Catch Me If You Can

updated 06/14/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/14/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Back when he was just a boy and not an infamous outlaw, Colton Harris-Moore had two passions-airplanes and animals. He filled his bedroom with model Messerschmitts and P-51 Mustangs, and his best pal was his feisty mutt Melanie. "Colt misses her more than anyone," says his mother, Pam Kohler, as she sits on the porch of her trailer on Washington's Camano Island, where Colton, 19, grew up. "He always said he wanted to start a shelter for abused animals. But I don't think that's going to happen now."

Instead her son is likely to wind up in jail-or worse. Police say he's been on a bizarre crime spree in the outer reaches of the Pacific Northwest, stealing and crash-landing four small planes, hot-wiring boats, breaking into vacation homes and eluding manhunts by slipping into the woods and, as one official put it, "vaporizing." In the process, the gangly, 6'5" teen has become a cult sensation, with his likeness on mugs and T-shirts, a book and movie deal in the works, a popular ballad on YouTube and 20,000 fans on a Facebook page. He even has a catchy nickname-the Barefoot Bandit, a nod to his habit of deliberately leaving his footprints at crime scenes. "The kid has become Jesse James," says Bob Tangney, owner of Haley's Bait Shop & Grill in nearby Friday Harbor. "All my employees love him. But our sheriff isn't too happy."

That so many people are rooting for Colton in his cat-and-mouse game with police has indeed rankled those in pursuit of him. "I'm done talking about him," declares San Juan County sheriff Bill Cumming. "I think there's been enough said already." Right now Colton is a suspect in some 100 crimes, and several law agencies, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the FBI, are after him. This May 15 a surveillance camera caught someone who resembles Colton lurking on a dock where a boat was stolen on Washington's Lopez Island. But the culprit got clean away. "He can't keep pushing everyone's buttons like this," says Ronald Free, 61, a geo-engineer who had two laptops and his credit cards allegedly stolen by Colton. "This is going to end poorly for him."

The start of his life, to be sure, was difficult: His father left before Colton turned 4, and his stepfather, with whom he was close, died while Colton was still a boy. His mother, Pam, once a staffer at the National Park Service, has reportedly struggled with alcohol abuse. Records show Colton was medicated for ADHD and depression; at 12, he was charged with second-degree burglary for swiping a laptop. He later told a principal he "could not stop stealing and didn't know why."

Suspended from school repeatedly for theft and vandalism, he finally dropped out at 15. Officials say he broke into several vacant homes and often stole credit cards (he has in the past used them to buy police scanners, night-vision goggles and even bear-repelling mace). Police finally caught him in one home and arrested him in February 2007. His sentence: three years in juvenile lockup. "He was extremely smart and one of the nicest kids I ever worked with," says Rachel Miyoshi, his attorney in 2007. "I'd do anything to help him."

Colton didn't stay locked up for long: In April 2008 he slipped out a window and disappeared. Without a single flying lesson, he apparently stole several private planes, took them for joyrides and crash-landed them all, walking away from the wreckage and adding to his legend. He proved maddeningly elusive, once barely escaping cops by racing through a churchyard and fleeing into the forest-laughing all the way. "This was where he learned how to handle himself in the woods; I taught him," says Pam, 59, pointing with some pride to the grove of madrone and Douglas fir surrounding her trailer (she spoke only briefly to PEOPLE before ending the interview). Still, she adds, "it's not like he's just living in the woods; he has help. They're never going to catch him."

Police believe Colton may be hiding in a series of safe houses provided by friends and fans, and they're conducting regular ground and air searches in and around Camano Island. But for now, the Barefoot Bandit remains everywhere and nowhere. Colton used to call his mother all the time to let her know he was fine, but now even she hasn't heard from him in weeks. "The last thing Colt said to me is that when it ends, it's going to be on his terms," she says. "I guess we'll find out what that means."

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