The Airplane Thief

Page 4 of 7

When he was 14, Colt made friends with a boy whose name sounded like something straight out of the annals of Wild West sidekicks: Harley Davidson Ironwing. Like Colt, Harley was fatherless. He'd lost his dad, an avid biker, to leukemia when Harley was four, leaving him with a mother he considered a junkie. The state placed him with a Native American foster family, and he adopted their last name. By the time he met Colt, at age 16, he was already supporting himself as a burglar, knocking over homes in and around Stanwood.

A blond, curly-haired kid with a hobbit's build, Harley was a foot shorter than Colton, but the younger boy looked up to him. "Colt wanted to be like I am, have a reputation where nobody messed with him," says Ironwing, who just finished serving two years for burglary at Airway Heights Corrections Center, near Spokane. "He'd been bullied, and I don't like bullies. I took him under my wing."

To Colt, Harley was living life on his own terms, free from parental supervision, taking what he needed to get by without hurting anyone. "He knew I wouldn't go into a house if somebody's home," says Harley. "I'm not trying to get hit with kidnapping or anything like that." Colt realized that the key to winning the older boy's trust – and the material trappings he wanted – were right in his backyard: the vacation homes on Camano's south end. So he hid in the woods, staked out a vacant spread, then called Harley for help.

"You give me $300 upfront, and I keep whatever I find," Harley told him – and that was how the longest-running burglary spree in the island's history began. Ironwing taught him how to slip through the forests between homes, pick locks and stay invisible to neighbors. Soon the two friends were pulling off jobs every few weeks, stealing jewelry, cellphones, iPods, credit cards, laptops, a telescope, TVs and food. They'd often steal a car to ferry the goods, but after "borrowing" it, they'd fill it up with gas, drive it back to where they found it and wipe away the prints.

Just being inside the houses was a rush for Colton. They were clean and well-stocked with all the semblances of the normal, prosperous life he'd never had. If he was confident the owners were away, he'd kick off his shoes, pour himself a juice from the fridge and watch TV. Colton enjoyed it so much that soon he was logging on to peoples' computers and going online to learn new skills as a criminal. He taught himself how to rig a stolen credit card to a homemade reader, pull its PIN number and draw cash off it from an ATM. Later he began using the cards to shop online for commercial credit-card readers and specially crafted "bump" keys, capable of opening common household locks.

The computers and the Internet also allowed him to explore his deeper obsession. "He talked about stealing a plane," says Ironwing. An even better plan, the friends agreed, would be to steal a helicopter, which they could use to rob a Costco. "Me and him talked about landing it on the roof," says Ironwing. "There's a lot of things you can get at Costco."

For all their big talk, the two friends seemed more like teenagers playing at being crooks. They rarely left messes at the houses they robbed, careful to clean up after themselves, and Colton didn't even sell most of the goods he stole, hoarding them in a tent on his mother's property. That proved to be a mistake. One day in September 2006, police arrived at Pam's house to serve a warrant for Colton, who had missed a court date on charges that he bought $3,700 worth of computer equipment with a stolen credit card. Discovering the cache of stolen goods, they linked Colton to the string of burglaries.

Rather than get locked up for the credit-card charges, Colton decided to go on the lam. It was the beginning of his life as a fugitive: Aside from a stint in juvenile detention, he would spend the next four years on the run. Some speculated that he was living in the woods like an old-time outlaw, but Ironwing scoffs at the idea. "He had a place to stay," he says, but refuses to elaborate. What seems clear is that Colton supported himself by robbing homes and stores: Police suspect his haul may total as much as $1.5 million. Angered by the thefts, residents began to clamor for the cops to do something. "At one point I hated my house, which is really quite beautiful," one of the victims wrote to a judge. Another claimed that her "ability to live comfortable and safe within my own house was shattered. I didn't get a good night's sleep for weeks."

Mark Brown, the sheriff of Island County, printed up "Wanted" posters of Colton and Harley, and vowed to the media that he would capture them – an act he now says he almost regrets. "I did it to catch him," Brown says. "But the thing I agonize about is that I brought him to the media's attention in the first place."

The chase was on. To Colton, the challenge was personal, a continuation of the conflict with Camano cops that went all the way back to the bike incident when he was eight. Deputies further stoked his ire when they temporarily confiscated his new dog, a beagle mix named Melanie, that they found tied up next to his cache of stolen goods. "Cops wanna play huh!?" Colton wrote in a note to his mom. "Well it's no lil game. . . . It's war! & tell them that."

Deputies came close to arresting Colton twice, when they caught him in the midst of a burglary, but both times he simply outran them, disappearing into the woods. Then, in February 2007, Sheriff Brown's campaign paid off when neighbors noticed a light on in a summer home and called the police. His men surrounded the residence and shouted out Colton's name. Terrified, he phoned his mom. She drove to the house, stood outside and talked to him for close to an hour by cellphone, finally persuading him to surrender.

Colton, then 16, pleaded guilty to three counts of burglary and was shipped off to Green Hill School, a maximum-security facility for juvenile offenders. After a psychologist determined that he was at heart a good, intelligent kid who didn't do drugs, he was sent to Griffin Home, a minimum-security group residence in the ­Seattle suburb of Renton. With only about 30 residents, the quiet, low-key setting made it feel more like a summer camp than a detention facility. He would be confined to Griffin for three to four years, depending on how quickly he straightened up his act.

Colton found the home stultifying. The fluorescent lights burned his eyes, and the counselors forced him to take a class on drug and alcohol abuse, lumping him in with the dopers and tweakers. For him, it was the ultimate humiliation, and he began teasing other boys during therapy sessions, playing the clown. But his wiseass routine failed to win him friends, and he felt isolated, misunderstood. "I wish I was home," he wrote on an elaborately designed card he sent to his mother, "but since I'm not, this is the best I can do. I hope you like it." He drew a sylvan scene evoking the best of home: a butterfly, a chicken, flowers, fir trees and a flaming barbecue.

Art was one of the only classes he enjoyed at Griffin. One collage he created, on the theme of what he wanted out of life, displays the crisp, orderly focus of someone who knows exactly what he wants to ­accomplish. It consists of 106 images, most of which are text, in a precise and careful arrangement. The word "money" appears four times, along with "wealth" and "dollars" and a dozen designer labels, from DKNY to Hugo Boss. Most of the images are high-end gadgets – Rolex watches, cellphones, PDAs – but there is also a strawberry cheesecake, and tourism logos from Mexico and Argentina. At the top of the collage, dead center, is a passenger jet, framed by prophetic words: "May I have another" and "Profession: Pilot."

But the life he wanted would never come to him as long as he was confined to Griffin Home. The place had no fence, and from his bunkhouse, the freeway leading back to Camano was only a thousand feet away. At 8:40 p.m. on April 29th, 2008, Colton waited until the first bed check of the evening was complete, then slipped out of his bunk and into the night.

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