NASSAU, Bahamas — The American teenager who police call the “Barefoot Bandit” pleaded guilty Tuesday to a minor offense in the Bahamas and will be deported soon to face prosecution for a string of break-ins and plane thefts across the United States.
Colton Harris-Moore pleaded guilty to illegally entering the country at his first court appearance in the Bahamas, where police ended the 19-year-old convict’s alleged two-year crime spree by capturing him following a high-speed boat chase.
The charge stemming from his alleged crash of a stolen plane on Great Abaco Island carries a $300 fine or three months in jail, followed by deportation. His lawyer, Monique Gomez, said the U.S. Embassy would pay the fine.
“Colton wants to go home,” Gomez said.
The shackled teen smiled after the judge read the sentence. Bahamian police had earlier said that he would face other charges including illegal weapons possession related to a string of break-ins and thefts during his weeklong hideout in the country.
Harris-Moore wore white high-top sneakers without laces and kept his head down as armed officers escorted him to the courthouse. A police SWAT team stood by as authorities put up street barricades ahead of the hearing for the celebrity suspect.
Authorities say he earned the “Barefoot Bandit” nickname by committing some crimes while shoeless, and in February he allegedly drew chalk-outline feet all over the floor of a grocery store during a burglary in Washington’s San Juan Islands.
Harris-Moore is suspected in about 70 property crimes across eight states and British Columbia, many of them in the bucolic islands of Washington state. He is accused of stealing a plane from an Indiana airport to fly to the Bahamas.
His mother, Pam Kohler, seemed relieved.
“I’m really tired,” Kohler said from her home on Camano Island, Washington. “Yes, I look forward to seeing him.”
Asked what she planned to say to her son when she saw him, she said angrily, “What kind of question is that?” and hung up the phone.
His arrest came as a relief to people across rural Camano Island, where authorities say he learned to dodge police.
“There’s a lot of relief throughout the community,” said real estate agent Mark Williams. “I think the man’s luck just wore out. You run through the woods long enough, you’re going to trip over a log.”
Residents of the island also lashed out at the teen’s mother this week, saying her decision to hire a well-known Seattle lawyer suggests she’s trying to profit from a crime spree that police say took her son from the cedar trees in Washington to the bright beaches of the Bahamas.
“Of course she wants the money. She doesn’t work,” said Joshua Flickner, whose family owns an island grocery store. “What makes me more angry than the fact that she’s trying to profit off this is that there’s any profit to be had.”
The mother’s attorney downplayed any profit motive, saying Kohler contacted him for advice after being inundated by requests from news reporters as well as inquiries about book and movie deals.
“Her feelings are relief and exhaustion,” O. Yale Lewis said. “Obviously, there is enormous interest in this story, and she wants to be careful about how to proceed. But her first concern has been to make sure her son is safe.
“And I think she hasn’t given much thought beyond that,” he said.
Harris-Moore told police in the Bahamas that he came to the country, located off the Florida coast, because it has so many islands, airports and docks, according to an officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.
The teenager claimed that he told islanders he was trying to get to Cuba so he could throw police off his trail, but he intended to make his way to the Turks and Caicos Islands southeast of the Bahamas, the officer said.
The suspect learned from the Internet that the British territory has a small police force and no marine defense force, according to the officer.
Harris-Moore spent Monday being questioned by investigators. Police Commissioner Ellison Greenslade described him as eloquent, calm, cooperative and “obviously a very intelligent young man,” but declined to say whether he made any confession.
Kohler’s older sister, Sandra Puttmann, of Arlington, was the first relative to hear from Harris-Moore after his arrest Sunday. She said he was “holding up” but scared now that he’s in custody for the first time since he walked away from a halfway house south of Seattle.
Puttmann angrily criticized news stories about her nephew, saying reporters typically gloss over his difficult upbringing. She said police routinely accused him of stealing even when he hadn’t and school officials didn’t give him a chance – something police and school officials have adamantly denied.
Harris-Moore told a psychologist in 2008 that his mother was abusive when she’d been drinking, according to a court document cited Monday by The Herald newspaper of Everett. His father left when he was a toddler, and his stepfather died when he was 7, Kohler has said.
He is accused of crimes in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.
Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, said Tuesday she expected Harris-Moore to be flown first to the southern district of Florida. Typically, defendants make an initial court appearance in the closest federal jurisdiction to the country deporting them.
She said the U.S. Marshals Service would then fly Harris-Moore to Seattle, where he faces a federal complaint of interstate transportation of stolen property alleging that he took a plane from Idaho and crashed it in Washington.
“Exactly when he would arrive here is a moving target as far as I know,” she said.
David Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service in Seattle, said he did not expect Harris-Moore to return to Seattle sooner than two to three weeks, even if he waives an identity hearing.