Bahamas police intensify 5-day manhunt as ‘Barefoot Bandit’ wins admirers among islanders

By Mike Melia, AP
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bahamas intensifies manhunt for ‘Barefoot Bandit’

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas — The search for a suspected teenage thief known as the “Barefoot Bandit” intensified Thursday on a sparsely populated island in the Bahamas, with police using dogs to search thick groves of trees where he is believed to hide during the daytime before emerging at night to loot local shops.

Soldiers in camouflage uniforms and police armed with shotguns fanned out with German shepherds as the manhunt for Colton Harris-Moore entered its fifth day on Great Abaco Island, where police believe he has been hiding out since ditching a stolen plane offshore.

“We are intensifying our search and we are going to be relentless until we catch him,” said Assistant Police Commissioner Glenn Miller.

As the 19-year-old fugitive continued to elude an island-wide dragnet, some of Abaco’s 16,000 residents began expressing the same admiration that Harris-Moore has won in corners of the United States during his two-year run from the law. Since escaping from a halfway house, he has emerged as a folk hero of sorts, with escapes allegedly involving stolen cars, boats and airplanes.

“I tip my hat to the fellow,” said Clayton Sands, 54. “For him to duck and dodge the police in two countries at 19, that’s impressive.”

Police and soldiers were patrolling the island’s coastlines and airports — potential escape routes — as investigators followed a trail of seven break-ins leading north from the mangrove-lined inlet where the Cessna was abandoned Sunday in knee-deep water. The FBI has offered a $10,000 reward for his capture, and the island chain’s government dispatched detectives from the capital, Nassau.

Miller said Harris-Moore could be hiding in the buttonwood trees and other vegetation that cover Abaco, a mostly undeveloped, 650-square-mile (1,680-square-kilometer) island that is about half the size of Rhode Island. Unconfirmed sightings of him in the bush have been reported as recently as Wednesday night.

Wanted posters featuring the blue-eyed, 6-foot, 5-inch teen have been plastered across this one-stoplight town, a sailing haven where tourists and locals debated prospects for the fugitive’s capture. A playful video circulating among islanders showed a footprint etched in the parking lot outside a Marsh Harbour government building.

“I don’t think they’re going to get him. He’s not going to come out in the daytime,” said Andrew Gates, 42, a heavy-equipment operator. “He’s a smart guy.”

Police have released few details of the investigation, in part to keep Harris-Moore from gaining any more popularity than he already has.

“We don’t want him to be in the Bahamas as a celebrity. We are trying to demystify (him), so when he leaves he leaves here in custody with the American law enforcement personnel,” said Hulan Hanna, an assistant police superintendent.

Burglary victims say the thief appeared to be looking mainly for cash and Internet access. At the Curly Tails restaurant in Marsh Harbour, where Harris-Moore was apparently videotaped by security cameras during a Tuesday morning break-in, owner Alistair McDonald said the burglar moved cables on the modem and carried his own laptop computer.

An experienced outdoorsman, Harris-Moore grew up in the woods of Camano Island in Puget Sound about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Seattle and quickly ran afoul of the law. Within a few months of turning 13, he had been sentenced to 10-day stints in detention or community service at least four times for a series of thefts.

In 2007, he was sentenced to nearly four years in juvenile detention after being caught in an unoccupied home when a neighbor noticed the lights on. But he behaved well enough at the detention center that he was transferred to a halfway house, where he sneaked out of an open window more than two years ago.

He has since been linked to dozens of burglaries and at least four other airplane thefts, earning the nickname “Barefoot Bandit” because he allegedly went shoeless for some of his crimes and left behind footprints.

The latest caper began when Harris-Moore, who has no formal flight training, allegedly stole the single-engine Cessna from an airport in Bloomington, Indiana, and flew it more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to this low-lying island chain off the Florida coast.

Authorities said the plane was only reported missing after its emergency-locator transmitter began sending a signal off the coast of the Bahamas.

Associated Press Writer Juan McCartney contributed to this report from Nassau, Bahamas.

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