Federal agents have been itching for months to get their hands on a certain Colton Harris-Moore, a 19-year-old fugitive from the law whose home was coastal Washington State near Seattle. That he may have pitched up – or rather crash-landed – in a tourist isle in the Bahamas was not what anyone expected.
The trail of Harris-Moore, sometimes known as the "Barefoot Bandit" for his habit of committing burglaries while shoeless, turned red hot on Sunday when a plane which had earlier been stolen from a small airport in Indiana was discovered nose-down in three-feet of water off the coast of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas.
That the Cessna 400, valued at $650,000 (3427,000), had been commandeered by Harris-Moore seems beyond doubt to the FBI, which on Tuesday announced a $10,000 reward for anyone with information that will lead to his arrest. They also unsealed a federal criminal complaint against him dated last December. It details more than 60 crimes he is thought to have committed since slipping out of a low-security home for juveniles back in 2008.
While the plane has been recovered, the hunt for its alleged pilot is only just beginning and will fan across the Bahamas, better known as a destination for sun-worshippers and fishing enthusiasts. "He's not in custody as yet. We're following some leads and we're working with the community to try and find him. Hopefully we should find him," assistant police commissioner with the Royal Bahamas Police Force, Glenn Miller, confirmed. The optimism may be misplaced given the suspect's history of evading capture and teasing the victims of his crimes and the police. Most recently, investigators have been tracking a succession of crimes committed across the Midwest, all of which seem to display his hallmarks, including the occasion when a family in South Dakota returned home to find a nude young man inside. He blinded them with a laser pointer before vanishing.
The complaint unsealed by the FBI covers investigations tied to the suspect dating back to before leaving the Pacific Northwest last month for his apparent cross-country spree. Included, however, is the theft of another Cessna in late September in Idaho and the discovery of its wreckage two days later in Granite Falls, Idaho. The goods described as being stolen by the suspect in the complaint would together be valued at over $3m.
The young man was also thought to be at the controls of another light aircraft stolen during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. The plane skirted along the boundaries of a no-fly area set up as part of the security arrangements for the games and then vanished before anyone could intercept it.
Police say he left the Pacific Northwest on 1 June, slipping across the Columbia River and beginning his odyssey across the country in a variety of stolen vehicles. But now he seems to have pushed the boat out, or rather his latest winged acquisition. Police in the town of Monroe, Indiana, were already dealing with reports of a car that had been stolen in neighbouring Illinois when they received news that a plane had gone missing from the airport.
A relatively recent model, the Cessna in question had a range of a little over 1,200 miles, putting the Bahamas just within its flying reach. It is still a relatively challenging flight plan for a young man who has never, as far as anyone knows, received any pilot's instruction. In southern Florida alone he faced several restricted flying zones around NASA's Cape Canaveral as well as military bases and commercial airports.
Then there was the matter of ditching it in water safely, something he did six miles offshore. When the police arrived, the wreckage was there, but the pilot was gone. "We suspect that maybe the individual is a good swimmer, or the water may not have been that deep," said Mr Miller. It seems both observations were true.