After achieving modern-day outlaw status as the “Barefoot Bandit” – a baby-faced teenager whose two-year crime spree took him from Washington state to the Bahamas, stealing a half-dozen airplanes and robbing stores along the way – what do you do for an encore?
Last week, Colton Harris-Moore was approved for a supervised work-release program that should lead to his freedom from prison by early 2017. After a 6 1/2 -year term, he has had plenty of time to consider his second act.
Now 25, he’s leaning toward becoming the Steve Jobs of aviation.
“Nothing ever changes in aviation, and disrupting that will be good for the industry,” he said in a telephone interview from his prison outside of Seattle. “New ideas aren’t expressed or absorbed. I’m not satisfied with that. The industry can do better. That’s what I’m going to do, and I’m not going to stop.”
He would also rather just forget about the events leading up to July 11, 2010, the day he was finally captured shortly after holding a gun to his head on a powerboat grounded off Harbour Island in the Bahamas. That will be tough.
By that time, Harris-Moore had been inspiring songs and T-shirts (”Fly, Colton, Fly!” and “Barefoot Bandit for President!” were the most popular) and adoration from his 77,000 Facebook friends. At first, he found cover in the woods near his home on Camano Island and on Orcas Island, near Seattle, before setting off cross-country. Then, he stole cars, robbed stores and, when he could, flew off with unattended planes at airfields, usually crash-landing them.
He left behind his signature telltale bare footprints and notes that taunted his pursuers, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and scores of state and local police.
In prison, he spent much of his time reading, sometimes two books a day, according to his attorney, John Henry Browne, who described his client as intelligent and possibly autistic.
He has also had several visitors from blue-chip companies, he and his lawyer said, including a manager at Boeing who, along with his wife, has taken Harris-Moore under their wing in what Browne describes as a mentor relationship. Harris-Moore also claims he’s already had job offers from the aviation, finance and legal industries.
But first, it was Hollywood that called. After a stalled negotiation with Brad Pitt’s production company, Harris-Moore sold the rights to his life story to Twentieth Century Fox for $1.3 million. (The money will go directly to his victims for restitution; “I’d rather die than make a dime off of my misdeeds,” he said.) The movie (”Taking Flight”) is in development, with Robert Zemeckis directing and Oscar-winning “Milk” writer Dustin Lance Black penning the screenplay.
Harris-Moore has mixed feelings about it. He said he’s not proud of what he did and offers no excuses, except to say that he was a young, stupid and arrogant kid. A movie only will enshrine his story in perpetuity.
“I did this so everyone can move on,” Harris-Moore wrote on his website, which he launched with the help of friends. “But I think that if a movie is made it will be a mistake in the sense that, ultimately, no one will move on. It will go on forever.”
In prison, Harris-Moore turned to writing, posting in detail about the aviation industry, stealing planes, negotiating with movie studios, the media and Donald Trump (he likes the Republican presidential candidate but thinks it’s too late to make America great again).
Through the spring, as Harris-Moore waited on a release date, we emailed back and forth through an intermediary before arranging a time to speak. During that conversation in April, he sounded intelligent, thoughtful and polite.
He was still trying to raise $250,000 on GoFundMe to use cryonics to freeze his mother, the only family he has ever had, who was dying of lung cancer. He sounded optimistic, refusing to accept he could not help her, even from prison. “There’s a fact that goes unappreciated in life - every problem has a solution,” he said. “Nothing is impossible. Nothing exists that can’t be changed. No matter how bad it gets, or sad and depressing things get, there is always something that can be done.”
It sounded like he was talking about more than his mother. She died in May.
When Harris-Moore gets out, the first thing he says he’ll do is get his pilot’s license, even before he gets a car or driver’s license. He eventually wants to start his own aerospace company and design prototype aircraft.
He uses Gulfstream Aerospace as an example of his vision. “It’s a near perfect model of the company I want to build, but on a larger scale,” he said. “They force the industry to innovate or at least keep up. That’s where the talent goes. That’s the area of aviation where all of the resources go. It’s where all of the most capable technology comes from and where the most brilliant people are found.” He has not been in touch with the company, he said.
Harris-Moore talked about Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, about building things that have never existed. He’s curious about the coupling of aviation and artificial intelligence, and he complains about airplanes that are clunky, bulky, loud, inefficient, slow and unsafe.
“They’re primitive,” he said. “Where is the artificial intelligence, hybrid engines and safety systems where nobody dies in a crash? You see people at NASA working on these game-changing projects, but maybe one-tenth of them make the market.”
He hates old technology. He specifically despises Cessna, the maker of more than one of the planes he stole.
“They’re getting smoked by everybody,” he said. “They don’t change. They take these 1970s airplanes and put in a new avionics package or new leather seats, but it’s the same old thing. People are getting tired of it and see the potential of new technology. They see it in other areas of life and wonder why it’s not in the aerospace industry.”
It was in a single-engine Cessna that the self-taught teen pilot flew 1,000 miles from Bloomington, Indiana, to the Bahamas, before he crash-landed July 4, 2010, in a mangrove swamp on Great Abaco Island.
The Bahamian police scrambled to the crash site and then tracked the fugitive, who fled on foot, by stolen car and by stolen boat to Eleuthera, a curved and narrow spit of land 60 nautical miles to the south. The police caught him off the northern tip of the island after a predawn boat chase that left Moore’s boat stranded on a sandbar at low tide.
Four armed officers surrounded his boat, according to Bob Friel, author of “The Barefoot Bandit.” Harris-Moore fired a warning shot from his .38-caliber Walther PPK and placed the barrel against his head, threatening to kill himself. Anything but jail, he said. Then he lowered the gun and throttled the twin engines, propellers chopping through the sandbar and moving the boat closer to deeper, open water in a final attempt for freedom.
Officers opened fire, ripping apart the boat and disabling the twin engines with 20 rounds before Harris-Moore rose from the deck, threw his hands up and surrendered. “You should have killed me,” he reportedly said, as police put on the handcuffs.
Harris-Moore now views himself as a transformational character, Friel says, just like Jobs. He certainly has a proven single-mindedness with goals and focus. When he couldn’t afford flight school, he taught himself. “He has supreme self-confidence,” Friel said. “He’s a resilient character, and he keeps moving forward. Prison has not defeated him.”
Also, like Jobs, Friel says, “He doesn’t need a lot of people around him. He’s a bit of a misanthrope.”
When we spoke, Harris-Moore was counting the days to his release like any other inmate, and was ready to leave behind his years as a famed fugitive. “This is played out,” he said. “It’s done. This was just a detour. It’s time for me to be free.”
Then what? “Anything can happen,” he said. “But whatever happens, it has to be legal. People laugh and give me a wink and a nod. But I keep saying: ‘No, it has to be legal. Totally legal.’”