The lawyer for the alleged “Barefoot Bandit” wants his client to be tried in U.S. Federal court instead of in the Bahamas, where the teenage folk hero was captured Sunday. Attorney John Henry Browne estimates that the dozens of crimes the 19-year-old is alleged to have committed could result in a sentence as short as four years behind bars, or — due more to his notoriety than the crimes themselves — as long as 12.
Colton Harris-Moore’s picaresque adventures ended in a boat chase and gunfire on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. Police say he had a gun in his possession that he tried to dispose of when he was captured. When brought into custody, the lanky 19-year-old was barefoot.
Police believe Harris-Moore arrived in the Bahamas after a 1,000-mile flight in a small airplane stolen in Indiana and crash-landed in the islands. During his two years on the run, Harris-Moore is alleged to have taught himself how to fly and to have used his knowledge to steal five airplanes.
Speaking to TODAY’s Matt Lauer Monday via satellite from Seattle, Browne said that the best scenario for his client would be if Bahamian authorities agree to allow all charges against Harris-Moore to be consolidated and tried in the United States.
So far, Browne said, the Bamahas is claiming jurisdiction over Harris-Moore, who is suspected of having committed a number of burglaries in the islands, and also could be charged with illegal possession of the airplane he allegedly flew there.
“I think if they want to hang onto him for a while, they probably could. But it would make a lot more sense to me for Colton’s best interests, and also for the government, I think, to try to consolidate all of these things and have him extradited to Seattle, where he’s charged in federal court in Seattle. When you’re in federal court, it’s a lot easier to consolidate things,” Browne said.
Harris-Moore, who had been on the run for two years before finally being captured, is alleged to have committed as many as 100 crimes in eight states and one Canadian province during that time. The spree began when he escaped from a juvenile detention facility. After initially staying in the Pacific Northwest, authorities believe he moved across the upper United States, eventually stealing the airplane in Indiana for his flight to the Bahamas.
Browne said that it just makes sense to consolidate all the charges into one case in Seattle. “Otherwise, it could be an administrative nightmare, trying cases all over the United States,” he said.
A challenging case
The lawyer had not yet spoken to Harris-Moore when he spoke to Lauer. Browne said he had been retained by Harris-Moore’s mother. The young fugitive had called his aunt after being arrested in the Bahamas because he did not have his mother’s new telephone number.
Browne said he hasn’t seen the evidence against Harris-Moore, but he did not specifically deny any of the allegations against the young man who collected nearly 71,000 Facebook fans.
The lawyer said that if Harris-Moore was in possession of a gun, it would complicate the case against him in the Bahamas.
“Just having a weapon during the commission of a crime makes the central sentence much greater,” Browne said. “Everybody acknowledges he was not using the gun to harm anybody, he never pointed it at anybody, but, unfortunately, just having possession of a gun during commission of a crime makes crimes much more serious.”
Browne said he hopes the notoriety and publicity associated with the case dies down eventually so it can be adjudicated in a calmer atmosphere. “That’s going to be a challenge for me; I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said of dealing with the media attention.
Despite all the charges, Browne said he doesn’t think the charges — if proved — ought to result in a long sentence by themselves.
“If we could consolidate everything in Seattle in federal court, then the best I could do is give you an estimate: It would probably be somewhere between four and 12 years, something like that,” Browne said, adding that if it weren’t such a high-profile case, the sentence would be shorter.
“But for the notoriety, I think it would be a case you could resolve for less than four years, but because of that, it’s going to be a higher number,” Browne told Lauer.
It was actually Harris-Moore’s notoriety that proved to be his downfall on Sunday. Witnesses on Eleuthera recognized the 19-year-old and called police, who captured him after a high-speed boat chase, Bahamas Police Commissioner Ellison Greenslade said at a celebratory news conference in Nassau, the capital.
Greenslade said shots were fired during the water chase but he did not say who fired them. He also said Harris-Moore was carrying a handgun that he tried to throw away.
Another senior police official, however, said police fired to disable the motor on the suspect's stolen boat, and that Harris-Moore threw his gun in the water. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case, also said that police recovered a laptop and a GPS locator from the suspect.
Police flew Harris-Moore in shackles to Nassau. True to his nickname, the teen with close-shorn hair was shoeless as he walked off the plane wearing short camouflage cargo pants, a short-sleeved shirt and a bulletproof vest.
The 6-foot-5-inch Harris-Moore had been on the run since escaping from a Washington state halfway house in 2008. He is accused of breaking into dozens of homes and committing burglaries across Washington, as well as in British Columbia and Idaho.
Some of his alleged actions appeared intended to taunt police: In February, someone who broke into a grocery store in Washington's San Juan Islands drew cartoonish, chalk-outline feet all over the floor.
Through it all, his ranks of supporters grew. Some of his more than 60,000 Facebook fans posted disappointed messages Sunday, while others promoted T-shirts and tote bags with the words "Free Colton!" and "Let Colton Fly!"
Greenslade said the high-speed chase began around 2 a.m. Sunday after police received tips from members of the public that the suspect was on Harbour Island. The chase ended in the waters off the Romora Bay Resort & Marina on Harbour Island, where security director Kenneth Strachan reported seeing a young man running through the bush barefoot with a handgun, according to Anne Ward, who manages the property.
Ward said the fugitive ran back to the water and stole another boat but ran aground in the shallows, where police shot out his engine. "At one point, the boy threw his computer in the water and put a gun to his head. He was going to kill himself. Police talked him out of it," Ward said.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.