Travel writer details saga of young outlaw
"The Barefoot Bandit: The True Tale of Colton Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw" (Hyperion), by Bob Friel: It's not often that a travel and adventure writer who hopscotches the globe for good stories stumbles upon a riveting tale on his own doorstep, especially when he lives on a sparsely populated island in the far reaches of Washington state's Puget Sound.
But when teenage outlaw Colton Harris-Moore, whose thievery ranged from Snickers bars and frozen pizzas to expensive boats and planes, unleashed his "wily one-kid crime wave" on Orcas Island, it would have been impossible for a writer like Friel not to realize that a world-class story had landed in his lap.
Harris-Moore was captured in the Bahamas after nearly two years on the lam, and his saga ended early this year when a federal judge in Seattle sentenced him to 6 1/2 years in prison. But the public's fascination with the outlaw who was dubbed "the Barefoot Bandit" is sure to continue, fueled by Friel's book and a planned Hollywood movie.
The reader is introduced to the 17-year-old protagonist during his white-knuckle flight in a stolen Cessna 182 over the jagged peaks of the Cascades while knocked about by 60 mph winds and sought by law enforcement. Being alone in the cockpit and lacking any official flight training add to the sense of adventure.
He survived that and other brushes with mortality recounted by Friel, who chronicles the string of Northwest larcenies and incarcerations that culminated in a cross-country run and Harris-Moore's capture at sea. Even as he becomes the object of a nationwide manhunt, the gangly 6-foot-5 youth comes across as more Huck Finn than John Dillinger. Indeed, Friel's account of Harris-Moore's miserable upbringing cannot help but evoke sympathy, even in the face of his succession of bad decisions.
"This was a kid, an outcast, who'd been bullied and beaten, forgotten and failed, expelled, medicated, incarcerated and seemingly doomed to society's lowest rung," writes Friel of the abused and neglected youth who took on a feral streak from spending much of the time alone in the woods near his mother's trailer.
Throughout it all, Harris-Moore nurtured a dream of becoming a pilot. His computer skills, intuitive intelligence and studies of flight manuals served him well when he took to the air. His brazen burglaries at houses, airplane hangars and marinas, usually carried out while shoeless, outwitted police and won him the support of countless fans who trumpeted his exploits on the Internet and wore T-shirts celebrating his lawlessness.
"Colt's combination of twenty-first-century tech savviness and nineteenth-century outlaw cojones came together to create a remarkably effective criminal," Friel writes.
The author seems to have been destined to tell this story. He lives, after all, on the island where Harris-Moore became notorious for his larcenous ways. The travel writer was also well acquainted with Eleuthera, the island paradise where the young outlaw made his last stand.
But those were just lucky coincidences. It is Friel's ability to spin a great yarn that draws the reader in from the start and never lets up. And he does it with deft reporting and a breezy and entertaining style that enlivens a tale as incredible as it is true.