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The Airplane Thief

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The Airplane Thief

This article originally appeared in RS 1104 from May 13, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full issue. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

He had talked about it plenty, dreamed about it even more and, during the endless days he spent holed up alone in the empty vacation homes of the strangers he robbed, he had learned everything he could about flying planes. He had studied flight manuals, taken online quizzes about flight procedures under false names, and logged hours on simulator programs he found on the Internet. He had even created a MySpace page listing his profession as pilot, but the lie was toneless and unsatisfying, a place marker for an act unfulfilled.

The reality of his life was far more grim. He grew up without a father. His mother drank too much. At 17, he was a fugitive from the boys' home he had run away from a few months earlier, wanted in a string of more than 100 burglaries and other felonies. Now, it seemed, there was literally nowhere to go but up. He was finally going to show them who he really was, all the classmates and cops who had treated him like shit, told him he was worthless. I'm going to steal an airplane, he decided. No more waiting.

He knew just the place: Orcas Island Airport, a lonely landing strip on the Puget Sound some 80 miles from Seattle: surrounded by the towering green woods of the Pacific Northwest, no security, quiet as a graveyard at night. The aircraft, most of them single-engine prop planes used as island hoppers, were lined up on the tarmac like a row of shiny, expensive toys. That's where police suspect that Colton Harris-Moore was camped out on November 11th, 2008, hiding among the trees, watching and waiting for the right plane.

Toward late afternoon, a Cessna 182 buzzed in from the south. As a kid, Colton had a poster of a small plane's instrument panel on the wall of his room, and he'd spent hours staring up at the constellation of gauges and ­switches, marveling at their intricacy and the almost limitless possibilities of purpose and control. Now, as he watched the pilot land and taxi to a hangar on the airport's east side, it was easy to picture himself in the cockpit, to see himself guiding it down the runway, then climbing up and out of a life that had been claustrophobic with disappointment, poverty and uncertainty. He had never set foot in a plane before. He didn't mean to turn himself into a folk hero, a winged outlaw with thousands of fans who cheered his every move. But he was about to become the most legendary airplane thief in the history of aviation.

'The shortest distance to Far Away," proclaims the official slogan of Camano and Whidbey islands, which nest together like a pair of crescents at the north end of Puget Sound. Camano's south end features some of the most coveted getaway real estate in the Pacific Northwest. For well-heeled Seattleites, it's like the Hamptons for New Yorkers or Cape Cod for Bostonians. Million-dollar beachfront homes abound, and each summer the local population of 18,000 swells by nearly half, as doctors and dot-com executives from Seattle come to sit on the decks of their cabins at sunset and watch bald eagles wheel and dive into the waters of Tulalip Bay and Possession Sound.

Colton Harris-Moore – or Colt, as everyone called him – grew up only six miles from the southern tip of the island, but it might as well have been another planet. He was raised in a decaying mobile home on a five-acre patch in Camano's rural central woods. His father, Gordon "Gordy" Moore, was a journeyman concrete finisher; his mother, Pam, was a once-divorced city girl from the Seattle suburb of Lynnwood. She had bought the land with money she'd saved from working as an accountant for the National Park Service. Their dream was to build a house on the property, but Gordy kept getting in trouble with the law, busted more than two dozen times for drunk driving and other offenses. He abandoned the family before Colton was two, leaving his son with a single, mostly unemployed mom in her early 40s who drank too much herself.

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