Barefoot Bandit's letter moves judge to sympathy
Colton Harris-Moore, dubbed the Barefoot Bandit, was sentenced Friday to more than seven years in prison for 33 felony charges stemming from his two-year crime spree in Island, San Juan and Snohomish counties.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Colton Harris-Moore's letter to the judge
Video: Colton Harris-Moore fleeing in the Bahamas (2010)
COUPEVILLE, Island County — At one time, he had more than 56,000 followers on a Facebook fan page and became a cult hero as the Barefoot Bandit, who eluded cops as he stole airplanes and cars, and burglarized homes and businesses in a two-year crime spree.
But on Friday, in a small courtroom here, the journey of Colton Harris-Moore ended with little more than a sad whimper as he was sentenced to more than seven years in state prison.
He sat emotionless in handcuffs and orange jail clothes, mostly looking to the floor.
But the 20-year-old showed his emotions in a harrowing, six-page letter that he wrote himself — without telling his attorney — and sent to Island County Judge Vickie Churchill, who on Friday decided his fate.
The letter contains his first explanations about his life and what led to his crimes.
" ... I take full responsibility for my actions, these explanations are only to provide you with context, not excuses ... ," wrote Harris-Moore. "First, my childhood was one that I would not wish on my darkest enemies ... my thirst for knowledge, cries for help, and coming of age was met with inept parents suffering from drugs and alcohol."
Attorney John Henry Browne says that his client went through 10 or so drafts of the letter, typing it on a jail computer.
He also sent the letter to U.S. District Judge Richard Jones, who will sentence Harris-Moore to up to 6 ½ years on federal charges in January, and has the option to make the sentences run concurrently.
The state case that concluded Friday included 33 felony charges in three counties — Island, San Juan and Snohomish. Harris-Moore pleaded guilty to 32 of the charges, ranging from identity theft to burglary, and entered an Alford plea (a plea of no contest) on another.
Churchill gave Harris-Moore the low end of the sentencing range; prosecutors had asked for a nearly 10-year sentence and called Harris-Moore a "menace."
Several of his victims had told the judge how they feared for their safety after their homes or businesses were broken into.
Some were upset that Harris-Moore was thought of as a hero when he was on the run, and that he had some measure of public support even after he was captured in the Bahamas in July 2010.
"The damage to his victims was high, and they continue on," Churchill said.
Churchill noted that the shy Harris-Moore agreed to a $1.3 million movie deal, willing to share his embarrassing story in order to pay back his victims. "Restitution weighs heavily on the court, and he has the means to pay full restitution," she said.
But mostly she talked sympathetically about Harris-Moore, whom she said she remembered from a 2007 case, when he was a minor. She said she was struck by the 100 pages of mitigation documents presented by defense attorneys, which dealt mostly with his upbringing.
She said Harris-Moore's childhood — "little better than a dog's" with an abusive and alcoholic mother — doesn't excuse his crimes, but should be taken into account.
"This case is a tragedy in many ways, but it's also a triumph of the human spirit in other ways," she said, calling his upbringing a "mind-numbing absence of hope."
She noted he was forced to steal food as a young boy because he had nothing to eat, and that he had to bear the taunts and jeers of classmates who ridiculed him because he lived in a derelict mobile home.
"I was struck that I could be reading the history of a mass murderer. I could have been reading about a drug-addicted, alcoholic, abusive man who followed in the footsteps of his mother," she said. "That is the triumph of Colton Harris-Moore and the triumph of the human spirit."
Wrote Harris-Moore in his letter: "My father figure(s) revolving through my home were mere self-destructive mirrors of my mom. To quote advice, cite encouragement, or recount memories of lasting value would be futile. These are neither excuses, rather facts from my life."
In his teens, Harris-Moore ended up in a halfway house after three burglary charges. He walked out of it shortly after turning 17.
"I did this in frustration to the councilor's treatment towards me, while in retrospect this disagreement was childish. Nonetheless, I felt robbed of my youth," he wrote. "I didn't know who I was yet, I didn't know what I was doing, and most of all, I was alone with no-one to talk to.
"Escaping from the world, I ended up living in the deep woods of various places in the Puget Sound. It was there that I learned the difference between loneliness and solitude, and through that experience, I found my spirit. I breathed in the freedoms of nature, from the still trees to the pulsing waters to the animals wandering and the birds circling I learned lessons."
And Harris-Moore went into great detail about his love of airplanes that led, he said, to an event that "changed my life forever."
He wrote that during the summer and fall of 2008, he rode 10 miles on a bicycle each day to watch planes taking off and landing at Orcas Island Airport, and that he stole several airplane manuals. He listened to airport radio communications and studied manuals and other information online.
Though he wrote he had never even flown in an airplane, "the day came on Nov. 11, 2008, when I was no longer able to resist the pull of the airplane and my lifelong dream of flying. This day and the ensuing experience became the single most defining event and terrifying day of my life."
He described at length his first flight, untrained, in terrible weather conditions.
"The euphoria of the countdown to takeoff and the realization of a dream was nearly blinding. It prevented me from taking seriously the impossible odds that stood against me.
"My first thought after takeoff was 'Oh my God, I'm flying.' I had waited my entire life for that moment ... however, my second thought immediately after was that I was probably going to die. For the first time in my life I was not only free, but in full control of my fate. Only then did I see, with quite a shock, what I had gotten myself into."
He wrote that the plane's GPS failed, and he battled 50 mph winds.
"I fell victim to spatial disorientation; believing I was in a descent, I put the airplane into a climb. My altitude went up, my airspeed went down. The airplane quickly stalled, and I added 'untrained in spin recovery' to the list as the airplane skidded into a spin towards the ground. Several seconds passed, and in that time I saw my life ... I saw myself dead.
"I saw what my life was, what I hadn't yet achieved. I saw something that has forever changed the way I see myself and the world. There hasn't been a single day I have not thought about that morning."
He pulled out of the spin, but wrote that he was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the event.
But Harris-Moore's letter wasn't just about his life. He also went into detail about how he feels about his crime spree, and his victims. He apologized specifically to nearly two dozen people, families and businesses. And he thanked several people who have shown compassion or tried to help him in his childhood.
"Your Honor, the term of my sentence which you will hand down, I will serve with humility. I was wrong and I made mistakes beyond what words can express. The indelible mark I made on the communities and the fear I caused homeowners, there is no going back. Through this experience many individuals have sought to contact me to offer aid, advice, comfort, and fill a void that I have lacked all my life. I have been absolutely shocked and surprised by the compassion people abroad and especially people from Camano and Orcas have shown me. This compassion and forgiveness too has changed my life.
"With your sentence, I pray that you allow me the chance to regain my freedom, change my life through my own actions, and continue to right wrongs. I know that it is not too late."
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
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