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'Barefoot Bandit' says broken home sparked international crime spree

It's a sensational story with a Hollywood deal, but the adventures of Colton Harris-Moore, aka 'The Barefoot Bandit,' is really a tragedy, his attorneys tell a judge at a hearing Friday.

By Staff writer / December 16, 2011

Colton Harris-Moore, also known as the 'Barefoot Bandit,' glances at the courtroom gallery as he walks to the defense table, in Island County Superior Court on Friday, in Coupeville, Wash.

Ted S. Warren/AP

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Colton Harris-Moore, a high school dropout known as the "Barefoot Bandit," is painted in popular culture as a survivalist genius who rebelled against society by stealing planes, boats, and SUVs during a two-year crime spree across the US and the Caribbean, giving the law the slip at every turn.

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But as Mr. Harris-Moore, who was captured after a July 2010 boat chase in the Bahamas, faces sentencing in Island County, Wash., on Friday, his attorneys are painting a different version of Harris-Moore's life – not as the adventures of a modern-day folk hero, but as a tragedy.

Facing up to 10 years in prison for a string of at least 30 thefts and burglaries, Harris-Moore is pleading with the judge to consider a psychological profile that describes a traumatized and often hungry boy from a broken home, lashing out at his "abusive" mother with ever more extravagant stunts and heists.

"What was characterized by the media as the swashbuckling adventures of a rakish teenager were in fact the actions of a depressed, possibly suicidal young man with waxing and waning Post-traumatic Stress Disorder," writes Dr. Richard Adler, a forensic psychiatrist, in the defense report being considered by Judge Vickie Churchill.

Earlier this year, Harris-Moore pled guilty to separate federal charges for the two-year crime spree, with total damages equaling about $3 million. A set of chalk-outlined barefoot prints at one scene gave him the moniker Barefoot Bandit, which Harris-Moore eventually adopted as his exploits and fame grew. By the time of his capture, his Facebook page had 85,000 fans, one of whom wrote upon his capture, "Dude, bummer you got caught, but you made history and no one will ever forget that."

For Judge Churchill, consideration of Harris-Moore's troubled childhood will have to be weighed against both the severity of the crimes, his guilty plea, as well as the overarching message her ruling will send both to Harris-Moore and to other young people who may be contemplating a life of criminal exploit.

"One of the issues for the judge will be, is he dangerous?" says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, who has written about Harris-Moore. "If there's a shorter penalty, will he see this as a slap on the wrist and feel encouraged to continue his criminal ways – and his fan club?"

Despite Harris-Moore's troubled childhood, Professor Fox says, "he still knew what he was doing was wrong, which means it's important that there's a substantial sanction here in order to send a very clear message that he is not someone to be admired, and that for us to stand on the sidelines to applaud his elusiveness ignores the harm that he was creating and the destruction he was causing."

Harris-Moore's lawyer says the teenager has composed a "beautiful letter" he will read to the judge, but it's far from clear his testimony will sway his victims, many of whom are expected in court.

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