New Yorker Darius McCollum has been arrested 29 times for being a transit impostor. He’s been obsessed much of his life with stealing and piloting or driving any number of vehicles, ranging from piloting a subway train, stealing a bus, and putting on uniforms to pose as a conductor and a track worker during one instance.
Darius could have become a transit worker. He can explain the workings of the New York City transit system with the precision of a veteran conductor. He knows virtually every subway stop, line, and train — but, instead, he became a transit impostor.
According to the 49-year-old McCollum, who has spent nearly one third of his life behind bars:
I’ve always loved trains, ever since I can remember. I had the whole subway map memorized by the time I was 8. People would call me to ask how to get somewhere.”
Ever since his 2010 arrest for his latest escapade — stealing a Trailways bus – he’s been at Rikers Island. On the highway that leads to Kennedy International Airport, McCollum was arrested behind the wheel of the bus.
What will be McCollum’s new defense?
According to his attorney Sally Butler, McCollum’s actions are the result of uncontrolled impulses. These impulses, she claims, are a byproduct of what was until recently called Asperger’s syndrome. Now, it is considered an “autism spectrum disorder.”
Because of these “uncontrolled impulses,” Butler argues that her client wasn’t capable of fighting against them. She says that the D.A.’s office agrees, and that they have worked out a solution.
Darius McCollum plead guilty to stealing the bus, but instead of getting the 15 years that would be ordinarily a typical sentence for such a crime, as he is considered to be an habitual offender, he will get only 2 and a third to 5 years. However, he will also have to undergo “cognitive behavioral therapy.”
According to McCollum, he thinks he can be cured of his impulses:
I really do want to change. I have motivation and people behind me — I think I can do it this time.”
McCollum says that in the case where he was most recently arrested for stealing the Trailways bus, he was hired by Trailways to pick up a crew of flight attendants because the driver didn’t show up for work. Prosecutors dispute this story, because when he was arrested, McCollum was alone.
Near the 179th Street station on the F and E lines in Queens was where McCollum grew up. He thinks he originally became interested in the transit system through his proximity to the lines when he was a young boy. He eventually became known by the conductors and train operators because he would go there after school. He learned quickly lots of information about the two lines, but he never quite understood the social rules. That is yet another hallmark of the disorder.
However, disorders like Asperger’s and autism was rarely diagnosed then. He was soon cutting class to be near the tracks.
According to McCollum, speaking aobut the transit system of New York City:
It’s my passion. The more was I down there, the more I wanted to do. I enjoy everything about the subway system.”
His penchant for stealing and piloting transit vehicles has made him somewhat famous. For instance, McCollum has his own Facebook page, and there is a movie in development about his life and exploits.
Will McCollum ever be fully “cured” of his disease?
According to McCollum’s current lawyer, Butler, it’s really up to her client to get better. It’s either that, or be rearrested and face a longer sentence.
McCollum agrees, but he knows that there is currently no “cure” to his disease and his impulsive behavior. All he can hope for is to be able to keep his impulses under control.
As Butler puts it:
If I went to a jury trial and argued mental illness, we’d win, but the problem is, they put you in the mental hospital, they keep you there until cured. This can’t be cured. It can only managed.”
McCollum says he’d had enough of stealing transit vehicles, and he no longer wnats to operate trains when he gets out of prison. Technology has passed him by, and he doesn’t like it that the trains have become “too computerized.”
“They’re doing away with everything from the old days, it seems,” he said.
McCollum’s case is a unique challenge for the criminal justice system. After all, he is not violent. All that he’s done — other than stealing and driving the transit vehicles — is to drive the routes, fix broken tracks and work alongside other transit employees without having an official job.
Still prosecutors have said, there is the possibility he could cause an accident or injure someone.
McCollum told the Wall Street Journal: “I just love everything about [the subway]. I love the atmosphere, I love the lights, I love the signals. I love the fact that it’s moving all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s nothing negative I can say about the transit system.”
Being a transit impostor has turned New Yorker Darius McCollum into a sort of folk hero. But, being arrested 29 times and spending a third of his life behind bars has seemed to have lessened his impulsive behavior, so perhaps there will not be a thirtieth time he will be arrested.
Written by: Douglas Cobb