The Airplane Thief

Colton Harris-Moore was a troubled teen on the run from the law. He had never set foot in a plane. But when he stole his first Cessna, he became an outlaw legend

July 12, 2010 12:31 PM ET

On July 11th, 2010, teenage airplane thief Colton Harris-Moore's fugitive run ended when he was captured in the Bahamas. Read writer Jason Kersten's reaction to Harris-Moore's arrest below, and continue on to the next page for his fascinating investigation.

The End of the Line for Colton Harris-Moore

The greater good has been served, but there was an emptiness in my stomach on Sunday when I heard the news that Colton Harris-Moore, the subject of my feature in RS 1104, had finally been captured in the Bahamas. The 19-year-old burglar and airplane thief was a nuisance to many, but there was also a sense of wonder about him. Colt was a strange bird with a knack for pleasing the crowd, right up to the moment they caught him.

Here was kid who, like so many criminals, had strikes against him before he could walk. He was raised in a dilapidated trailer by a single, unemployed mother whose drinking habit alienated him. He began breaking into vacation homes at 13 largely because they had what he didn't; cupboards full of food, plentiful toys, neat electronics, a sense of prosperity and security. Like Goldilocks, he'd linger inside, watching TV and eating the food. He hoarded many of the items he stole in a tent behind his mother's property. He was nonviolent, hated drugs, loved dogs, and adored by one of the social workers who tried to help him. He was about as far from a cold-hearted crook as one could get while still being a criminal. But most of all, it was his hell bent determination to fly that captured my imagination.

Like Colt, I too was obsessed with airplanes as a kid, but I was lucky enough to come from a far more stable home, with flight instructor uncle to boot. He took me up and let me fly when I was ten. With no such opportunities, Colt taught himself the basics from the Internet and flight manuals, then stole his first airplane two years ago. However reckless that was, it is hard not to be amazed by his ingenuity and determination.

Colt's plane thefts — often combined with boat thefts and foot chases in which he routinely outran police — were nothing if not dramatic, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a part of me that cheered each time he got away. Shortly after the RS article came out, he embarked on his most ambitious spree yet, burglarizing his way deep into the Midwest. He did it with his usual flair, leaving $100 at an animal hospital in Raymond, Washington, with a note that read, "Drove by, had some extra cash. Please use this cash for the care of animals." When reports surfaced that a restaurant had been burglarized at a small airport in Nebraska, I knew it was only a matter of time before he was again airborne. That happened on July 4, when he stole a Cessna 400 from an airport in Monroe County, Indiana. It turned out to be his last and longest flight.

Milking every drop of fuel, he flew 1200 miles, to the Abaco Island in the Bahamas, where he ditched the Cessna in some swampland. Failing to properly land the plane proved to be his biggest mistake; the crash triggered the plane's emergency locator beacon, and within hours the FBI notified Abaco cops, who scoured the island. After burglarizing a few restaurants there, he stole a 40-foot boat and motored south, to the island of Eleuthera. After yet more burglaries there, police received a tip that he'd been spotted in another stolen boat on nearby Harbor Island. The result was a high-speed motorboat chase.

"Like something out of a movie," was how witnesses described the chase, and no doubt there will indeed be a movie. Moore quickly began outpacing his pursuers, then apparently ran aground on a sandbar. As Colt struggled to free his vessel, police circled, shooting out his engines with shotguns.

It was precisely the kind of ending I'd come to expect from Colt, but there was a disturbing note to it. Reports indicate that as the police moved in, Colt held a pistol to his head and threatened to take his own life. They talked him out of it and he eventually surrendered peacefully, but this final image haunts me. There are no happy endings for criminal fugitives. In the end, he was a scared, suicidal kid, far from home and literally all washed up.

— Jason Kersten, July 12th, 2010

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