Police: Teen burglar's thefts top $1.5 million

Police: Teen burglar's thefts top $1.5 million
Colton Harris-Moore is seen in a July 2008 photo recovered from a stolen digital camera memory card.
EVERETT, Wash. (AP) - National law enforcement experts say to catch a nimble fugitive like Colton Harris-Moore, police need dedicated teams that can pounce swiftly and move easily across jurisdictional borders.

The outfit best suited to the task - the FBI - doesn't consider the 18-year-old Camano Island serial burglar a grave threat.

"He's basically a local burglar, a local misguided kid," FBI Special Agent Fred Gutt said. "It makes for a good read but it's not viewed as a high-priority item for us."

Harris-Moore is suspected of stealing four small planes and crashing each one. The cost of the property he's believed to have stolen exceeds $1.5 million.

Most recently, Harris-Moore is suspected of stealing a $650,000 private plane from Anacortes on Feb. 10. The plane was recovered in the mud the next morning on Orcas Island. Deputies there also investigated a burglary at an Eastsound organic grocery store.

Now, some local sheriff's departments have formed a task force of sorts for sharing information. Experts say that's likely not enough to bring the crime spree to an end. They suggest a tightly coordinated effort with dedicated resources.

"To him this is a game. This is what he does. He wins every time," said Joel Hardin, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent and nationally known man tracker. "He's taunting them simply because he's won so much and so often."

Harris-Moore has been a fugitive from justice since he escaped from a halfway house in Renton in April 2008.

Since his escape, he's suspected of crossing state lines in a stolen plane and busting open an automatic teller machine. Those offenses could be prosecuted in federal courts. Police believe he's committed other crimes across the Northwest, including in Snohomish County. He's been investigated in Island, San Juan, Skagit, King and Whatcom counties, plus British Columbia and Idaho.

The teen has a reputation for dashing away and disappearing into the woods. He's 6-foot-5 and fast.

His exploits have garnered considerable media attention. Just this week a reporter from GQ magazine was scheduled to visit Harris-Moore's stomping grounds.

San Juan County Sheriff William Cumming said there is a loose task force that allows for police around the region to freely share information about the fugitive teen.

"Most agencies have a lot on their plate," the sheriff said. "To dedicate full-time people to a task force is a good idea but it doesn't fit with a lot of the available resources."

Sheriff's officials in Island County have tangled with Harris-Moore on Camano Island for years. Island County sheriff's detective Ed Wallace said they'd prefer to dedicate a deputy full-time to capturing the elusive fugitive.

"Everybody wants this kid caught," he said.

The problem comes down to dollars and cents, he said. County budget woes this year have forced half of the four-man detective squad in Island County to be taken off cases and reassigned to patrol, Wallace said.

Typically, resource-strapped local police can get help with major cases from federal law enforcement, said Joseph King, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He's also a former federal agent.

Like the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Coast Guard all have helped out from time to time in the Harris-Moore investigation, officials said. But the feds haven't taken over the case.

King said an untrained pilot like Harris-Moore could easily kill himself and several others if a plane came crashing down, he said.

"If you've got a target that's not viewed as that serious, that's half your problem," King said.

Several people familiar with the investigation quietly say the Snohomish County Auto Theft Task Force, a group of seasoned property-crimes detectives from several agencies, is playing a significant role in the case.

The Snohomish County task force investigated in October after a plane stolen from Idaho crashed near Granite Falls. The group's commander, Lt. Brent Speyer, refuses to publicly connect the theft to Harris-Moore. Others in law enforcement have speculated the Camano teen was responsible.

Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said there are lots of prolific criminals at work and deputies go after all of them, regardless of their appeal to the media.

"We are aggressively looking for a suspect in the crimes that were committed in this county," Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick said. "We are going to find a suspect."

Jack McDermitt is an associate dean at the College of Criminal Justice and Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

Harris-Moore seems to be leveraging the cross-boundary jurisdictional issues, he said.

The professor said the best way to nab him is for law enforcement to work together. This avoids problems and can help set egos aside, he said. A task force would allow everyone involved to take credit for his capture.

"Once you get over that hurdle, it's a lot easier to work that through," McDermitt said.

Hardin, the man tracker, helped Snohomish County sheriff's detectives in March 1998 snare a Bulgarian hermit, Mincio Donciev. Donciev was a convicted murderer who escaped from a Bulgarian labor camp in 1970 and then legally entered the U.S. He broke the law here and spent nearly a dozen years hiding in the woods outside Darrington. He stalked empty vacation homes and stole food to survive.

Once it began in earnest, the hunt for Donciev took weeks, Hardin said. Officials used motion detectors set up in the woods.

Hardin said the law enforcement teams who have been on Harris-Moore's trail so far, including the FBI, don't have man-tracking expertise.

Hardin said with two weeks and good intelligence, he likely could put Harris-Moore behind bars.

"This kid will only go so long," he said. "He gets tired of sitting around and watching TV and playing (by) himself. The only people he's considering an equal adversary is law enforcement, and they haven't been up to the game."