COUPEVILLE, Wash. — The youthful thief who rocketed to international notoriety as the "Barefoot Bandit" while he evaded police in pilfered cars, boats and planes during a two-year crime spree was sentenced Friday to more than seven years in a Washington state prison after pleading guilty to dozens of charges.
Colton Harris-Moore, now 20, showed no reaction as the sentence was delivered by a judge who took pity on his bleak upbringing at the hands of an alcoholic mother and a series of her convict boyfriends – a situation she described as a "mind-numbing absence of hope."
"This case is a tragedy in many ways, but it's a triumph of the human spirit in other ways," Island County Judge Vickie Churchill said. "I could have been reading about the history of a mass murderer. I could have been reading about a drug abusive, alcoholic young man. That is the triumph of Colton Harris-Moore: He has survived."
Harris-Moore's daring run from the law earned him international fame and a movie deal to help repay his victims after he flew a stolen plane from Indiana to the Bahamas in July 2010, crash-landed it near a mangrove swamp and was arrested by Bahamian authorities in a hail of bullets.
Friday's proceedings consolidated cases against Harris-Moore in three Washington counties. He has already pleaded guilty to federal charges in Seattle and will be sentenced for those crimes early next year, but the sentence is expected to be shorter than his state term.
Harris-Moore faced a sentencing range of just over seven years to just under 10 years.
"Colton's very pleased," said his attorney John Henry Browne. "He was expecting the worst."
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said he's glad the case is over and he could live with the sentence.
"I can see why people are sympathetic to him," Banks said. "It's still a significant amount of time for someone who's never been in the adult system."
Wearing handcuffs and an orange jail uniform, Colton Harris-Moore spoke softly in court while entering his pleas.
In a statement provided to the judge, he said his childhood was one he wouldn't wish on his "darkest enemies."
Still, he said he takes responsibility for the crime spree that brought him international notoriety, and said he learned only too late of the fear he was instilling in his victims.
Harris-Moore said he studied manuals and online videos to teach himself to be a pilot, and the thrills he experienced while flying stolen planes renewed his passion for life and will help him rehabilitate while in prison.
"The euphoria of the countdown to takeoff and the realization of a dream was nearly blinding," he wrote of his first illicit flight on Nov. 11, 2008. "My first thought after takeoff was `Oh my God, I'm flying.' I had waited my entire life for that moment."
He said he'll use his prison time to study and get ready to apply to college, with the hope of earning an aeronautical engineering degree.
Several victims and a few curious citizens watched Harris-Moore enter his pleas in Island County Superior Court, along with Harris-Moore's aunt.
Browne also said the young man's time on the run was horrific and included spending nights in culverts and portable toilets.
Harris-Moore's first conviction came at age 12, in 2004, for possession of stolen property, and according to the reports, his first experience with burglary came when he broke into the homes of his classmates to steal food because his mother spent most of her Social Security income on beer and cigarettes – something she has denied.
Over the next three years he was convicted of theft, burglary, malicious mischief and assault, among other crimes.
In 2007, the boy was sentenced to three years in a juvenile lockup after pleading guilty to three burglary counts in Island County. But he fled the minimum-security facility in April 2008 and was soon back to his old tricks, breaking into unoccupied vacation homes, stealing food and sometimes staying there.
As red-faced investigators repeatedly failed to catch him, his antics escalated: He began stealing planes from small, rural airports and crash-landing them – at least five in all.
Waves of burglaries broke out on Orcas Island, where Kyle Ater runs his Homegrown Market and Deli, in late 2009 and in early 2010, after stolen planes were found at the airport there. The second time, Harris-Moore left Ater's new security system in a utility sink, under a running faucet.
Harris-Moore's final spree came after he stole a pistol in eastern British Columbia and took a plane from a hangar in Idaho, where investigators found bare footprints on the floor and wall. That plane crashed near Granite Falls, Wash., after it ran out of fuel.
He made his way to Oregon in a 32-foot boat stolen in southwestern Washington – stopping first to leave $100 at an animal shelter in Raymond, Wash. From Oregon, authorities said, Harris-Moore traveled across the United States, frequently stealing cars from the parking lots of small airports. In Indiana, he stole another plane and made for the Bahamas, more than 1,000 miles away, where authorities finally caught him in a manhunt that spanned multiple islands.
Among the courtroom spectators Friday were 18-year-olds Annie Cain and Hayley Hanna, who drove from nearby Langley to be at the courthouse at 5:30 a.m. – four hours before the hearing.
"We wanted to be here just because he's so young, and everything he did, it's fascinating," Cain said.
Fox bought the movie rights in a deal that could be worth $1.3 million, and Dustin Lance Black, who won an Academy Award for writing the movie "Milk," about the gay rights activist Harvey Milk, is working on the screenplay.
Harris-Moore doesn't get to keep any of the money under the terms of his federal plea deal.