Darius McCollom was sentenced last week. Three years in prison for asking questions about the New York City Transit authority’s M-7 locomotives while decked out in a reflector vest and hardhat, and claiming to be an independent railroad safety consultant.
Darius is obsessed with trains, he’s loved them almost since birth, and driven them since age 15, when he made headlines by driving an E train from Herald Square to the World Trade Center. His love of the transit system though has proven unhealthy--over the years Darius has been arrested 18 times for transit related crimes.
Darius has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome—a disorder in which sufferers can become obsessed with particular topics, often exhibiting, as Darius does, an astonishing level of expertise. This significant fact didn’t come up until rather recently though-- when it was brought to the attention of the presiding judge who last sentenced Darius. Despite the fact nothing Darius has done has ever caused an injury or even recklessly endangered anyone, at that sentencing, in 2001, Justice Carol Berkman wasted no time in deriding Darius, ignoring the Aspergers and sentencing him to 2 1/2 to 5 years in state prison.
In ‘Catch me if you can’ Steven Spielberg’s 2002 blockbuster based on the true story of con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., a buttoned down G-man played by Tom Hanks, stalks and eventually arrests a daring and inventive check forger played by the ever limber Leonardo Dicpario. The film, set in the late 60’s and early 70’s probes the emergent bonds between cop and crook, delicately delving into the minds and humanity of each of the fundamentally isolated characters.
It is, in fact isolation that binds Abagnale, and his pursuer Carl Hanratty in their five year pas-de–deux replete with daring escapes, complex mind games and Christmas eve heart to hearts. And in the end, after forging nearly 2 million dollars in checks, and posing as a doctor, lawyer and an airline pilot it is Abagnale whose pathological dedication to his craft wins our hearts and, ultimately, Carl’s.
Abagnale goes to jail, of course, but the second act of his career, the one culminating in a book and a Spielberg biopic, results from his pursuer’s intervention—the Federal Bureau of Investigation gives him a job catching other crooks—the perfect use for an otherwise imperfect passion.
Darius McCollum is, in a sense, the Frank Abagnale Jr. of the train yards.
Darius, like Frank, started young in crime. Since his original foray, back when he was a student in a technical high school, Darius has been arrested over and over invariably for transit related offenses. He has at one time or another impersonated a conductor, a motorman and a superintendent. He has put out track fires, helped out flag crews and helped inspect malfunctioning trains for debris. His knowledge of the transit system is encyclopedic and legendary. Darius is as much the trainman’s trainman as Abagnale was a forger’s forger. And yet there is a critical difference between them.
Frank Abagnale’s forgery netted him nearly two million dollars—money swindled from others which he used to support a lavish lifestyle of fancy cars, high culture and world travel. Darius, on the other hand had none of these amenities. He was once charged with attempted grand larceny—the charge relating to a vehicle he signed out and back in again precisely according to procedure. There was no fine wine, fast car, or world travel for Darius McCollum—just gritty days cleaning and prepping busses at far flung depots, or directing traffic and repairing electrical boxes in the gloomy semi-darkness far below the ground.
After being sentenced for his crimes, Frank Abagnale, was granted early parole at age 26. For the $2 million dollars in bad checks, and multiple escape attempts, he spent just under five years behind bars. Following his release, he got job with the FBI. Darius McCollum is 39 years old. He has spent nearly a third of his life behind bars
Perhaps it’s the glamorized world of the biopic, but maybe Frank Abagnale did reap the benefits of a better time—one in which we understood the malleable boundary between lonely cop and accomplished criminal. A time when we were willing to allow for the possibility that someone could cross over that line. Perhaps it’s that Frank Abagnale was glamorous and white, while Darius is a pudgy African American. Or perhaps it is because being a forger and an escape artist is just sexier than impersonating a transit worker. But Darius McCollum is back in jail having never been given a chance to put his passion to work on the right side of the law—having been branded a criminal early, the system ignored a dozen chances to break the cycle of offense and incarceration—simply by giving Darius a job with the Transit Authority. We’ve never even tried, and for that we are all to blame. It seems that Darius’ McCollum’s life of incarceration begs the self same question that Frank Abagnale’s posed and answered some 30 years ago.