The Airplane Thief

Page 6 of 7

It was the Idaho plane theft, and a 26-year-old writer from Seattle named Zack Sestak, that turned Colton into a modern-day legend. Sestak had read about Colton back in September and decided to start a fan page on Face­book. "I read the article and thought, 'Wow, this kid is nuts,' " he says. "I started it kind of as a joke. For the longest time there were like seven members." After an Associated Press article about the Idaho plane theft mentioned the fan page, Sestak was surprised to find that it had gained more than 1,000 members in less than a day.

"Fly, Colton, Fly!" "Colton is a true hero" and "You're a modern day Jesse James" were among the messages his fans wrote. Girls wanted to date him. Dozens offered to hide him from the police. A ­Seattle ­entrepreneur hawked Colton T-shirts emblazoned with his face and a slogan cribbed from the title of Merle ­Haggard's song: "Momma Tried." The boy whom hardly anyone had given a shit about when he needed help suddenly had friends everywhere.

"You got people reading headlines about billion-dollar bailouts and executives getting million-dollar bonuses with taxpayer dollars," Sestak says. "People feel disillusioned, and they see Colton wearing the hat of somebody who's taking on the system by himself, and it looks like he's winning. It captures the imagination."

Colt was baffled by the celebrity. He called his mom and read her the Facebook messages. They had some good laughs, especially over newspaper articles that portrayed him as a barefoot renegade living in the woods, stealing food for survival. "He doesn't live in the woods and he never has," Pam says. "He lives in a house, with a lady and a couple of guys. The woman is a chef." She claims not to know the woman's name, but adds that Colton earns his keep by doing some sort of "computer work." The residence, she believes, is behind a gate and "heavily guarded." Colton drives a brand-new car, she boasts, and even goes out in public, albeit disguised. There are also rumors that he now has a girlfriend.

"The way I look at it is, he's living his life his way, and to hell with everybody else," she says. "I'm proud of that."

Since November, Pam has been under siege by reporters from as far away as Brazil. She insists on being paid for interviews, and is perplexed when they explain that they are only allowed to pay for photo rights. The ceiling in her kitchen is collapsing in on her, drooping insulation.

"I miss him," she says despondently. Colton rarely calls her anymore. These days her most regular visitors are cops. Once, after Colton's dog, Melanie, flushed a cop out of the trees behind her house, an entire SWAT team emerged from the forest, looking for Colton. Pam sleeps with a shotgun and has posted a plywood sign out front reading notice: "If you go past this sign, you will be shot."

Hollywood also came calling, offering to buy the rights to Colton's story whenever he turns himself in or gets caught. Colton told his mother he wasn't interested, and that if he did make any money off his story, he'd give it all to an animal shelter. Pam says she tried to talk him into turning himself in, maybe use the movie money to hire a good lawyer, but he wasn't interested. He was nervous that he wouldn't get a fair trial, that cops were so angry over his success that they'd shoot him on sight.

Mark Brown, the sheriff of Island County, expresses disgust over Colton's notoriety. To Colton's fans, Brown and the cops are country bumpkins who can't catch a 19-year-old kid operating on a criminal's worst tactical ground: islands. Yet among all the summer homes, Colton has found a perfect niche, a hole too big for the cash-strapped sheriff's offices to fill. "You could step into one of these cabins and live for months," Brown says. "It's seasonal – by the time anyone reports one of his burglaries, he's usually been gone for days, sometimes weeks." It appears that until Colton makes a mistake or gets unlucky, he'll continue to run the game.

Colton, for his part, apparently has a long-term plan. "He wants to start his own private airline, a very private airline," Pam says with a straight face. It may sound completely insane – how could a teenage kid, whose face is plastered all over the Internet, believe he could make a living by piloting stolen planes? – but drug runners and smugglers have done it practically since the invention of flight. An estimated 27,000 small planes take to the air in America each day, and as long as Colton keeps a low profile and masters his landings, he could theoretically reuse a stolen plane indefinitely. Many small airports sport unattended fuel pumps that accept credit cards, which would enable Colton to fly almost anywhere in the country. "If he's staying away from airports with commercial airliners, controllers really don't care what you're doing or who you are or where you're going," says Max Trescott, an award-winning FAA flight instructor. "It's like the Wild West in that regard. A small airplane is like a car. Does anyone pay attention to you when you drive down the street?" For as little as $6 a day, Colton could park the plane at a small airport and no one would be the wiser. Although the FAA requires small airports to log the tail or "N" numbers of visiting planes, the numbers are never cross-checked.

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