Darius McCollum has been arrested twenty-nine times, beginning when he was a teenager, for crimes that include nabbing subway trains, stealing a bus and donning uniforms to pose as a conductor and even track worker. It’s an obsession that has dominated his life. But instead of becoming a transit worker, he’s become a transit imposter.
McCollum can explain the complicated workings of the New York City transit system with the precision of a veteran conductor. He knows every subway stop, every line, every train.
He’s been at Rikers Island jail since his 2010 arrest for his latest escapade – stealing a Trailways bus. He was arrested behind the wheel on the highway that leads to Kennedy International Airport.
The case, for him, is typical. But he hopes the outcome this time will be different.
Attorney Sally Butler says McCollum’s actions are the result of uncontrolled impulses, a byproduct of what was until recently called Asperger’s syndrome but is now considered an autism spectrum disorder.
She says the district attorney’s office agrees, and they have worked on a solution: McCollum pleaded guilty to stealing the bus, and instead of being sentenced Thursday to 15 years as a habitual offender, he will get thirty months to 5 years and voluntarily undergo cognitive behavioral therapy.
McCollum was first handed literature about Asperger’s about 10 years ago by a former lawyer. But before he could be evaluated, McCollum was sentenced by a Manhattan judge who said she had looked up the disorder online and decided he didn’t have it. He has since been diagnosed by doctors on both sides, and it took a while before it started to make sense to him.
His arrests sound vaguely like tall tales where he plays the well-meaning folk hero. In his most recent case, he says he was hired by Trailways to pick up a crew of flight attendants because the driver didn’t show up for work, a version prosecutors dispute. When he was arrested, he was alone.
McCollum grew up in Queens, near the 179th Street station on the F and E lines, and would go there after school where conductors and other train operators got to know him. He says he absorbed information at a rapid pace but never quite understood the social rules, another hallmark of the disorder. But autism was rarely diagnosed then. He was soon cutting class to be near the tracks.
At 15, he piloted an E train from 34th Street – his favorite subway station – six stops to the World Trade Center without any passengers noticing. It started the cycle he’s been in for years. He’s never held a steady job. He took the civil service exam to work for the Metropolitan Transit Authority but didn’t pass. It wouldn’t matter anyway, said an MTA spokesman: “We would not hire anyone who has previously stolen one of our trains.”
McCollum presents a confusing challenge for the criminal justice system. He’s not violent. He just drives the routes, fixes broken tracks and works alongside other transit employees without an official job. But, as prosecutors have long said, he could cause an accident or injure someone.
Michael John Carley, who founded the nonprofit Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership where McCollum used to attend support group meetings, says there are really no programs for autism-spectrum people who tangle with the law. Unlike a drunken driver who can avoid jail by going to rehab, McCollum’s only option has been jail.
Butler, his current attorney, said it’s really up to McCollum to get better – or be rearrested and face a longer sentence.
For what it’s worth, McCollum said he doesn’t want to operate trains anymore when he gets out – they’ve become too computerized.
“They’re doing away with everything from the old days, it seems,” he said.
Source: bigstory.ap.org “NY man arrested 29 times for nabbing trains, buses,” August 14, 2014.