Darius McCollum has a peculiar hobby: impersonating New York transit staff, stealing buses and trains, and then driving them away.
Once, he stole a bus at Penn Station and drove it, full of passengers, to New York’s Kennedy airport. Another time he responded to an emergency stop call on the subway at 57th street in Manhattan; clearing passengers safely and correctly and diagnosing the problem, in full uniform, before being caught by the train driver, who had seen his face on a wanted poster.
It has made him something of a folk hero. But he has spent a third of his life in jail for his hobby, and he seems to be incorrigible. On Wednesday, he was arrested for the 30th time in 35 years, and just 79 days after his previous parole ended, in Brooklyn, at the corner of Union street and Third Avenue in Gowanus, driving a Trailways bus taken from Hoboken, New Jersey.
McCollum grew up in Jamaica, Queens, near the terminus of the F train at 179th street, where he would spend hundreds of hours watching the trains come and go, according to a 2002 profile in Harper’s magazine. By the time he was eight he had memorised the entire subway network.
When he was eleven, he was stabbed with a pair of scissors by a classmate, puncturing his lung. Soon after the stabbing, McCollum was skipping school to ride the subway network, sometimes for days on end, surfacing for food only to disappear back underground again.
His parents tried to stop him by locking him in his room at night, and even tried having him escorted to school in the mornings. It didn’t work. They changed his school; they pushed him into psychiatric treatment. Nothing worked.
He became friends with Metropolitan Transit Authority workers at the 179th street depot; they taught him how to drive trains; how to maintain tracks and signals, how to direct traffic. He kept incredibly detailed notes. A train driver known as “Uncle Craft” first taught him to drive subway trains, on the stretch of track between the last stop and the depot at 179th street.
At 15, somebody gave him his first MTA uniform. “I can’t compare that feeling to anything,” he said of that moment later, speaking to Harper’s from Riker’s Island prison. “I felt official. I felt like this is me, like this is where I belong.” MTA employees, he said, called him “Transportation Captain”.
In 1981, when he was arrested for the first time at the controls of an E train – having driven it without incident from 34th street to the World Trade Center at Manhattan’s southern end after being handed the controls by one of his friends, a driver who was sick – he had already driven subway trains dozens of times.
The arrest didn’t deter him. “I feel I just need to be there even if it’s just for a little while,” McCollum told the Wall Street Journal in 2013 about the transit network. “And then, the more I’m there, the more I want to get involved.” By the time he was 18, he was unofficially covering workers’ shifts off-the-books.
He has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, as well as depression and anxiety stemming from the attack at school, but only recently have courts begun to take this into account.
Lori Shery, president of the Asperger Syndrome Education Network and a friend of McCollum’s family, told the Guardian that she found him a job at a train museum in South Carolina, where his mother lives, but he found the pull of the real transit network too strong. Her theory is that he enjoys the notoriety. “I think he likes being in the limelight,” she said. “He’s become a celebrity of sorts. I think he likes that.”
He is set to appear in court in Brooklyn on Thursday afternoon, charged with grand larceny, possession of a forged instrument, unauthorised use of a vehicle, possession of stolen property and trespassing.
McCollum has often said he would seek therapy, but always ends up back on the rails or behind the wheel of a bus. He has applied and been refused real transit authority work several times – he told the Journal that he believed his 1981 arrest got him “blackballed”.
“Honestly, I feel that if an agency really took an interest in him, could give him employment in the field of transportation, that would make a world of difference,” Shery said. “I think then he would find what he’s seeking.”