Darius McCollum is a train hijacker, an impostor, an autistic folk hero, and possibly the world’s leading expert on the New York City Subway System. Today, he was released from prison after his latest mild-mannered heist. Here’s what you need to know about him:
1. He Stole His First Subway Train When He Was 15
A profile in the AP from 2008 details McCollum’s early fascination with transit. Growing up in Queens, by 179th Street station on the F and E lines, Darius would stop in after school to observe the trains. He soon befriended subway conductors who taught him how to operate the cars. Later in life, his mother would blame such transit workers for encouraging his bad behavior, telling the New York Daily News, “They let him do it.”
McCollum would eventually be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, but at the time, Darius and his family lacked clinical language to define his remarkable ease at absorbing information, matched only by his unease at absorbing social rules.
McCollum claims to have had the entire subway map memorized by the time he was 8.
He first made headlines at 15, when he stepped behind the controls of an E train at 34th Street, and drove it six stops down to the World Trade Center without any passengers noticing.
That is, until the teenager piloting their train was arrested on the WTC subway platform.
2. He’s Spent a Third of His Life in Jail for Transit Robberies
McCollum was released today, having served three years in jail for stealing a Trailways bus from a depot in Hoboken, N.J., and driving it up through Queens to JFK, collecting passengers along the way.
McCollum claimed he’d been hired to transport a flight crew to the airport after the scheduled driver failed to show.
According to the New York Daily News, McCollum has been arrested 28 times, and has served 18 of his 48 years of life in jail for nonviolent, transit-related offenses.
After his first arrest, McCollum tried to pursue his love of the subway through socially appropriate means. He took the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s civil service exam, but didn’t pass. An MTA spokesman explained to the AP that it wouldn’t have made any difference if he had: “We would not hire anyone who has previously stolen one of our trains.”
In February 2000, McCollum was arrested for dressing up as a subway employee, and entering the control room at 57th Street Station in Manhattan. In 2004 he was arrested again, this time for attempting to commandeer a Long Island Railroad train. From 2006 through 2008, he was arrested three more times for impersonating MTA workers and federal agents.
3. McCollum Became a Folk-Hero for the Autistic
According to a profile in The New York Times, in all his many heists, McCollum has been consistently described by his unwitting passengers as “affable,” “gentle,” and “guileless.”
He became a minor cult figure in the mid-90’s, after the NYCTA littered the subway system with wanted posters featuring McCollum’s face, asking passengers to report sightings.
In 2001, McCollum mounted an insanity defense, based on his Aspergers diagnosis, arguing that psychological treatment would be more appropriate than jail time for a person in his condition. New York State Supreme Court Judge Carol Berkman ruled vehemently against the defense. Berkman was not convinced that McCollum fit the clinical definition of Aspergers, citing the fact of his many friends and a fiancé as evidence he did not suffer from social dysfunction. She saw no evidence that he was incapable of controlling his impulses, and argued that McCollum’s family and friends trivialized the threat he posed to passengers, saying: “He could stop doing this if his family and friends would stop telling him, ‘Isn’t this amusing?'”
In American Normal: The Hidden World of Asperger Syndrome, Lawrence Osburne wrote that in the wake of McCollum’s failed defense, he was celebrated in parts of the autistic community for his “rebellion against what autistics often call the dreary world of the ‘neurotypicals.'”
At the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, New York Theater Director Jude Domski mounted a play titled Boy Steals Train, based on McCollum’s life, and letters he wrote to Domski. In 2005, the BBC produced a radio documentary telling his story.
McCollum is likely the inspiration for this Onion News Network comedic sketch, about an autistic reporter a train wreck:
4. His Mother Had Cut Off Contact Since His Last Arrest
The New York Daily News spoke with McCollum’s mother this week, and found she was unaware of his impending release, as she had stopped speaking to her son a few months ago:
“I said this last time, ‘Darius, I’m not getting a lawyer for you. I’m not getting involved. I just can’t take it anymore. . . . You’re going to have to learn. You’re an adult now.’ ”
Nonetheless, she said she would love to see her son for Christmas. Unfortunately, that would be legally impossible. One of the cruel ironies of McCollum’s predicament has been that while many of his family members and psychiatrists have recommended that he leave the New York City area to escape the temptation of the trains, the conditions of his many paroles have restricted him from joining his mother in her North Carolina home.
5. He Will Be Entering Intensive Therapy for the First Time
McCollum didn’t receive sentencing for his 2010 Trailways incident until earlier this year, when prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed it was finally time to try a different approach. Upon today’s parole, McCollum will undergo cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at allowing him to develop control over his compulsions.
His lawyer, Sally Butler, has enlisted the help of the Consulting Project, a group of psychologists and forensic social workers who will work to find McCollum housing and treatment.
Here’s hoping they get McCollum where he needs to go.