A conversation with the Barefoot Bandit

It was a normal workday at the Sounder until we got a call from the Stafford Creek Corrections Center.

Colton Harris-Moore, the convicted burglar and plane thief, was calling to talk. As the reporter and editor who covered his teenage crime spree in the San Juans, it was a shock for me to hear his voice.

And as I threw questions at him – on topics I had been wondering about for years – it was surprising to hear his articulate, self-aware answers. Here was a human being behind the mask of the “Barefoot Bandit.”

Harris-Moore called many news outlets last week. He is desperately trying to raise $300,000 to cryogenically freeze his mother, who is at the end stage of advanced lung cancer. It’s unlikely he will see her before his July release date.

My initial question to him was: Why do you think our community will want to help someone who once terrorized businesses and homeowners? He answered: “I truly had no idea it affected people as deeply as it did. To me, I thought that surely people know that I am not trying to hurt anybody … the best thing to do is try to salvage that and clear the slate and repay people however I can … I’ll never commit another crime in my life. If anybody ever needs help from me, or an organization needs help, I won’t hesitate.”

Harris-Moore used a movie deal with 20th Century Fox to pay back more than $1 million to his victims. He has declined involvement in documentaries and television shows. He has not given interviews until now. He hasn’t financially profited from his notoriety. Upon his release, Harris-Moore wants to work, get his pilot’s license and stay far away from the public eye. I’m inclined to believe him when he says he has tried to make it right. And let’s remember: his crimes were non-violent.

After publishing the full interview on our website last week, some of our readers were angry that we were “promoting this thug” and how “lucky” he was to earn a degree while incarcerated. We get it. It’s hard to forgive someone who eluded police and the FBI for two years and instilled fear in our communities by breaking into businesses, vacant homes, living in the woods and stealing boats and planes.

While the story I wrote is impartial and unbiased, we do have empathy for Harris-Moore as he waits inside a prison cell as his mother slowly dies. She is the only family he has, and he feels helpless from within his four walls. Putting aside the strangeness of his desire to cryogenically preserve her (incidentally, this practice is gaining popularity), his story raises questions about a broader subject.

What does it mean to forgive? Can criminals be rehabilitated? Do we believe that “paying a debt to society” absolves convicts? If we treated released criminals differently, would recidivism rates decrease? Why do young people commit crimes?

Part of being a teenager is lacking the brain development to consider long-term consequences. For most of us, the mistakes we make in our youth are private. For Harris-Moore, his mistakes were on a grand, illegal scale, and he is now a convicted criminal. I believe that offenders should be held accountable for their actions – regardless of the age. But after talking to him at length, I have faith in his dream of a normal, productive life. I heard the determination in his voice. And we all know what Harris-Moore is capable of if he puts his mind to it.

To read the news article about the Barefoot Bandit by Colleen Armstrong, click here.