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Originally published July 19, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified July 20, 2010 at 7:30 AM

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'Barefoot Bandit' to fly on 'Con-Air'

Colton Harris-Moore, captured in the Bahamas earlier this month, is accused of stealing several airplanes as he dodged law enforcement for nearly two years. But it's unlikely he's going to care much for his next flight: a coach seat on America's most infamous airline — "Con-Air," the popular nickname for the U.S. Marshals Service's Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS).

Seattle Times staff reporter

Colton Harris-Moore, the so-called "Barefoot Bandit" captured in the Bahamas earlier this month, reportedly has a thing about flying — he's accused of stealing several airplanes as he dodged law enforcement for nearly two years.

But it's unlikely he's going to care much for his next flight: a coach seat on America's most infamous airline — "Con-Air," the popular nickname for the U.S. Marshals Service's Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS).

At 6-foot-5, the 19-year-old Harris-Moore will be hurting for leg room, just as he would on a commercial flight.

Adding to his discomfort, however, will be the handcuffs and leg irons he'll be required to wear during the duration of the flight. The "Fasten Seatbelts" light never goes off, and there is no moving around the cabin.

For trips to the restroom, inmates shuffle down the aisle in chains and under guard.

"It's a sterile environment," said Scott Rolstad, the assistant director of the program, which is based in Kansas City, Mo. "Think of it as a jail cell, only at 30,000 feet."

The federal transport service is probably best known for the 1997 Nicolas Cage and John Cusack film "Con Air," which depicted the hijacking of a federal marshals' flight by a collection of bloodthirsty cons with nicknames like "Cyrus the Virus," "Swamp Thing" and "The Marietta Mangler." The skyjacking ended spectacularly — if not realistically — with a crash on the Las Vegas Strip.

David Miller, the chief deputy U.S. marshal in Western Washington, said the agency doesn't comment on prisoner movement for security reasons. He said Monday that it's "unlikely" that Harris-Moore's transportation schedule has even been finalized.

"There's nothing definitive right now," he said. "But it could be that he'll be here late this week, or maybe early next."

Harris-Moore was arrested after a brief chase by Bahamian police earlier this month and flown to Miami, where last week he appeared before a U.S. magistrate judge. Harris-Moore was ordered to be returned to Seattle to face a federal charge of stealing an airplane in Idaho and crashing it near Granite Falls last year.

He's also suspected in a string of burglaries, thefts and other property crimes in jurisdictions from Western Washington to Indiana since he fled a Renton halfway house two years ago.

Harris-Moore remains in the custody of the Marshals Service, which is responsible for federal courthouse security, capturing federal fugitives and getting them to court.

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Harris-Moore will be flown on one of 10 aircraft the Marshals Service employs to move inmates about the country. JPATS — which also employs smaller planes and a fleet of cars and vans for shorter trips — moved more than 345,000 federal prisoners last year, nearly a third of them by air, according to the Marshals Service.

An overview of the system on the U.S. Marshals' website describes Con-Air as the country's only government-operated, regularly scheduled airline in the United States — a "fleet of high-flying paddy wagons" that routinely services 70 domestic and international cities, and dozens of other U.S. towns on an as-needed basis.

"For its passengers, there is no first-class cabin, no complimentary beverage offered during flight, and restroom breaks are traditionally allowed only during brief four-to-six-city daily stops," wrote Jason Wojdylo, a supervisory deputy U.S. marshal in Indiana, in a trade-magazine article in 2005.

In 1991, Seattle Times Picture Editor Barry Fitzsimmons, then a photographer for The San Diego Union-Tribune, photographed convicted prisoners being transferred around the country on a "Con-Air" flight.

Fitzsimmons recalls the plane was a white airliner with no identifying marks except for a blue stripe along the sides of the plane. The aircraft landed in a remote area of the Phoenix airport to offload a handful of prisoners and take on a few more as part of the transfer service.

The prisoners — handcuffed and chained together — were searched before being loaded, Fitzsimmons recalled. Armed guards stood around outside the plane with weapons, mostly shotguns, at the ready.

As he boarded, Fitzsimmons was told two guns were hidden on the plane in case of a security breach. Only the marshals on board knew their location.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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