Orcas author publishes in-depth book on Barefoot Bandit

Bob Friel
Bob Friel's book cover.
— image credit: contributed photo

It’s a story that took over a local writer’s life.

Bob Friel’s interest in teen burglar Colton Harris-Moore began as personal curiosity. The saga later became the focus of a meticulously researched book, “The Barefoot Bandit: The True Tale of Colton Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw,” published by Hyperion this month.

Friel says it’s been a unique opportunity to write about a crime story that he actually experienced.

“We lived through the birth of this thing,” he said. “Orcas was ground zero for this … and I was able to separate fact from fiction. I think people will enjoy seeing what really went down in what has become island lore.”

Friel will be signing copies of his book on Friday, March 23 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Darvill’s Bookstore. He will give proceeds from books sold at Darvill’s to local children’s charities.

Camano Island native Harris-Moore was on the lam for two years, hiding out in Orcas Island homes and the woods before finally being caught in July 2010 in the Bahamas. He reportedly spent time hiding in an airplane hangar owned by Mike and Dawn Parnell, waiting until they flew off so he could drive their car to their home, eat their food and wear their clothing. He stole six boats and airplanes from San Juan County, crashing one plane and damaging two others during landings.

His exploits grabbed national headlines during a crime spree that spanned nine states and prompted an international manhunt. His owes his victims an estimated $1.4 million in damages.

Harris-Moore, who will turn 21 in a few weeks, pled guilty to 33 state charges and seven federal charges, including stealing an aircraft, possession of firearms and piloting without a license. He is serving a six- and seven-year sentence concurrently.

In August 2011, Harris-Moore signed a movie deal worth $1.3 million, all of which will go to his victims. The 20th Century Fox film will be based on Friel’s work and the screenplay is being written by Oscar-winner Lance Black.

Friel’s book is part true crime adventure, part journalist’s memoir. He conducted hundreds of interviews with victims, witnesses, law enforcement, and locals who tried to capture Harris-Moore, as well as the young man’s friends, family, teachers, and prison buddies. Friel turned over every stone in Harris-Moore’s past.

He worked on the book from September 2009 to January 2012. While Friel says he wrote a “very balanced” account of Harris-Moore’s story, he discovered painful details about the young man’s childhood. Because he never committed violent crimes, took drugs or joined a gang, Friel hopes the Barefoot Bandit’s saga will illuminate the struggles of disadvantaged children.

“There are people who have known him since he was a kid and tried to help him … this could have worked out totally differently, there are points where his life could have changed,” Friel said. “Those same people and others are now paying to give him specialized help when he is in prison … this is for him to grasp. He needs to man up and accept this therapy.”

Friel, who lives on Orcas with his wife Sandi, has authored hundreds of articles for magazines such as Outside, Islands, Boating, Philadelphia, Sunset, Caribbean Travel & Life, and Smithsonian Air & Space over the span of his 25-year career.

“It was bad luck for Colton that he picked an island with an investigative reporter,” joked Friel. “The good thing about me being the one who wrote this is that almost all of these stories are now being told from the point of view of the victim … people think I’ve become rich doing this – and they are very wrong. I’ve made less doing this book than if I was doing freelance magazine work full-time because it took so long to write.”

While Friel says he's covered kids who've committed far worse crimes than Harris-Moore, the effect the Barefoot Bandit had on Orcas remains palpable.

“I don’t like that I lock my doors every night,” he said. “And that is directly attributed to Colton.”


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