'Fly, Colton, Fly': How the Bandit won his following
Colton became an American outlaw folk hero. The teenager morphed into something bigger than himself. He was fitting into an archetype few have stepped into.
A few months after Colton's arrest, I reached Sharon Sherman and asked her to take a fresh look at the Barefoot Bandit's story. The professor of folklore at the University of Oregon in Eugene likened Colton's saga to the stories of Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd and other infamous crooks.
"What happens is we expurgate anything we don't like about those people and we input anything we like," she said. "It becomes what we want to hear."
It's what happened with Jesse James in the 19th century. In the 20th century, there were Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger.
There also was another infamous Northwest criminal who, like Colton, will forever be linked to airplanes. His name was Dan Cooper, although the media dubbed him D.B. Cooper. FBI officials still haven't determined his true identity. On November 24, 1971, D.B. Cooper boarded a Seattle-bound plane in Portland, Ore. He paid for his seat in cash and once seated, ordered a bourbon and soda before take off. With the flight airborne, Cooper handed a flight attendant a note that said he had a bomb in his briefcase, then he slipped her a note demanding $200,000 and four parachutes.
Cooper's plane landed in Seattle and he traded the passengers for the cash, delivered in $20 bills, and the silk parachutes. The plane departed and, around 8 p.m., somewhere between Seattle and Reno, Nev., Cooper jumped out of the back of the plane with the money. At first officials figured he was an experienced skydiver, although that later turned out to be a rumor. Over the years there have been theories and dead-ends, but never an arrest. Cooper is wanted by the FBI to this day. The case remains unsolved.
Even though Cooper made off with thousands of dollars and put lives at risk, he entered the American imagination of what was possible. In the end, like Colton, no other lives were lost. Whether Cooper survived his daring dive, only Cooper knows.
Another piece of Colton's story that helped him take on greater dimensions were the odds he had to overcome, Sherman said. In Colton's case, it was his abusive upbringing, his lack of formal education and the dozens, perhaps hundreds of police who wanted nothing better than to bring him down.
Then there was his bravado. His flair. The way Colton stuck it to the man. "In some ways the outlaw hero does something we'd want to do ourselves," Sherman said.
Colton thumbed his nose at the cops. He targeted the wealthy, played in their homes and used their toys, during the worse economic times in decades.
"He's actually doing what he wished he could do," Sherman said. "After a while you get people cheering you on."
Of course, Colton had the added benefit of the devoted following on Facebook. Sherman said the lightning-fast quality of the Internet propelled Colton into the mass media, fueling his rise from local hero to national and international fame.
The Internet was to Colton what photographs were to Bonnie and Clyde... .
When the Island County Sheriff's Office released his self-portrait, his smirking face nestled among the ferns, the photo helped fan the flames of Colton's fame. The photograph was beamed on cable news programs and news wires around the world. It was the image a Seattle man used to create T-shirts. "Outside" magazine, which ran a feature story on Colton, used the image to create an artist's montage.
Colton did what most people wouldn't dare do. He taunted law enforcement and played an ongoing game of cat and mouse. His fans looked past his wrongdoings. They applauded Colton's ambition.
"Catch me, if you can," Colton was saying, Sherman believes. "Can you catch me? That's part of the, 'Ha, ha, I pulled this off right under your nose.'"... .
Harold Schechter, a professor of American Literature at Queens College at the City University of New York, has written widely about American outlaws, including several historical accounts of some of America's worst criminals. To understand bad guys from a cultural perspective, it's important to look at the driving psychological motivation, he said.
"Any system of morality to which we subscribe becomes oppressive to us. We also have this wild, lawless side that needs to find expression." The oppressed side needs an outlet, a voice and balance. Expression is found vicariously through the outlaw folk hero. "It's something very, very fundamental in the human imagination that needs these stories," Schechter said.
Throughout history, the character of the "trickster" has been repeated in spoken and written lore. Time and again fictional, mythological and real characters fulfill the public's appetite for the bad-guy hero.
"The interesting thing, since there are many lawbreakers, why is it that one particular character will capture the imagination? Why the Barefoot Bandit?" Schechter wondered.
Although some people suggest that Colton was distinguished because he didn't physically harm his victims, Schechter doesn't buy that.
John Dillinger, Al Capone, and Bonnie and Clyde all committed horrific violence and still became mythic characters in American lore. Though Colton's taste for property crimes over violent crimes may have appeased the conscience of some of his followers, his ascension to hero status came from his flair and style, Schechter said.
Colton's boyish good looks gave him a bad-boy debonair aura that surely must have resonated with the thousands who cheered for him to keep running. He later would leave messages, sign notes using his Barefoot Bandit moniker, and live up to the nickname, making getaways in bare feet. It helped that Colton carried off the crimes with panache, Schechter said.
"Even the fact that he could be labeled with this tabloid nickname adds to the whole mystique." Add Colton's insouciance and coolness of his character, and he fits nicely into the archetype. That myth, Schechter said, is constantly being reinvented to resonate with the particular cultural moment.
Colton committed his "trickster" crimes during a time when foreclosures were at a high, when people were unemployed by the tens of thousands and economic uncertainty was rampant.
"It was like the perfect storm," said Mike Rocha, a bounty hunter who would soon join in the chase. "Time in society was right."
The underdog became the hero. "He stepped into the limelight at just the exact right time," Rocha said.
Reprinted from "Fly, Colton, Fly: The True Story of the Barefoot Bandit," by Jackson Holtz with arrangement from New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright Jackson Holtz, 2011.
About the author
As a member of the Herald's crime reporting team Jackson Holtz covered Colton Harris-Moore's story for years. While his daily reporting duties have shifted to feature coverage, he continues to report on Harris-Moore, who is awaiting trial in federal court.
Holtz, 42, earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. He joined The Herald in 2006.
About 'Fly, Colton, Fly'
Colton Harris-Moore, 20, remains behind bars at the Federal Detention Center in Seatac while awaiting trial in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Like any other defendant, he is innocent until proven otherwise. "Fly, Colton, Fly: The True Story of the Barefoot Bandit," was written based on law enforcement allegations, interviews and reams of court documents.
Meet Herald reporter Jackson Holtz
"Fly, Colton Fly: The True Story of the Barefoot Bandit" is available Tuesday. The book is published by the New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright Jackson Holtz, 2011.
Holtz will discuss the book and sign copies at several area bookstores:
7 tonight, Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle
2 p.m. April 9, Borders, 1402 SE Everett Mall Way, Everett
7 p.m. April 13, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park
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