The Airplane Thief

Page 3 of 7

In spite of the conditions, little Colt was a happy kid. He put on so much weight that Pam nicknamed him Tubby – almost as if his body knew he'd one day explode into a six-foot-five, 200-pound teenager. When he was four, Pam met and married Bill Kohler, a gentle, heavyset man who had once served in the Army and worked as a milker at a nearby dairy. The family kept chickens out back, and when Colt and Bill walked out to feed them, Bill would pretend he was a chicken, jerking his head and strutting. Colt adored him, but Bill turned out to be almost as unreliable as his father had been – an on-and-off ­junkie whom Pam threw out of the house when he was using.

Most of the time it was just Colt and his mom. He collected James Bond movies, watching them over and over. He loved animals, taking care of a blind duck that wandered onto the property, and playing with his dog, a Great Pyrenees named Cody. But he devoted most of his time to exploring an obsession he'd had since he was a toddler: airplanes. A love of planes is not unusual among boys, but where most move on to sports and girls, Colt got only more and more entranced with the intricacies of aviation, filling the pages of sketch pads with meticulously drawn aircraft. In the margins he listed detailed technical specifications that would have impressed a flight engineer: "Dassault Falcon 2000EX – France, Max speed – 603mph, Range – 3,800 nm, Power Plant – two garrett ATF 4-7A-4C turbofans." At the top of each image he included a pedigree: "my own free hand." When a plane passed overhead, he could look up and tell you what company made it, the type of engine, how many passengers it held. "He was looking up at a plane every time I went outside," Pam recalls. "I got tired of looking at planes."

Before the crime spree that made him a legend, Colt had never actually been in a plane. But right across the water was Whidbey Island, home to a naval air station, and A-6E Intruders and EA-6B Prowlers tore through the skies above him on a regular basis. The Blue Angels were a top attraction at the base's annual air show, and just 15 miles east was the main Boeing plant in Everett, the largest airplane factory in the world. "He had this book of all the Boeing airplanes that they had made, and he always told me he wanted to become a pilot," says Jessica Wesson, a childhood friend of Colt's since the second grade. "He even told me that his dad was a pilot. I'm pretty sure he was lying about that, though."

Colt was determined to become a pilot himself, but social gravity seemed to have other plans for him. On his eighth ­birthday, his mother bought him a $300 bike. A sheriff's deputy, unable to believe that a poor kid who lived in a mobile home could have such an expensive toy, accused him of stealing it and escorted him home in the back of his cruiser, embarrassing Colt in front of his mother. When Colt was eight or nine, his dog was run over and killed by the wife of a local cop. The worst blow came a year later, when his stepfather, Bill, was found dead in an Oklahoma motel room of a likely drug overdose. In a rage, Pam smashed every piece of glass in the house. "I went insane," she recalls. She hit the bottle hard after that, sometimes sinking into two-week binges in which she failed to stock the house with enough food.

Colt became depressed, unable to fall asleep until three in the morning, then waking up the next day feeling groggy and irritable. "I am not happy," he confided to a social worker at the time. "I could stay in bed all day. I need help. I am tired of this stuff." He felt trapped in his own home, at the mercy of his mother's addiction. He wanted her to quit drinking and go back to work, to provide him with what other kids had: cellphones, nice shoes, stability. He fought to project normality by keeping his hair short and his clothes clean, but he had trouble relating to other kids at school, eating by himself and rarely talking. When he did speak up, his mouth got him in trouble: In the sixth grade, he picked a fight with two kids who beat him up, and he teased another student so mercilessly that the kid began to choke him. "The older we got, the better Colton got at getting into trouble and getting out of it," recalls Wesson. "He was very sly and a good liar. I remember when he would get in trouble he always had this smirk on his face that said, 'You have no idea who you're dealing with.' "

One day when he was 12, Colt saw a cellphone sitting in an empty delivery truck in the nearby town of Stanwood. He had always wanted a phone, so he took it. After he made a few calls with it, the cops ­quickly tracked him down. More theft cases followed, mostly kid stuff, but it was enough to draw the attention of the authorities, who routed him into the system. A psychiatrist Pam consulted put Colt on Strattera, a failed antidepressant that was repackaged as a medication for kids with attention-deficit disorder. He began sleeping better, but Pam, claiming the drug made him depressed and moody, never renewed the prescription.

The two of them fought constantly. "He was like the Tasmanian Devil," Pam says. Social workers who visited the home reported that Colt experienced "constant meltdowns pretty much every day." Once, when he was 12, his mother pressed assault charges against him. During one epic battle, Colt later recounted, Pam screamed, "I wish you would die!" Although she denies she has a drinking problem, a report by mental-health experts put the blame squarely on her: "This conflict seems largely due to mom's drinking of alcohol." Social workers recommended that Pam put Colt in counseling and seek treatment for her alcoholism, but she refused both. In a case file that petered out with no resolution, a social worker would write, "Parent states her drinking helps her deal with Colton and helps her stand up to him."

Colt tried to encourage her. He presented her with an AA handbook, but she burned it. Seething at the destruction that drugs and alcohol had wrought on his family, he resolved he would never do either. It would become his single greatest point of pride, a way to set himself apart from the adults who had failed him.

Stealing was another matter. He fell into a routine of petty theft – the cash box from the local public library, sodas from the teachers lounge at school, even two small boats. All he needed to take his criminal record to the next level was a mentor, who came along soon enough.

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