How A Boy's Undiagnosed Asperger's Led To 30 Arrests For Piloting Public Transit Vehicles
Usually, when you hear about someone impersonating a worker of some kind, the impersonated role in question is either glamorous or the means to an end. Someone might be pretending to be a socialite or well-off businessman and man-about-town in order to wheedle their way into parties and echelons of society they’d usually be turned away from. Or, in the style of various movie and video game confidence men or assassins, choosing an adopted guise that gives them access and serves as a way to evade suspicion while going about whatever is needed.
What’s much less common is someone impersonating a mundane job, one that might be not particularly beloved even by those currently and legally employed to do it. Rarer still would be someone who does so while being, by all accounts, an excellent employee at their borrowed profession. An art thief impersonating a museum janitor probably isn’t cleaning the toilets. But that’s exactly the story of Darius McCollum, a man who currently resides in a secure psychiatric facility in New York State, due to his compulsive, if exemplary, operation of various public transit vehicles in New York City.
As you can imagine, the back-and-forth between McCollum and an increasingly frustrated court system is not a short one. It was a period of almost 40 years during which Darius was in and out of jail for his helpful hijackings. Even though society did develop an increasing awareness of mental health and better ideas on how to treat it during this period, especially increasing knowledge of McCollum’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, Darius proved a bridge too far.
Darius’ obsession with the subway started at an early age. His mother used the train the way some parents use late-night car rides when a baby Darius couldn’t sleep. How exactly a New York City subway car filled with at best, people loudly playing music, at medium, drunks, and at worst, straight up visible penises is calming, I can’t tell you, but I guess somehow it worked. From pretty much those early days on, Darius was all-in (or should I say, all aboard) on trains. By 5 years old, he had the entire New York Subway map memorized.
In a happier story, tourists in 2022 might be reading this on a plaque at the New York Transit Museum, telling the tale of a revolutionary engineer or beloved president of the organization. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the way this would go. Maybe the moment that kicked off the unfortunate plotline we’re following here occurred when Darius was 12.
One day, a heavy snow day, only Darius and one other student made it to school. The teacher left the two alone with puzzles in the classroom, off to, I assume, sit in the break room and stare into the middle distance, thinking about how they were two students away from a day off. Unfortunately, while the teacher was out of the room, the other child did one of the number one things teachers exist to prevent: plunging a pair of scissors into Darius’ back, puncturing his lungs and leaving him bleeding and unconscious on the floor. Keep in mind, this is back when a single child bleeding on the floor of a school wasn’t considered a “pretty good outcome.”
After Darius recovered, and returned to school, he discovered that the student that had basically gone full Jason Bourne on him was not only still in school, but still IN HIS CLASS. From that point on, Darius hated school. Which is fair, I think. People tend to generally dislike places they’ve been stabbed in. I love Dave & Busters, but if someone punctured my lung there, I don’t think Time Crisis 2 would hit the same way. So Darius would pretend to go to school, and then spend all day in the train stations. No matter what his parents tried to do to keep him off the trains, he would end up back underground, riding the trains for days. Which is understandable, as being someone obsessed with trains living in New York City is pretty much a best case scenario. It’s like someone obsessed with seeing used condoms on the sidewalk living in New York City.
As Darius basically grew up underground, the MTA employees, especially at his home station of 179th St on the F train, befriended him. They’d talk to him, and as Darius was endlessly curious of the ins and outs of the system that had become his shelter, they were happy to teach him how things worked, which he absorbed like a sponge. A driver nicknamed “Uncle Craft” even let him drive the train on the unoccupied stretch of track between the 179th St Station and the train depot.
At the age of 15 was where everything was suddenly derailed (Sorry. I promise that’s the only one.) One of Darius’ MTA friends, who was sick, quite inadvisably handed over the controls of an E train at 34th St, which Darius drove, impeccably, multiple stops to the World Trade Center stop before being arrested, after someone on the 14th street platform reported that a 15-year-old child was driving a train. Even in the New York of the 1980s, where most people had at least one switchblade sticking out of them at all times, that would have been cause for concern. It doesn’t help that, even pre-9/11, an unauthorized person driving a train from Madison Square Garden to the World Trade Center is enough to make a national security official hyperventilate.
Though the charges were dropped in a juvenile court proceeding, it seemed that the MTA had made their own decision on McCollum, ruling him as an undesirable obsessive despite what would probably have led to maybe the most devoted employee they would have ever had. However, desperate to participate in the system he loved so dearly, combined with a misunderstanding of social norms from his undiagnosed Asperger’s as well as compulsions from what is also suspected to be some form of OCD, Darius could no longer resist the siren call of the city’s heartbeat.
Over the rest of his life, Darius would be arrested 30 times for crimes all related to transit, from impersonating MTA employees to the theft of city and private buses. At one point, wanted posters featuring McCollum were posted all over the New York Transit system. To what was surely the frustration of the city government, McCollum became a folk hero. After all, there’s no record of any of his crimes resulting in anything but stellar service for those unknowingly on board, and those who interacted with him while in the guise of a MTA employee overwhelmingly described him as “extremely helpful.” By 2015, when he was arrested for driving a Trailways bus from Hoboken, New Jersey to Gowanus in Brooklyn, he had spent decades in jail in pursuit of his lifelong love of getting people from one place to another.
Darius McCollum currently resides in the Rochester Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, where he is classified as “Track 1”, reserved for the most dangerous and violent inmates, despite the lack of a single incident of violence from any of his admittedly numerous crimes.
Top Image: NYS DOJ