even prosecutors described him as a painfully shy young man who survived a horrendous childhood, is embarrassed by media attention and does not consider himself a folk hero.

Harris-Moore stared at his feet during most of his sentencing hearing that spanned Friday morning and most of the afternoon in Island County Superior Court in Coupeville.

The stories of Harris-Moore’s trials and tribulations apparently swayed Judge Vickie Churchill, who pointed out that she had sentenced him in a different case four years ago. She balanced the sentencing recommendations from the defense and prosecution and came down in the middle, sending the former Camano Island resident to prison for seven years and three months.

Before the sentencing, Harris-Moore pleaded guilty to a total of 16 counts from Island County, including theft of a firearm and residential burglary. Then the hearing continued with Harris-Moore pleading guilty to 17 counts from San Juan County.

Churchill said she was mindful of Harris-Moore’s tragic childhood. He started stealing and burglarizing homes when he was a very young boy just to get something to eat after his mother drank away the welfare money. Children taunted him at school for living in a derelict home and wearing clothes that didn’t fit.

“It was a mind-numbing absence of hope,” she said of Harris-Moore’s written description of his childhood.

Moreover, Churchill said it was amazing that the young man didn’t use drugs and alcohol and follow his mother down the path of addiction.

“This represents the triumph of the human spirit and the triumph of Colton Harris-Moore. He survived,” the judge said.

Still, Churchill said she had to follow the law and couldn’t give him an exceptional sentence below the standard sentencing range, as the defense had asked. She said she considered the victims, though she pointed out that his crimes were non-violent.

Harris-Moore’s attorneys, John Henry Browne and Emma Scanlan, pulled out all the stops in their presentations. Browne called to the stand a forensic and clinical psychiatrist who specializes in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Dr. Richard Adler of Seattle testified that Harris-Moore clearly suffers from “an alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder” that was greatly aggravated by his terrible home life. The disorder causes him to have problems with impulsivity and language.

Unlike his image in the media, the doctor said repeated testing showed that Harris-Moore isn’t “hyper-intelligent” or especially sophisticated.

“I think necessity is the mother of invention,” the doctor said. “From what I know about his childhood, he learned to be resourceful.”

Scanlan also described Harris-Moore’s painful childhood, as well as his crime spree. She agreed that Harris-Moore caused a lot of fear, but she said his time on the run was also terrifying for him. He was cold, slept in portable toilets and feared that the cops wanted to hurt him.

“He has his mother, Pam Kohler, telling him that they are going to hunt you down, they are going to find you and they are going to kill you,” she said.

Scanlan admitted that she was shocked that the young man didn’t want to profit from his story, but instead immediately agreed to give any money from a movie deal to victims of his crimes. Brown pointed out that it is extremely embarrassing for Harris-Moore to discuss his personal life with screenwriters, but he’s doing it to help those he’s hurt.

“He does not like attention, despite what others will say,” Browne said.

“Colton has a tremendous spirit and I am afraid, and my whole defense team is afraid, his spirit will be killed and destroyed by a lenghty sentence,” he added.

The two prosecutors didn’t argue with the facts of Harris-Moore’s awful childhood or that the facts should mitigate a lengthy sentence. They explained that they took all those factors in account when recommending a sentence of just less than 10 years.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said he discussed the sentence recommendation with prosecutors from San Juan and Snohomish County, as well as prosecutors from across the country. He said they considered the impact the crimes had on the victims, the number of victims, Harris-Moore’s “tragic upbringing,” the fact that the crimes were non-violent and that no drugs and alcohol were involved.

“All these factors went into the calculus of deciding the appropriate sentence for Mr. Harris-Moore is about 10 years,” Banks said. “The consensus was, this is about right. This is what he deserves.”

Randall Gaylord, the prosecutor for San Juan County, detailed the 17 crimes Harris-Moore committed in his county, which included the theft of six boats and airplanes. Harris-Moore crashed one of the planes and damaged two others in landing.

Gaylord said the Barefoot Bandit exhibited “a high level of sophistication and planning.” He explained how Harris-Moore broke into a business, ordered a DVD about “how to fly airplanes” and broke back in three days later to steal it.

Gaylord described how Harris-Moore created a little “den or lair” in an upper level of an Orcas Island hangar owned by Mike Parnell and his family. Harris-Moore kept the family “under surveillance” and moved into the home when they were away.

“He would eat their food, take their shoes and put on their clothes,” Gaylord said. “He made the place his own when they were not there.”

“I would say East Sound lost its innocence at the hands of Mr. Harris-Moore,” he added.

Gaylord argued that Harris-Moore “crossed a line” and went from being a youthful offender who needed help to an adult criminal when he landed a stolen airplane in Snohomish County, broke into a home and stole a .22 caliber firearm.

“When he did that, he changed who he was and he changed how a court should consider his conduct,” he said.

Only three of the many victims spoke at the hearing. Granite Falls resident Robert Gleyre described how Harris-Moore broke into his home and stole food, survival gear and a gun.

“The people who say he’s a hero obviously haven’t been violated like this,” he said.


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