SEATTLE — The attorney for the teenager accused of being the "Barefoot Bandit" is working with prosecutors to negotiate a plea deal the lawyer says could involve using movie- or book-deal profits to compensate the victims of an alleged two-year, cross-country crime spree.
Defendant Colton Harris-Moore, 19, pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges that include interstate transportation of stolen aircraft and being a fugitive in possession of a firearm.
"He's very reluctant to make a dime off this, he really is," said his lawyer, John Henry Browne.
However, Browne said that when he told his client that money from movie or book deals could be used to repay victims – and incidentally win him a more favorable plea deal, with less time behind bars – "that changed his mind a little bit."
The U.S. attorney's office in Seattle declined to comment on whether it is negotiating a possible plea deal with Harris-Moore.
The "Barefoot Bandit" moniker was coined after a thief committed some of the crimes without socks or shoes and gained a big following on the Internet.
Harris-Moore is accused of leading authorities on a cat-and-mouse game in pilfered cars, boats and small planes after allegedly escaping a halfway house south of Seattle in 2008. This year he made a daring cross-country dash that ended four months ago after he allegedly stole a plane in Indiana, crash-landed it in the Bahamas and was captured by Bahamian police at gunpoint in a stolen boat.
Harris-Moore, who was indicted by a grand jury last week, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Alice Theiler on Thursday wearing prison khakis over an orange shirt. He stated his name and year of birth, and frequently looked down during the brief hearing.
He told the judge he understood the charges against him – interstate transportation of a stolen aircraft, a stolen firearm and a stolen vessel, as well as being a fugitive in possession of a firearm and piloting an aircraft without a valid airman's certificate.
Browne entered the not guilty plea on Harris-Moore's behalf. Afterward, the attorney told reporters that discussions are in the early stages on a possible deal that could resolve federal and state charges against Harris-Moore.
Not guilty pleas are typical at this stage, even if defendants later intend to change their pleas.
Four of the five counts against Harris-Moore carry maximum sentences of 10 years in prison, and Browne said that realistically his client could be looking at anywhere from four to 12 years if convicted. Trial was set for Jan. 18.
The federal charges stem from a spate of crimes in late 2009 and early this year, when Harris-Moore is accused of flying a stolen plane from Anacortes, in northwestern Washington, to the San Juan Islands; stealing a pistol in eastern British Columbia; stealing a plane from a hangar where authorities found bare footprints on the floor and wall, and flying it to Granite Falls, Wash., where it crashed after running out of fuel; and stealing a 32-foot boat in southwestern Washington and taking it to Oregon.
From Oregon, authorities said, the bandit hopscotched his way across the U.S., frequently stealing cars from the parking lots of small airports, until he made it to Indiana, where he stole another plane and made for the Bahamas.
In all, Harris-Moore, a self-taught pilot, is suspected of more than 70 crimes across nine states.
A possible plea deal by Harris-Moore would require the consent of prosecutors in other jurisdictions.
Some, including Greg Banks, the prosecutor in Island County, where Harris-Moore grew up and where he was first arrested at age 12, have indicated they want Harris-Moore to answer for local crimes in their courts, rather than in one overarching plea in federal court in Seattle.
If those prosecutors don't want to cooperate, "I'll bankrupt them," Browne said, citing the expense of putting on a high-profile trial in small, rural counties.
The assertion drew a chuckle from Banks.
"I've had calls all morning about whether a jury trial over a bunch of burglaries is going to bankrupt our county, and the answer is no," Banks said. "It was a funny thing for him to say."
Banks, however, said he wouldn't rule out agreeing to a global plea deal if it meant any profits could be used to repay victims, but he noted the complexity of working out such a deal. And, he said, Harris-Moore wouldn't necessarily need to sell his story to pay restitution.
"He's a fairly industrious young man," Banks said. "By the time he gets out of custody he'll probably be able to get a job and make some money. He's talented."
Browne said Harris-Moore has been in solitary confinement at the Federal Detention Center south of Seattle, where he's been drawing airplane designs and reading about aircraft and nature. He's received letters from his mother and aunt, but few visits, and he's not interested in getting out of solitary, Browne said.
"He'd rather stay where he is, which is rather unusual," the lawyer said.