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Orcas writer profiles Colton Harris-Moore in latest Outside magazine

Bob Friel, above, has traveled the world as a writer. But one of his most interesting stories happened right here in his backyard: the San Juans.  - contributed photo
Bob Friel, above, has traveled the world as a writer. But one of his most interesting stories happened right here in his backyard: the San Juans.
— image credit: contributed photo

Behind every legendary outlaw is a human being.

And it was Bob Friel's job to find the boy behind the Barefoot Burglar.

“It's a great, meaty story,” said Friel, an Orcas writer, of his attempt to chronicle the life of Colton Harris-Moore – a young man revered for his cunning evasion of the law or loathed for his disregard of others' property, depending on whom you ask.

“I've spent nearly a decade specializing in Caribbean travel stories,” Friel said. “So it was exciting to be back working on a feature like this with an adventure angle and interesting characters.”

Harris-Moore, who turned 18 last year, is a suspect in more than 100 crimes, mostly felonies, since escaping from “juvie” 20 months ago. He is wanted in five Washington counties – Island, Snohomish, San Juan, Whatcom, and Kitsap – as well as in Idaho.

For Friel, a freelance writer, photographer and videographer who has traveled the globe, exploring the life of a teen public enemy harkened back to his early days as a reporter.

Friel interviewed some 30 people involved in the case, including extensive sessions with Harris-Moore's mom, Pam Kohler, on Camano Island. His 8,000-word story (originally submitted at a hefty 14,000 words) is the feature piece in the January edition of the nationally known adventure magazine Outside.

He wrote the story from an unusual perspective: as a member of a community that has been touched by Harris-Moore's alleged crimes, which authorities say include home and business break-ins and the theft of two planes and a boat.

“Like everyone else on the island, I had followed it,” Friel said. “I stood around bonfires and at dinners and talked to people. And then I said, 'wait a second, this is a great story.' I had planned to call Esquire, but I was talking to Outside magazine and they wanted it.”

On Friel's first trip to Camano last fall, he arrived right after a team from Esquire had left.

“Outside wanted to beat them to the newsstands, so it became an incredible rush to get it done,” he said. “The whole thing with getting this story was gaining access. Other papers had talked to his mom, but they were just using these strange sound bites. There's always more to people than that. Her phone had been disconnected, so I FedExed her a letter, and made my case as to why I should be the one she talks to. The police were amazed I got inside her trailer with her. She gave me some artwork Colton did, and the only photo she had of him as a child.”

Friel says the in-depth part of the story is “how this kid fell through the cracks.”

“Yes, he had a rough upbringing, but lots of kids do and end up fine,” Friel said. “He had totally checked out by the time he was in the fifth grade.

“Once I started digging deep, including reading psych evaluations for him, you really start feeling for this kid. And at some point, you think his mom is a horrible person. And then you spend time with her, and she tells you about her background.”

In his hometown of Camano, Harris-Moore became known as “Klepto Colt” after breaking into his school. The only time the young man received attention was when he got into trouble.

“That attention filled in for what was lacking,” Friel said.

One of the most compelling parts of the story for Friel was Harris-Moore's apparent natural ability to fly an airplane.

“This is a 17-year-old who has never even been in a plane, and he allegedly is responsible for at least two of the plane thefts. He has a natural talent,” Friel said. “Even if you hate the kid, anyone has to sit back and say, 'wow.'”

Harris-Moore was diagnosed with ADHD, but Friel says anything he was interested in, he learned about, amassing a vast knowledge of Northwest plants and animals. Harris-Moore, he says, is apparently not a sociopath and does not do drugs.

“He takes responsibility for what he's done. He knows he has problems, and he doesn't blame it on his childhood,” Friel said.

He believes it is unlikely that the teen is still hiding out in the woods, as he is known to do in the summer months.

“When he is on the run, he is basically Yogi Bear: he is looking for picnic baskets,” Friel said. “He has also stolen iPods and laptops, but he doesn't sell them. His mom tells me that he's living in a house, with his own room. I tend to believe it, since it would be much easier for the police to catch him in the winter. Why he then comes out of hibernation and goes back to breaking into our houses and into businesses, I don't know.”

Harris-Moore calls his mother frequently, and follows Friel's blog.

“He is not happy that she talks to the press,” Friel said. “He has read parts of the blog to his mom over the phone. I think about it when I'm posting now. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing.”

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