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.
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.
"It wasn't a victimless crime," Kyle Ater, whose delicatessen was robbed by Harris-Moore, tells the Seattle Times. "Oh, to say that he grew up in an abusive society and we should let him off because of that? I'm going to tell the judge how he affected hundreds of people and millions of dollars' worth of property."
His mom, Pam Kohler, meanwhile, has maintained Colton's adventuresome spirit is to blame for his actions.
"I did my best with him, but he has a strong mind," Ms. Kohler told freelance writer Bob Friel, who profiled Harris-Moore for Outside magazine in 2010, before his capture. "Kids just don't listen to their mothers." According to Mr. Friel, Kohler also took pride in his exploits, especially his ability to elude the law.
The defense report paints a different picture of the now 20-year-old's home life, where many of the male role models were drifters and his mom provided little stability or guidance. One witness recalled that "one minute Pam would hug and kiss Colt and call him her 'little boo-boo bear,' and then, literally within minutes, explode at him, saying things such as 'I wish you were dead.' "
The psychiatrist also notes that Harris-Moore began breaking into neighbor's homes as an elementary school student, raiding refrigerators because there was no food in his home. Evidence of possible psychological problems, including depression, date back to when Harris-Moore was 12 years old, when he told a psychologist, "I need help."
Fearing that a 10-year sentence would break Harris-Moore's spirit and ruin his potential, one defense investigator wrote to the judge, “Given a reasonable sentence, there is every reason to believe that Colt will make the most of his time behind bars, prove himself a model inmate, then work hard to become a self-sufficient, contributing citizen after his release.”
That idea deserves deep consideration by a judge likely under pressure to throw the book at Harris-Moore, says Casey Jordan, a criminologist at Western Connecticut State University.
"This is really a policy issue about what you do when somebody has truly slipped through the cracks, where the system let him down, and where he's at an age where he's still salvageable," she says. "The judge really needs to separate out the political or cultural pressure to make an example of him ... from the very genuine pressure to make a specific plan that will address this particular defendant, who any fair-minded person who reads the mitigation report will say is not beyond rehabilitation."
This summer, Harris-Moore sold his story to Twentieth-Century Fox for $1.3 million. Under the plea agreement, the money will go toward paying back his multitude of victims.
"I am humbled to know I can now help the people I hurt, at least for the financial damage I caused them," Harris-Moore said in a statement at the time.