Seattle's teenage Jesse James

As an outlaw in the grand tradition, 18-year-old Colton Harris-Moore has both infuriated and impressed the Pacific North-West with his escapades. Now he's back on his home turf

Victims call him a one-man crime wave who ought to be in prison. Fans say he's a misunderstood folk hero in the grand tradition of Robin Hood, Huckleberry Finn, and Jesse James. To police near Seattle, who are once more on his elusive tail, Colton Harris-Moore can be summed up in two words: most wanted.

The young fugitive is just 18, and has nothing to his name except a resourceful personality and an apparent inability to understand the meaning of fear. But for 18 months, he has led police, the FBI, and several divisions of Canada's Royal Mounted Police on a merry dance across thousands of miles of the Pacific North-west. During the man hunt, Harris-Moore, who is thought to have committed at least 50 burglaries, has stolen three planes, two speedboats, and countless cars. He's walked away from crashes that ought to have killed him, inspired a folk song, got his face on T-shirts, and accumulated almost 4,000 "supporters" on the internet site Facebook.

Now, with Hollywood eager to buy-up his life story, police believe the juvenile delinquent's odyssey has returned to where it all started: the dense forests that cover Camano Island, a 40sq-mile piece of land in the middle of Puget Sound.

A string of recent break-ins on Camano, where Harris-Moore grew up, and neighbouring Whidbey Island have convinced the forces of law and order that the troubled youth who became known as the "barefoot burglar" on account of his habit of leaving a footprint at the scene of his crimes, has managed to make it back home.

"We've had some burglaries on Camano Island, and we've had them on Whidbey Island, and we're investigating them, and that's what I can say," Island County Sheriff Mark Brown told reporters this week. "I'm just not going to comment on the on-going investigation, and I think you can probably appreciate why."

Sheriff Brown is reluctant to add to the layers of mystique surrounding Harris-Moore. Raised by his single mother in a tiny trailer, he began breaking into local properties and businesses at the age of seven, and has been on the run since escaping from a juvenile prison several hundred miles away last April.

Sheriff Brown is also anxious to avoid saying anything that might increase public sympathy for the youth, whose crimes have been, perhaps unfairly, dubbed "victimless" - and who usually tends to to steal blankets, basic foodstuffs, and pieces of survival equipment that allow him to stay a step ahead of the law.

Among his many misdemeanours, Harris-Moore once pinched thermal-imaging goggles from a local fire station, so he could see police coming to arrest him at night. He also taught himself to steal and pilot aeroplanes by using an online flight simulator.

The Scarlet Pimpernel-like nature of his recent escapades is certainly compelling. After a troubled childhood, in which he was abused at home, he spent a portion of his teenage years living in the woods on Camano Island, breaking into local stores and deserted holiday homes in order to get food, petty cash, and occasional shelter.

He was eventually arrested when police noticed that he'd begun phoning for pizzas from his forest hideouts. They decided to dress up as delivery boys in order to capture him. But after serving a few weeks of his sentence, he escaped from Grifffin Home, a juvenile prison in Renton, Washington State.

That was 18 months ago. Since then, Harris-Moore has been more or less untouchable. He spent a summer living on Orcas Island, to which he initially fled using a stolen speedboat. Then, exactly a year ago, he stole a Cessna from a local airfield and flew to the Yakama Indian Reservation, on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains where he crash-landed and decided to stay for the winter.

In September this year, he returned to Orcas Island, apparently in another stolen aircraft, carried out a few burglaries, hot-wired another speedboat and drove it to Point Roberts on the Canadian border. He then made his way across British Columbia by foot and stolen car, carrying out a string of break-ins that saw him star in police "wanted" posters.

After pinching another plane, in Idaho, he crash-landed near the town of Granite Falls. "How he walked away from it is anybody's guess," Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus told the Los Angeles Times. "The wings were broken, the fuselage had a big crack in it, the nose was broken." There were 10 to 12 gallons of fuel left in the tank.

Days later, Swat teams were called to woods north of Seattle, when they thought they had Harris-Moore cornered. A shot was allegedly fired by the fugitive. But three dozen agents equipped with search dogs and flashlights were unable to nab the elusive suspect. One officer said it was like he "vapourised".

All the while, Harris-Moore's hero status was growing. A range of T-shirts bearing his mugshot and the logo "Momma tried" were launched, and a tribute song released on YouTube. Hollywood producers have offered up to $100,000 for his life story. And his Facebook appreciation site has almost 4,000 members.

"People that are struggling with this huge economic downturn," says the site's founder, Zack Sestak, "feel let down by the system. And to see an 18-year-old kid that seems to be taking on the system and winning... it certainly strikes their imagination."

Now he's back on home ground, but he's not coming home. He calls his mother, Pam Kohler, occasionally. "I've talked my head off, I've tried everything. But he's the kind of kid who's going to do what he wants to do," she told Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. "If he taught himself to fly, I'm very proud of him. Next time, I hope he wears a parachute, that's all."