Barefoot Bandit's lawyers say he was fleeing a nightmarish childhood
For years, he's been painted as a nefarious boy genius, joyriding in stolen planes, fleeing in speedboats across the high seas, eluding desperate cops in several states.
But Colton Harris-Moore, popularly known as the Barefoot Bandit, was actually a poor learner who suffered from depression and failed every subject in 5th grade -- a victim of a nightmarish childhood of brutality, filth and neglect, according to the defense his lawyers were presenting Friday in a Washington courtroom.
Harris-Moore has "significant lifelong neurocognitive impairments" that a psychiatrist who evaluated him linked to his mother's heavy drinking, violent outbursts, constant neglect and frequent relationship changes.
Harris-Moore, 20, was expected to plead guilty Friday to various charges of burglary, theft and trespassing across three counties in Washington state in a nearly two-year crime spree that eventually spread as far as the Bahamas.
Dubbed the "Barefoot Bandit" because he often fled barefoot through the woods and left images of a bare foot etched at some of his crime scenes, Harris-Moore earned a following of thousands on Facebook while on the run but was finally captured last year in the Bahamas, where he had flown in a stolen plane.
He pleaded guilty in June to a variety of federal charges in connection with his exploits in other states and abroad; Friday's hearing in Island County Superior Court -- not far from the rural, wooded island where he grew up -- consolidates more than 30 separate crimes charged by state authorities and could net him up to 10 years in prison.
Defense lawyers this week filed a massive package of psychiatric reports and witness interviews with the court, arguing that it was Harris-Moore's troubled childhood that drove him to begin burglarizing nearby homes and businesses, often for food.
"Colton Harris-Moore is a bright, soft-spoken, shy young man whose mistakes, while certainly not excusable, are arguably explained at least in part by ... the abuse, humiliation and neglect he endured throughout his childhood," his defense lawyers, John Henry Browne and Emma Scanlon, wrote in a memorandum to the court.
Much has been reported about Harris-Moore's difficult early years, growing up in a run-down, backwoods house with a mother who battled alcoholism. The prevailing storyline has been one of a confident young man who threw off family entanglements to go on the run and engage in a battle of wits with nearby businesses and the police.
Yet the defense documents contend that, far from being a brilliant and confident trickster, Harris-Moore battled the likely effects of fetal alcohol syndrome and neglect from an early age, growing into a youth who was guileless but profoundly depressed, memory-impaired and subject to temper tantrums.
By age 3, a preschool teacher reported, he would say only a single word: black.
Ed Coaker, whose sister Pam Kohler is Harris-Moore's mother, told the psychiatrist hired by the defense that he watched once as Kohler berated her son for spilling his milk. "I wish you had been born dead," she said, according to the report.
"Mr. Coaker said that Colton 'should be punished, but whatever time Colton gets in jail, his mother should be across the hall,'" the report said.
Kohler was not expected to attend Friday's hearing, but has said that defense lawyers are telling untruthful stories about her in an attempt to explain her son's behavior.
"John Henry Browne has to blame all of Colt's problems onto something, so he evidently chose me," Kohler told KIRO radio in Seattle. "I'm going to destroy him when this is over."
--Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: A self-portrait Colton Harris-Moore took in 2009. Credit: Island County Sheriff's Department/Associated Press