Trainman (Darius McCollum) Sentenced

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.


Anonymous said...

Darius has played with trains. They're great big things that kill people when the humans who run them make mistakes. Trains also cost a whole lot more than Frank Abagnale stole. While I share your sympathy for Mr. McCollum and his obsession, I support the judge who is keeping him away from trains for several years. It seems as if lots of judges have been trying to protect the public by keeping Darius McCollum away from trains. Do you really want to ride on a train conducted or driven by someone with Asperger’s syndrome?

Anonymous said...

Actually Yes.
In fact, I think given a choice between most motormen and Darius, I'd prefer him in the conductor's booth.

Maybe that sounds strange, but actually Darius has driven them without incident--the Asperger's doesn't make him twitch or hallucinate--it makes him obsessive about trains--but the thing is--it makes him desperate to do it right. It's like asking whether you'd want to shake hands with someone with OCD. Hell yes, the guy's probably washed his hands 30 times today...

Anonymous said...

"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."

To beg the question means to prove an assertion by assuming its truth. It does not mean the same thing as "to raise the question." If you do not know how to use the expression, please avoid doing so.

Indefensible said...

What an unpleasant comment.

I would suggest very diffidently that your bloviation (check dictionary.com) on this point is inappropriate. While I appreciate your cavil from a logician's perspective in terms of both etiquette and usage, you're off the mark.

Please--before you suggest (at least on this blog) that someone stop using a phrase, take a minute to brush up on current usage--you might like to start with the New Oxford Dictionary of English, or the The Oxford Guide to English Usage, 1st edition (1983). Both find the usage acceptable.

Anonymous said...

I've just listened to a play about Darius' story on Radio 4 (UK). Surely to goodness someone in authority will use their God-given intelligence and give Darius a job in the field he loves? Has any one ever considered how much tax payers' money has been wasted arresting Darius, putting him on trial and incarcerating him for long periods of time, when all it would take to keep him on the right side of the law would be to let him work on the trains? The spirit of the law, not the letter is surely best practice in this case. Angela Phinn, UK

Anonymous said...

Amen Angela.

Anonymous said...

Asperger's Syndrome - at least on the lighter end of the continuum - would probably make a great motorman: less apt to distractions, motivated, detail oriented. Maybe not so good at customer relations, but you can't have everything.

If nothing else, someone with Mr. McCollum's resources and an encyclopedic knowledge of the rail system could be useful to society in so many ways that keeping him in jail will not. "Keeping him away from trains" is not likely to do anything but increase his longing to be around them. The Transit folks should be able, with a little creative thinking, to find a position for a focused and interested individual.

Anonymous said...

I know him he's dangerous. Everyone here thinks he's cute at what he does in fact he's a theif. Not only will he take a train, but he will take a bus and even your car or money. Still want him free. Please stop making look like something out of robin hood

Anonymous said...

I have just finished reading Jeff Tietz's piece on Darius McCollum, 'The Boy Who Loved Transit'.

To those who believe Judge Berkman acted rightly in sentencing Darius to prison: Do you really believe that prison is a better place for a man who has been diagnosed with Asperger's, than a treatment facility? During that trial, Darius' defense team pleaded to have Darius put somewhere he could get help. The judge openly derided Darius, brushed aside the defense's expert's testimony (saying that because Darius 'had friends', that meant he didn't have Asperger's. Why she believes herself better qualified to make that decision than a psychiatrist who specializes in Autism spectrum disorders remains a mystery).

Toward the end of Tietz's piece, Tietz asks Darius (whom he is visiting in Clinton, a maximum-security facilty, where Darius is segregated and confined alone to his cell for 21 hours a day) if he thought he would commit his 'crimes' again when he was released. Darius says: "Trains are always going to be my greatest love. It's something I depend on because I've been knowing how to do it for twenty-five years. So this is like my home, my best friend, my everything....But I don't want to get caught up with that again, and I'm probably going to need a little help....If I can find - I know there's probably no such program as Trains Anonymous, but if I can get some kind counseling it would be really beneficial to me."

Responding to those who 'wouldn't want to ride a train driven by someone with Asperger's' - what makes you think you haven't already? Darius drove trains for years. He fixed electrical shorts, cleared tracks, cleaned buses, de-iced rails. He knew so much about the NY subway system, and was so good at every job, that most of the times he drove trains it was because NYCTA employees would call him at home and ask him to cover their shifts. Riders on his trains say he was courteous, professional, and extremely helpful. In interviews, he repeatedly expresses great pride in the care he takes for the safety of his passengers. He has hurt noone, and has helped many.

Maybe we need to start appreciating the strange, unique abilities Asperger's folks have, and give them jobs with transit systems if that's their obsession - rather than throwing them in prison on the taxpayers' dime.

Nachtus01 said...

I have Asperger's. You can find many post by me on the internet. Its "established". having said that, I believe that he needs both prison, and counseling. Any lawyer who tries to tell you people with Asperger's don't know right from wrong, don't know Asperger's from bubble gum. We are very well aware of right and wrong. He knew he he shouldn't be impersonating it. My opinion, is that he has an OCD as well as Asperger's, which still does not release him from being responsible for his actions. Having said all that, while in jail, he has an opportunity to get an education that could allow him to eventually get a job with the Transit Authority if he so chooses. I hope he does, or else this is what will keep happening to him.

Anonymous said...

nachtus you may have aspergers syndrome but how far down the spectrum? just ebcause you 'have it' doesnt mean your opinion is better than anyone elses.

impulsive urges are hard to control. Gary Mckinnon? I have aspergers and I am obsessed with motorcycles, I attempted suicide when I lost my license due to epilepsy.

Anonymous said...

"Riders on his trains say he was courteous, professional, and extremely helpful. In interviews, he repeatedly expresses great pride in the care he takes for the safety of his passengers."

That's great! Now I wonder how many other people will blast him for being a neurotypical sheep because he cares about what other people think.

mike said...

Thanks. I love to see blogs like this that question the way the criminal justice system works.

Mike Peterson