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 earned his moniker by allegedly committing some of the crimes barefoot, and the antics have earned him a popular following on the Internet.
“He’s very reluctant to make a dime off this, he really is,” said his lawyer, John Henry Browne.
But Browne said that when he told his client that money from movie or book deals could be used to repay his victims — and incidentally win him a more favorable plea deal, with less time behind bars — “that changed his mind a little bit.”
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 when he 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 both federal and state charges against Harris-Moore.
Not guilty pleas are typical at this stage, even if defendants intend to plead guilty later.
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. 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, he 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, authorities say.
In all, the self-taught pilot is suspected of more than 70 crimes across nine states.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle declined to comment on whether it is negotiating a possible plea deal with Harris-Moore to resolve all state and federal charges against him.
Such a deal could include Harris-Moore admitting to state crimes in other jurisdictions and agreeing to direct profits from book or movie deals to victims — but that would require the consent of prosecutors in other jurisdictions.
Some, including 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 play ball, “I’ll bankrupt them,” Browne said, citing the expense of putting on a high-profile trial in small, rural counties.
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.
“He’d rather stay where he is, which is rather unusual,” Browne said.