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Originally published October 2, 2009 at 11:29 AM | Page modified October 3, 2009 at 7:01 PM

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Did teen serial burglar steal plane from Idaho airport?

Authorities are investigating whether teenage serial burglar Colton Harris-Moore stole a small airplane from an Idaho airport earlier this week and crashed it near Granite Falls.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Could the notorious teen burglar really teach himself how to fly?

Could the notorious teen burglar really teach himself how to fly?

Investigators say they have no suspects yet in the case of a stolen plane crashed in Western Washington, but they are considering a teen burglar whose crime spree continues to grow. KING 5's Owen Lei talked with pilots about the strange likelihood that Colton Harris-Moore taught himself how to fly.

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Authorities are investigating whether 18-year-old serial burglar Colton Harris-Moore stole a small airplane from an Idaho airport earlier this week and crash-landed it near Granite Falls.

The single-engine Cessna 182 Turbo was taken from the Boundary County Airport near Bonners Ferry on Tuesday and was found Thursday southeast of Granite Falls, according to Detective Dave McClelland of the Boundary County Sheriff's Office.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it appears only one person was aboard the plane when it crashed after running out of fuel. The pilot then reportedly fled.

Harris-Moore, of Camano Island, has been a fugitive since he walked out of a Renton juvenile security facility in April 2008. He has been the focus of a manhunt after a string of burglaries and thefts on Camano Island and the San Juan Islands.

The San Juan County Sheriff's Office is also looking into whether he was responsible for the thefts of two other small planes.

Harris-Moore is now the focus of an investigation into the theft of the plane from Idaho, which is being conducted by the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, FBI and the FAA, McClelland said.

"We all think we know who it is," McClelland said.

McClelland said Boundary County authorities suspect that Harris-Moore stole a car in southwest Canada and then ditched the vehicle near the Idaho border.

Harris-Moore then may have walked across the border into Idaho and stolen another car, which was abandoned near the Bonners Ferry area, he said.

The Camano Island man is then believed to have stolen the Cessna.

McClelland declined to say what evidence specifically points to Harris-Moore, but said DNA from the stolen vehicles and from the airplane is being examined.

Island County sheriff's Detective Ed Wallace said his office is assisting Snohomish County.

"Based on the possibility that it could be Colton Harris-Moore, we have sent our Camano Island deputy to assist in any way he can," Wallace said.

Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman Rebecca Hover would not call Harris-Moore a suspect in the Granite Falls plane crash. She said any assumption that he stole the Cessna from Idaho is "speculation at this point."

"We don't have any suspects," she said.

Harris-Moore, who has never been formally trained as a pilot, may have learned the basics of flying by reading flight-training manuals and searching the Internet, Wallace said.

Pilots interviewed by The Times disagree over whether someone with no formal training can learn to fly by simply reading manuals and Internet sites.

While some pilots say it is possible, all agree that landing an airplane would be the most difficult task for an untrained individual.

But his mother, Pam Koehler, of Camano Island, doubts her son is responsible for the plane thefts.

"Anytime the cops can't catch whoever is doing them, they blame it on Colt," she said last month.

McClelland, the Idaho deputy sheriff, said the Cessna was stolen from Boundary County Airport between 5:30 and 6 a.m. Tuesday. He said no one witnessed the theft, but people reported seeing and hearing a low-flying plane leaving the airport that morning heading south or southwest.

On Thursday, a logger contacted Snohomish County authorities after finding the 2005 Cessna, worth $340,000, crashed outside of Granite Falls, McClelland said.

"From what I'm told, the guy landed it in the clear-cut and did a bit of damage to the plane," McClelland said. "It was a very hard landing. Then he ran away."

The plane was identified by its tail number, authorities said.

Authorities say Harris-Moore is a suspect in two earlier plane thefts. A Cessna 182 was stolen from an Orcas Island hangar last November and flown to Eastern Washington, where it made a "hard landing" on the Yakama Indian Reservation.

On Sept. 11, Harris-Moore allegedly stole an experimental aircraft from Friday Harbor and flew it to Orcas Island, where it, too, made a "hard landing."

The plane stolen from Boundary County Airport had between four and five hours worth of fuel and likely crashed the day it was stolen, McClelland said. Authorities believe it was flown at a low altitude to avoid radar detection, he said.

The theft came just days after burglaries were reported at the Creston, B.C., airport, which is about 35 miles north of Bonners Ferry.

Handguns, food, beer and other supplies were stolen from the Creston airport over the weekend. Authorities also said someone tried to steal a plane, according to The Spokesman-Review.

Authorities said they believe the same group or individual broke into the Boundary County Airport on Sunday night before returning early Tuesday to take the Cessna, Jessica Short, airport office manager, told The Spokesman-Review.

The owner of the plane, who lives in Bonners Ferry, bought a large padlock for the hangar after Sunday night's break-in, Short said, but it didn't deter the thieves.

"They have to have some kind of intelligence to steal an airplane without keys," Short said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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