The Airplane Thief

Page 7 of 7

The last time Colton called his mother, he mentioned that he was deep into his latest self-learning project: mastering a foreign language through Rosetta Stone. Pam refuses to say whether he is studying Spanish in preparation for a run to the border. ­Smuggling drugs may seem like a stretch for a kid who detests them, but Colton is legally no longer a kid, and if there's one thing as certain about ­adulthood as the law of lift behind an airplane's wing, it's that we learn to compromise our way to our dreams. Other than his dogs, flying has always been the only thing Colton can count on to make him forget his troubles.

"He never had the love he needed," says Harley Ironwing. "His mom never showed him the unconditional love most parents show. She looked at him as a mess-up or something. He confided in his animals, because they would listen to him. Dog may be man's best friend, but that's not the only thing that's man's best friend. A person always needs somebody they can talk to."

The last time Pam saw her son, almost two years ago, he showed up at her house in the middle of the night and started ransacking his bedroom, looking for something. "He never told me what," she says. It was raining, and he was soaking wet. As he started to leave, she held his arm. "Wait a minute," she said. "Give me a hug and a kiss." He left her standing in the doorway, her clothes damp from the embrace.

By early February, no one had heard a peep out of Colton in four months, and it looked as if he were folding up his wings, possibly even preparing to turn himself in. "He's waiting until the media coverage dies down," says Pam. "Then maybe he'll work out a deal." Ironwing echoes the same sentiment: "He's in a good place, he doesn't need to steal. I think he'll wait until things settle down and turn himself in."

It sounded like a good plan: Take the Hollywood money, and use whatever he didn't give to the animal shelters to hire a good lawyer. After doing his prison time, he could still obtain a pilot's license because FAA regulations only bar applicants with ­felony drug or alcohol convictions. Colton, after all, is still 19. His whole life is ahead of him. But if there's one thing that all flying creatures have in common, it's that they don't like to be cooped up.

On the evening of February 10th, just a week after Pam and Harley speculated that Colton might surrender, a Cirrus SR22 took off from Anacortes Airport, located right across the sound from Orcas Island. The plane's transponder was squawking loud and clear, and Whidbey Island Naval Air Station – which was keeping an eye out for possible incursions into airspace surrounding the Winter Olympics in Vancouver – tracked the tiny plane closely. The pilot, unaware of temporary FAA guidelines established just for the Olympics, had failed to turn his radio to the designated frequency. The plane, which was weaving erratically, eventually passed out of range without incident. The pilot – who police now believe was Colton – flew back to the scene of his first flight, Orcas Island Airport.

It was his best landing yet.

Airport manager Beatrice von Tobel saw the plane the next morning. The only damage was some mud in one of the wheel cowlings, probably caused by veering into the ditch between the strip and taxiway at the end of his landing. "If he had taxied in and tied the plane up, I wouldn't have even thought twice about seeing it," she says.

The town of Eastsound wasn't so lucky. After exiting the plane, Colton made his way downtown, where he allegedly burglarized the Homegrown Market & Deli. He took not only $1,200 in cash and a cheesecake – one of the items from his elaborate art collage – but also some chalk. He used it to write a message. After all, he was now an outlaw, with 20,000 Facebook fans to please, from countries as far away as Turkey and ­Mozambique. He drew 39 giant footprints on the red concrete floor, a trail that led right to the store's entrance. There, he also wrote a note:


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.

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