Darius McCollum, Autistic Man Jailed 29 Times for Stealing Buses and Trains, Will Finally Get Some Professional Help


Darius McCollum is what you might call a public transportation enthusiast. As a teenager in Queens, he’d cut class to be near the subway tracks, and dreamed of being a conductor. But at age 15, he became front-page news instead, when he drove an E train from his favorite stop, 34th Street, all the way to the World Trade Center before promptly being arrested. Over the next three decades, McCollum, now 48 and diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, was arrested dozens of times for non-violent transit-related offenses, including impersonating an MTA worker in 1996 and attempting to steal a Long Island Railroad car in 2004.

His latest arrest, in 2010, was for stealing a Trailways bus. Yesterday, after being jailed at Rikers Island for three years, he was finally sentenced for that crime. And for the first time, it has occurred to someone to offer the man some therapy.

McCollum has been the subject of probably hundreds of articles. According to the New York Times, he’s also inspired a play and is the subject of an in-progress documentary. In a fascinating interview with the AP last month, he waxed poetic about his love for trains, saying, he’s “always loved” them, “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.”

At one point, McCollum even took the civil service exam to join the MTA. But he failed, and, according to NPR, he wouldn’t have been hired even if he’d passed.

“We would not hire anyone who has previously stolen one of our trains,” an MTA spokesperson told the station.

So instead, McCollum moonlighted in an illegal sort of way, putting on uniforms to pose as a conductor and a track worker, sometimes calling himself “Manning,” fixing broken tracks and, at times, working quietly alongside other transit employees. His arrests for both the train and bus thefts, as well as the impersonations, have caused him to spend about a third of his life in jail, something that apparently has done nothing to dampen his passion.

At some point, a former defense attorney gave McCollum information on Asperger’s syndrome. But it took him, and his friends and family, a little while to understand that a disorder might be driving some of his behavior. “I knew I was different from people,” he todl the AP. “But I didn’t realize what was making me different.”

In the meantime, though, impersonating a transit worker got him into a special sort of trouble in 2001, when he appeared before Judge Carol Berkman of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan. There, according to a New York Times article from the time, several people from Asperger’s support groups, as well as McCollum’s mother, Elizabeth, tried to tell the judge that he was autistic and needed professional help. But Judge Berkman said she’d read about Asperger’s syndrome on the Internet, and decided McCollum did not have it, because he didn’t exhibit, in the words of the NYT, “some important symptoms, including social dysfunction.”

So McCollum went back to jail. Soon after his release, in 2004, he was arrested again, with the keys to that LIRR car in his pocket. He was arrested three more times in 2006 and 2008 for impersonating MTA workers and federal agents. And then, in 2010, he was caught near JFK Airport, driving a Trailways bus. When he was arrested, he told the officers he’d been hired to pick up a flight crew and take them to the airport after the driver didn’t show up. He said he was on his way back to the Hoboken terminal when he was stopped.

McCollum faced another two-and-a-half to five years for that one. But having served so much time since his arrest, he’s eligible for parole almost immediately. And his defense attorney and prosecutors have agreed that it’s time to try something different. Upon parole, he’ll undergo cognitive behavioral therapy. According to the AP, his lawyer, Sally Butler, is working with the Consulting Project, a group of forensic social workers and psychologists, to help find him treatment and housing.

“Both sides recognize that locking him up doesn’t make any sense,” Butler told reporters.

It’s not clear yet when McCollum will be released, where he’ll be treated, or how long it’ll last. Wherever he goes, we’d suggest putting him in a cab to get there.