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Bob and the Barefoot Bandit


Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the Desperate Measures episode. Today we're pushing people's back against the wall. For our next story, we travel to one of America's most beautiful places to discover that yes, there can even be trouble in paradise.

BOB FRIEL: When you're out here, it's perfect for star watching. There's no lights. You don't see any neighbors. You don't see any other houses. And in the middle of this is our tiny, 360-square-foot cabin.

WASHINGTON: Now, you know how writers are, right? They need their space to concentrate. So Bob Friel lives on an island - Orcas Island. And he's got a cabin perched on a cliff overlooking Puget Sound. It's hard to get to, where no one can bother him.

FRIEL: One night, I'm lying in bed asleep. And right around 3 o'clock in the morning, my eyes open up. And it's one of those things where, subconsciously, you know something woke you up. But I have no idea what it was. I'm instantly thinking, well, somebody is around here. Somebody is known to be in the area. He's been breaking into neighbors' homes. So I'm not just passing it off that it's a deer.

WASHINGTON: Yeah - because deer don't break into your house, take your food, your credit cards, your electronics. They also don't clean up after themselves, leaving only a trail of footprints. The neighbors chalked up their worries to some smalltime criminal dude. But then...

FRIEL: In the fall, this bizarre thing happens. An airplane is stolen from our little airport on the island. You know, this is something that never happens anywhere.

WASHINGTON: Whoever took the plane flew it 300 miles before crash landing. When authorities arrived at the crash site, they discover all the fingerprints wiped clean. The cockpit is covered in vomit. Someone knew how to take off but wasn't so good at landing. Everybody's stumped. But five months later, Orcas Island police find a stolen boat abandoned on the shore.

FRIEL: There's a breakin at our one supermarket we have on the island and when they pulled the security tapes here's an image of this guy, he looks kind of young. He's barefoot, that was kind of strange. But that matched because the police were finding bare footprints on, like, little metal roofs of people's homes and things like that. But now we have an image of this guy. So they send it around and there's a little cooperative of little County Sheriff's departments - bingo. They call us up and it was kind of like an exterminator telling you and they said, well we're afraid you have a Colton Harris-Moore problem.

WASHINGTON: Colton Harris-Moore. A.K.A. the barefoot bandit. This kid has been on the run since he was 16 and broke out of juvenile detention. And now somehow he's taught himself to fly and he's raiding the islands homes.

FRIEL: You know, we were in this rainbow-fantasyland that there's no crime. That you never have to lock your doors. You go to town, you get out of your car and you leave your keys in the cup holder and the door unlocked and then you go do your shopping. But now that's all burst. It just - it made me angry.

WASHINGTON: But apparently in the rainbow-fantasyland they do have shotguns and crossbows. And some folk are taking into the woods in their own vigilante manhunt. And this flurry of community activity, it brings back some memories for Bob.

FRIEL: A lifetime ago, when I was 22, I had spent over a year in the Republic of Maldives with a guy who, at the time, was the number one most wanted fugitive from the United States.

WASHINGTON: That's right. Before he was a writer, Bob lived on the land. You know those people that spent a year abroad to find themselves? Well, Bob - he ran a scuba shop on Maldives with an older guy, who let's just say had some trouble with the FBI. That's a whole other story. But when the FBI caught up to his buddy, they had some questions for Bob, too. So Bob did what any sensible scuba guy would do - he disappeared.

FRIEL: So with, you know, the authorities and reporters chasing me I ran from island to island. I finally wound up sleeping on a beach on what was basically a sandbar in the middle of the Indian Ocean until these people gave up. So on a lot of those nights, you know, when Colton was out there hiding somewhere in the wilderness I had a little bit of affinity for what he was going through.

WASHINGTON: So Bob was intrigued with Colton. His neighbors think he's nuts but he starts writing about it. Posting about it on the Internet. He tries to talk to people who know the real Colton and finds out about his tough upbringing. And finally - he gets a break. A woman everyone calls Shotgun Pam agrees to talk. Shotgun Pam Kohler is Colton Harris-Moore's mother.

FRIEL: No matter what Colton was about, he had to grow up partially an outcast just because of his mom. He'd invited friends over to the house and they showed up and she met one 10-year-old kid at the door with a shotgun in his face.

WASHINGTON: It turns out that even while he was on the run Colton Harris-Moore somehow talks to his mother. And she's got a surprise for Bob, straight from Colton.

FRIEL: Pam told me that Colton had been researching me online and reading my blog. He's reading your Internety thingy - or whatever the hell she said. I don't remember ever having a subject even in crime stories who instead of you hunting this person, they're kind of looking back at you and trying to figure you out at the same time. So that got my attention.

WASHINGTON: So, sure it's easy to Google yourself and see who's writing about you. But Bob gets that same eerie feeling that he had before.

FRIEL: You know, I'm in this tiny cabin on Orcas Island where Colton is somewhere right outside in the woods. So my head's in 8-year-old, 10-year-old Colton thinking about him and the horrible life he's going through. You know, that's when you say, jeez, God, I would adopt, you know, that kid, you know. God, if I knew something like that was going - while at the same time I've got a shotgun sitting at the door because 18-year-old Colton is somewhere running around with a gun in the woods somewhere near my house.

WASHINGTON: And then one day Bob gets an unexpected call from Pam.

FRIEL: Pam told me that the FBI told her that a boat had been stolen from Orcas Island and had never showed up anywhere. So that meant that Colton would be dead. And she said, well, how long does it take for a body to wash up? And, you know, again, being cold Pam Kohler. But when they left I guess she started thinking about it and for the first time she sounded like a mother. And she was shaken up. She asked me if there'd been any hide nor hair of him on Orcas Island. And it'd been a really quiet time. So she said, do you think you can use your Internet thing to try to get word to him to give me a sign to tell me that he's OK?

WASHINGTON: So Bob writes a post, asking Colton to please send his mom some kind of sign that he's alive.

FRIEL: The next morning I get up and from where I live the only place to get anywhere is to drive across this little bridge. And I pull up to the bridge and the hair on the back of my neck goes flying up because in the middle of the bridge is a 13-foot spray-painted barefoot. A big black foot with five little toes on it right in the middle of the bridge. You know, there were a number of times during this when I got, you know, that kind of eerie feeling that somebody was watching you. Of course when there's a 13-foot barefoot, you know, painted on a bridge that's a little more obvious than just a feeling. That means, yes, somebody's paying very close attention. Somebody is reading what you're writing. Somebody knows exactly where you live. You know, it was definitely a message to me.

WASHINGTON: And then Bob sends him a very public message back. He writes an article for Outside Magazine all about Colton. And almost overnight the world falls in love with the Barefoot Bandit. The news calls him an outlaw hero - like Jesse James.

FRIEL: He was in the basement of a place he had broken into and the family came home and he had a gun and he pointed it at the homeowner. Who, you know, was a real big guy and he's screaming at him because his kids are screaming and everything else. And it became this hair-trigger moment were Colt could've killed him.

WASHINGTON: Now, Bob feels like he has to tell him to knock it off. He writes we know you could run forever Colt - the problem with that though is exactly that - you'll be running forever, always looking over your shoulder. Now, however, you know, you can end this on your terms and have your own dream-team lawyer to give you the best defense possible. You've still got choices and this seems like an easy one.

FRIEL: So, you know, there must've been three or four or five or maybe a half-dozen times were I kind of reached out to him and said, here's a great opportunity for you to end this in the best best way possible. And he totally ignored them. I did hear, you know, I heard from his mother. You know, I said, hey did Colt - did he read what I wrote? She's like, yeah; he's not interested. You know, I never had a little brother but I felt like if he was a little brother, a big brother should come and slap him in the head and say, you know, here's one of those life lessons. Maybe because you're a goofy kid right now you don't understand it. But at some point you're going to understand that I was giving you good advice for this.

WASHINGTON: So now, Colton steals another plane and skims the border of the Vancouver Olympic no-fly zone.

FRIEL: But then the little radar blip disappears over Orcas Island. So he doesn't get a missile up the butt. Instead he lands on Orcas Island and doesn't run straight for the woods. He goes to our little family owned market we have - a health food store. And he rips them off and destroys the security system and then spends - it had to be 15- 20 minutes drawing 39 bare footprints running up and down the aisle of this store. And they lead to the exit door with a jaunty little Sia. And when that happened, you know, then of course everything explodes. And the story is huge and all the fan clubs go up to 100,000 people and all that. But it was at that point that I stopped my blog. Before that point Colton Harris-Moore had always just been Colton Harris-Moore - this barefoot bandit thing was nothing - that was a construct, that was this myth. When he did this and drew the footprints he was taking on that mantle. He was saying, I am the barefoot bandit. And when that happened, to me, the danger ramped up immeasurably. It's the Fourth of July and the headline is - Colton Harris-Moore steals a plane - which of course - but then it says where he landed. Colton Harris-Moore crash lands plane in the Bahamas. The Bahamas are like a second home to me.

WASHINGTON: And now Colton goes up on a tear. Robbing every single place that Bob featured in his last travel story about the Bahamas.

FRIEL: He left Orcas where he was ripping off all my friends and neighbors, leaves the country, goes to a different country and he's ripping off my friends there.

WASHINGTON: At this point Colton is pretty much toying with Bob. Bob books a flight to the Bahamas to the island of Eleuthera.

FRIEL: So I wind up on Eleuthera and I'm the only journalist there. You know, it's me and Colton on the island.

WASHINGTON: He searches high and low and finally ends up in a place called Preachers Cave.

FRIEL: I go in there and the flashlight flickered and then gave out. And then you suddenly realize as you're in this situation in this pitch black cave - what's going to happen if he says hello? You know, or suddenly there's a voice that says, hi Bob?

WASHINGTON: But Bob is just scaring himself in the dark. Colton is elsewhere - zipping around in a stolen boat. He yells to some locals to call the cops that he wants to be chased.

FRIEL: The only thing that finally caught the barefoot bandit is that as lucky as he had been, you know, stealing five planes and crashing five planes living - doing all of these, you know, strange waters in the middle the night. Well, here's the one time when the tide was against him. It was low tide and everybody who's been up there knows that there's this sand bar that extends from Harbour Island towards Eleuthera. And when it's low tide you have to make a dog leg around it before you hit open water. Well, Colt went straight and hit the sandbar. Didn't damage the boat, he wasn't stuck forever. But he's, you know, his props are in the sand and he's got to kind of work the boat off it. But it slowed him up enough that the boat with all the cops came up behind him, they knew were the sandbar was. When they got close to the sandbar they turned on their lights and turned on spotlight. It was at that point that Colton fired a shot. You know, he had a Walter PPK. Of course they're all screaming at him now to drop the gun, drop the gun. He screaming at them he goes - get the spotlight off me. I'm not going back to jail. I'll never give up. You can't take me back to jail. I'll kill myself if you come any closer. So they kept coming at him and he then raises the pistol to his head and nothing happens. The gun was jammed. So he may have pulled the trigger, you know, we don't know. But whether he did or not it didn't go off. This was a kid who threw everything I had known. I felt like I really got to know the kid and, you know, care about him and not want him to end up dead. Him doing that as an act of desperation would've just been tragic. It would have been awful.

WASHINGTON: The Hayman police arrested Colton. He's tried in a tiny immigration court in order to sneak him back to the U.S. as quickly as possible. Bob is one of the few people who make it inside the courtroom.

FRIEL: I just wanted to look into his face as close as I could possibly be, you know, what was he feeling? Was he beaten? You know, was he relieved that it was over? Was he depressed? You know, they lead him in to prison all shackled and he's surrounded by these guys dressed in ninja outfits and he never looked back at, you know, the little gallery where there's 10 of us sitting there. So they go through this little farce of a procedure and, you know, the police are trying to get everybody out of the courtroom. And I'm intently staring at Colton Harris-Moore's face. And he never looked back. And now a detective comes up and he's re-cuffing him. And that was the first time he ever just barely glanced back and looked and he kind of scans the room and he gets to me and his face instantly lights up. You know, he later told people that he saw me all the time around the island. He does this double take, his eyes pop open and he just does this huge grin. You know, this big smile. To me at the time it was like a gigantic - he's six foot five - it was like a giant version of Dennis the Menace. And I just, you know, just as a reaction I just smile back, you know. And he kind of laughs and then that detective yanked his cuffs again. So he looks down. And then he looks back at me and he again big smile and kind of this little nod or whatever. It was just - hey man that was a hell of a ride.

WASHINGTON: Thank you Bob for sharing your story with THE SNAP. Now Colton Harris-Moore is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence. When he gets out, he'll also study aeronautical engineering. To learn more about Colton Harris-Moore check out Bob Friel's comprehensive book "The Barefoot Bandit: True Tales of Colton Harris-Moore." That story was produced by Ana Adlerstein with sound design by Leon Morimoto. Now when SNAP returns we're getting lost and not in the good way. When the Desperate Measures episode continues. Stay Tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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