Seven years for ‘Barefoot Bandit’ not enough for some

December 20, 2011

A seven-year state prison sentence handed to the man who stole and wrecked Pat Gardiner’s 2005 Cessna Turbo 182, among others, does not sit well with the Idaho rancher.

“It’s horrible,” Gardiner said of the punishment imposed Dec. 16 by Judge Vicki I. Churchill in Coupeville, Wash., on Colton Harris-Moore, 20, whose notorious international crime spree included the theft—and wrecking—of five aircraft. Attorneys cited childhood neglect in their defense of the “Barefoot Bandit,” who admitted in federal court to causing at least $1.4 million in property damage.

“I’m shocked that the judge went so light on him,” Gardiner said. “I thought that this kid was a congenital criminal. Ultimately, it would escalate to him killing somebody.”

Harris-Moore eluded capture for two years following an April 2008 escape from a group home in Renton, Wash. In November 2008, Harris-Moore jimmied the locks on a hangar at Orcas Island Airport in Eastsound, Wash., and stole a 1999 Cessna 182 that belonged to radio personality Bob Rivers. With no formal flight training (though Harris-Moore had used a stolen credit card to purchase private pilot course books), Harris-Moore landed Rivers’ plane—hard—in a large wilderness area just east of Mount Rainier on the Yakama Indian Reservation.

It was the first aircraft Harris-Moore stole and wrecked, though he did not confine his thieving to airports: Harris-Moore confessed to multiple car thefts in Idaho and Wyoming, in addition to burglaries, thefts, and auto thefts in South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana. He broke into banks, businesses, and private homes, threatening a South Dakota homeowner during a confrontation.

Harris-Moore stole his last aircraft July 4, 2010, from a hangar at Monroe County Airport in Bloomington, Ind. He flew John Miller’s 2008 Cessna Corvalis 400 TT to the Bahamas, where the wreckage came to rest in a mangrove swamp on Great Abaco Island. Harris-Moore was soon arrested (after stealing a boat), and pleaded guilty in June to federal charges including bank burglary, two counts of interstate transportation of a stolen aircraft, interstate and foreign transportation of a stolen firearm, being a fugitive in possession of a firearm, piloting an aircraft without a valid pilot certificate, and interstate transportation of a stolen vessel.

Miller, a beer wholesaler, took a more conciliatory view of the state sentence in Washington.

“I hope that he rehabilitates himself and becomes a productive member of society. If six months in the slammer would do it, that’s fine with me,” Miller said, adding that a rehabilitated Harris-Moore might even contribute to aviation some day.

“I’m pulling for the boy,” Miller said. “An airplane’s just a bunch of bolts and nuts. My concern is always the kid.”

U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones could reject terms of the federal plea deal that calls for six and a half years in prison, and sentence Harris-Moore to more than 40 years. Gardiner has written to the court, seeking a stiffer penalty, disappointed that the state and federal prison terms are likely to be concurrent.

“The press, they did a job on this kid. It was pretty clear to me that they were going to do a sob sister deal on him,” Gardiner said, noting that Harris-Moore flew his stolen airplane not far from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and a nuclear submarine base. “There’s so much damage that could have been done. People seem to ignore that.”

The federal plea deal also means Harris-Moore will forfeit any proceeds from a movie deal with 20th Century Fox reported to be worth $1.2 million. Federal officials in charge of a victim compensation fund have contacted Gardiner and Miller, though neither is optimistic they will recover all of their losses.

Gardiner noted that the insurance payoff for his wrecked Cessna, an airplane he relies on for his cattle business, did not cover taxes, insurance deductibles, and other costs, leaving him out thousands.

The experience taught Gardiner, and other pilots in his area, hard lessons in aircraft security. Gardiner has installed a tough new door on his hangar, throttle and mixture locks on the 2009 Cessna Turbo 182 he purchased to replace his stolen plane, and set up other security measures he declined to discuss.

He also keeps a more watchful eye at the airports he visits.

“We fly into a lot of small airports,” Gardiner said. “We don’t think much about what can happen.”

Gardiner does not intend to see the upcoming film, expecting a liberal portrayal of Harris-Moore as a cunning and clever survivor.

“That’s what it’s going to be,” Gardiner said, “a complete glorification.”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.