15 Years in Prison Won't Stop This Subway Fanatic From Stealing More Trains

Documentary 'Off the Rails' explores the life of a man obsessed with impersonating MTA personnel.
Darius McCollum. (Photo: Courtesy Adam Irving)
Apr 7, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

When Darius McCollum wakes up in the morning, he puts on the same uniform as some 67,000 New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority employees: a dark tie, a bright reflector vest, and a navy baseball cap bearing an MTA patch. Over the past 35 years, he’s operated 500 buses and trains, completed track repairs, attended union meetings, and joined protests for fair wages.

But McCollum has never worked for the MTA. Time and again the 50-year-old has found ways to illegally commandeer the city’s transportation as a result of an obsession that has taken him from the driver’s seat to jail dozens of times.

“Unfortunately, yes, I did break the law,” McCollum says on camera. “But what do we do about the diagnosis that caused me to commit the crime?”

McCollum has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder, which he says makes it difficult for him to control his obsession with the MTA. McCollum has been arrested 30 times for transit-related offenses and has spent more than half of his adult life in prison. He is imprisoned at Riker’s Island, awaiting sentencing for stealing a Greyhound bus in November 2015. Due to his criminal record, McCollum could serve up to 15 years in prison for this crime.

That ever-revolving turnstile of crime and obsession is the focus of a new documentary Off the Rails, which premieres April 7 at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. McCollum is not alone in a gap in the criminal justice system that traps the developmentally disabled in a seemingly never-ending cycle of nonviolent crimes and prison time, only to re-offend on release.

“It’s so obvious that he’s not deterred by incarceration,” Adam Irving, the film’s director and producer, told TakePart. He hopes McCollum will receive therapy rather than prison time for his offenses. “The money being spent on [his incarceration] could just as easily go toward something that will actually help him and make him less likely to do it again when he gets out.”

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism often characterized by poor social skills, unusual mannerisms, and preoccupation with one particular area of interest. In McCollum's case, it's being hyper-focused on everything related to the MTA. At age eight, the Queens, New York, native had memorized every stop on every line of the MTA by heart. While he struggled to connect with his peers at school, he easily befriended MTA employees, who allowed him to help make announcements, take tokens, and even park the buses while he was still in middle school.

In 1981, when McCollum was 15, MTA employee Carl Scholack asked him to operate a train without supervision. McCollum agreed, letting passengers on and off for eight stops before a subway rider noticed his young face in the driver’s seat and alerted an MTA official. Scholack said that he turned the train over to McCollum because he was “violently ill,” and was suspended from his position as a motorman, according to the The New York Times. While McCollum says this wasn't the first time he ever operated a train, it was the first time he got caught. He was arrested and charged with juvenile delinquency.

Darius McCollum. (Photo: Courtesy Adam Irving)

An estimated 70 percent of minors with developmental disabilities—such as autism, Down syndrome, or fetal alcohol spectrum syndrome—have been charged with a crime in the juvenile justice system, according to the National Center on Criminal Justice & Disability. That is three times the rate of minors without disabilities who have been charged with a crime.

From the moment of arrest—in which a person who already struggles to recognize social cues may become even more confused—to incarceration instead of treatment to release with little prospect for continued care, experts say the criminal justice system is unfair to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Police officers and judges often lack training or resources to cope with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Leigh Ann Davis, a program manager at the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability, told TakePart. The community-based advocacy group provides information and training to law enforcement, advocates, and attorneys.

“The problem is that much of the training for law enforcement goes to crisis intervention training,” Davis explained, which focuses primarily on mental illness rather than disability training. “We’re really trying to bring in the topic of [intellectual developmental disability] so that it’s more well known among officers and the justice system at large.”

When McCollum went to court in 2001 for impersonating an MTA officer, Justice Carol Berkman refuted the possibility of an Asperger’s diagnosis, despite a conflicting opinion from a prison psychiatrist, according to The New York Times. During sentencing, she noted that she’d read about Asperger’s syndrome on the internet and that McCollum did not fit all of the criteria, and thus should be treated just like anyone else.

Although no one has been injured as a result of McCollum’s crimes, McCollum serves time in maximum-security facilities alongside murders, sex offenders, and gang leaders. In the film, he recalls a fellow prisoner dousing him with hot oil and finding himself caught in the middle of a violent outburst that left one man missing an eye. Since McCollum had such a vast knowledge of the MTA’s security system, officials worried he’d share that information with other inmates and often placed him in solitary confinement.

But McCollum’s other incarceration option could be worse. If McCollum had pleaded insanity—arguing that his Asperger’s syndrome made it impossible for him to control his actions—and the jury agreed, he would go to an institution for the criminally insane. Sally Butler, McCollum’s lawyer, explains that this would be a much worse fate for her client. An insanity sentence would leave McCollum at the mercy of the psychiatric institution to decide when he was “cured” of his Asperger’s syndrome and ready to be released.

“He could stay there forever,” Butler explains in the film. “He’s an individual that New York State Corrections doesn’t know how to handle…and doesn’t have the money or support to figure it out.”

McCollum never received therapy while in jail, according to experts interviewed in the film. But even if he had, Davis notes that he would likely receive group therapy rather than a program specifically geared toward his needs. Upon leaving prison, the barriers to rehabilitative care remain, as there’s little crossover between groups that support both people with disabilities and those with criminal records—a gap people like Davis are attempting to fix.

McCollum has repeatedly struggled to find a job, not only because of his disability but also because of his criminal record. He applied to work for the MTA when he was both 17 and 18 years old, but was rejected because of his childhood arrest. Many of the supporters featured in the documentary call on the MTA to give him a job, but Irving isn’t so sure that’s a good idea.

“Darius will admit that, that even if [the MTA] gave him a job, he doesn’t know if he’d be able to commit to one thing,” Irving said, adding that MTA employees are tasked with one position and not allowed to bounce around. “It’s not just about driving the choo-choo. He wants to do signal repair. He wants to be involved in planning the rerouting during weekend construction—everything from maps to scheduling to actually driving the trains to picking where the cameras will go in the station to prevent terrorism. He wants to be involved in everything.”

Irving thinks a better option for McCollum would be some sort of consultant role.

“He sees himself like Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can,” Irving said, or rather Frank Abagnale Jr., the character DiCaprio portrayed. Abagnale assumed multiple identities in the 1960s to commit check fraud. He served time in both French and American prisons, but was released early upon the condition that he assist the FBI with other fraud cases.

“Darius sees himself potentially providing the same service to the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Transportation, to say, ‘Here’s how I was able to take these vehicles…and here’s how you can stop people from doing it,’ ” Irving said. McCollum even has a job title in mind: captain of transportation.

McCollum helped the FBI tighten the MTA’s security system following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but he hasn’t been able to turn it into a full-time job.

It’s worth mentioning that McCollum’s job aspirations are rather grandiose. He pictures himself at morning meetings with President Barack Obama, sharing transportation tips over coffee and doughnuts, and then heading back to his office to hand out orders to dozens of employees. “It’s a child-like fantasy,” Irving said.

Davis was unsure of how McCollum could best be integrated into society, but like many advocates in the film, emphasized the need for a combination of specialized therapy and job skills programs.

“Some of these cases are not that simple,” Davis said. “We do have to be willing to think creatively within the systems that we have in order to provide some sort of alternatives for people with disabilities to be able to function in society.”