“I have spent more than half my adult life in prison.” -Darius McCollum.
Darius McCollum, a Black Autistic man now in his early fifties, was first arrested for “stealing” trains in 1980 when he was 15 years old. Documentarian Adam Irving discovered McCollum on Wikipedia, was fascinated, and tracked down McCollum while he was in Rikers Island Prison. The two exchanged letters and phone calls for six months, and finally met while McCollum was still incarcerated. After McCollum’s release, the two spent three years filming the documentary.
I put the word stealing in quotes—even though that’s a word I’ve seen McCollum use for what he does—because that’s not what his actions look like to me. He’s not “hijacking” or “stealing” transit vehicles so much as illicitly operating them… and even then with careful consideration for human safety. McCollum’s deep interest in transportation was encouraged by New York City transportation workers who thought he was a cute kid, and sort of adopted him without thinking about the long-term repercussions of breaking the rules with him. As workers got more and more lax about the lines they were crossing, McCollum’s fate got woven tighter and tighter into the net he’s trapped in today.
I was eager to watch Off the Rails because I have been following Darius McCollum’s story for decades. I had also never heard McCollum speak before watching this film, and was immediately surprised by how well-spoken he is. I hate to admit my bias, but I didn’t expect someone who has spent half his adult life in prison to be such an open-hearted person, and such a clear and compelling communicator. We all have our preconceived notions to get past, and I’m grateful McCollum helped me see one of mine.
Reflecting on my reaction and its larger implications, I realized that this is how deep the vulnerability of being a Black Autistic man goes: so far down that being a kind and personable human being and a compelling communicator could not save him from getting boxed in by life’s circumstances and getting arrested and imprisoned more than thirty times, instead of getting the help he’d requested for years.
When I stop to think about how law enforcement and the criminal justice system tend to deal with Black Autistic men, I realize Darius McCollum is lucky to still be alive.
Off the Rails is beautifully shot, and sensitively arranged. Darius McCollum comes across as genuine, likable—and very aware of his compulsions. I liked his matter-of-fact, deeply honest take on his transit activities: He knows what he does is illegal but somehow he doesn’t come across as a scofflaw. He cares about the passengers on the vehicles he drives, and he thinks about how to brighten their day and help them understand they’re not just on a train ride but an adventure. Off the Rails made me care about Darius McCollum’s fate on a deeper level than I had before. Anyone who cares about the fate of Autistics in the justice system in general or Darius McCollum’s case specifically should watch this film.
Through the course of the film, I slowly began to get a feel for McCollum’s soul-deep connection to the transit system. He memorized the subway when he was eight years old, and in many ways considers the subway his home. He even says he’s married to MTA. Other people who got to know him describe his dedication to providing quality service for passengers as something benevolent and committed. People from all walks of life spoke of Darius McCollum as being extremely likable, affable, gregarious, and just a nice guy—despite a lifetime of being mistreated and misunderstood.
When McCollum was twelve or thirteen, his parents had him committed for nine months. (This was following a traumatic event at school.) Despite his young age, he was given electroshock therapy while in the hospital. After he was released, he felt he couldn’t trust anyone at school, and instead just wanted to be where he felt safe and valued: the subway. Transit workers took a liking to Darius and had him run errands and do chores for them. He was friendly and eager to make everyone happy.
When a transit worker let Darius drive the train for the first time, the feelings of acceptance and self-worth he felt were so powerful they determined the course of the rest of his life. Darius would do anything to get another taste of that feeling: the feeling of being exactly where he was meant to be, doing what he was born to do: drive trains.
Sadly for Darius McCollum, the city of New York held a different view. McCollum applied to work for the MTA when he was 17 and again when he was 18. Both times he was turned down. The documentary didn’t explicitly say so, but Darius assumes (and I agree) that the MTA didn’t want him after he had been arrested at age 15 for driving a train. Darius McCollum’s arrest generated a level of publicity that was hard for MTA to live down. The only thing Darius wanted was to work for MTA—and that was the last thing MTA wanted.
His life then turned into a revolving door between driving and jail. McCollum had lockers in the subway and slept at stations or in train yards. He drove buses and trains nearly every day, but he’d only drive a few months at most before he’d get caught and sent back to jail yet again. He never stopped pursuing his dream of working in transit, whether he had a transit job or not. Thirty years of devotion to his passion is not a phase or a whim: every fiber of McCollum’s being yearns to serve the public as a transit driver.
“He sacrificed his freedom and he sacrificed half his life for this. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.” -Ray Sanchez, Transportation Reporter, Newsday
McCollum’s story was perennially interesting to the New York Post and other media outlets, and when he brought his Asperger’s diagnosis into the courtroom—trying to get the treatment he needed as a disabled person who needed help with his impulses to drive buses and trains—the media exploded all over again. The disclosure backfired when McCollum ended up with a deadbeat lawyer he was not able to fire. The judge said that his Asperger’s diagnosis meant McCollum was not fit to manage his own affairs, and not of sound enough judgment to fire his lawyer and try to get one who would actually fight for him. As if that weren’t bad enough, the next judge McCollum got did a Google search on Asperger’s and decided in her own (very non-expert) opinion that Darius McCollum couldn’t possibly have Asperger’s or any compulsion out of his control and ruled harshly against him.
“The best outcome for Darius would be for him to be hired by the MTA.” -Marcia Scheiner, Autism Employment Specialist
That, of course, is never going to happen. The MTA has made it clear: Darius McCollum is not to be trusted. That leaves McCollum outside his proverbial gates of paradise, banished into the wilderness forever.
He did eventually get rid of the deadbeat lawyer, replacing him with Sally Butler, a lawyer who was initially skeptical of McCollum’s case but grew to become one of this greatest supporters. His parents also deeply love and support Darius but were forced to do so from a distance: they moved to North Carolina, hoping to get their son from the trains, only to have the justice system restrict McCollum to New York as terms of his parole—effectively leaving him trapped with the objects of his compulsions, the trains, and stripped of the supportive presence of his parents.
The documentary tries to end on a positive note, with Darius McCollum finally out of prison, finally not on parole or probation, and finally able to move to North Carolina to be with his mother. He’s uncomfortable but adjusting and decides he’s 50 years old and it’s time to be done with trains … but then three months later … Darius McCollum is arrested yet again, this time for driving off in a Greyhound bus. The documentary closes, saying he’s currently on trial and facing fifteen years.
That was November of 2015. What has happened in the two years since the close of the documentary?
Because McCollum had three felonies already for illegally driving trains and buses, he actually faced 25 years to life in prison for stealing the Greyhound bus. A year after he took the bus, his lawyer turned down a plea that would have offered three and a half to seven years in prison. Prosecutors pitched the same deal two more times, then switched to a 5-10 year deal that would have required McCollum to plead guilty to second-degree larceny. That deal was turned down as well.
McCollum sat for two years in Rikers Island during these offers. Near the end of 2017, McCollum and his lawyer were offered an insanity plea that would result in McCollum being locked indefinitely in a prison for the criminally insane. This plea, too, was initially refused. Prosecutors were not pleased that McCollum was pushing proceedings toward trial instead of negotiating.
But just before trial started, McCollum finally accepted the insanity plea in January, 2018, and was sent to Kirby Psychiatric Hospital on Ward Island while awaiting a special trial. McCollum would be examined at that trial by doctors who would determine the course of his incarceration. If McCollum were judged to be dangerous, it would affect his commitment. If he were deemed dangerous, he might spend the rest of his life in a maximum security facility. If he were not considered a danger, he could go to a lower security hospital and get the treatment he’d been asking for. His mother could visit him, and he would be in an environment aimed toward his rehabilitation.
That special hearing began in May, 2018. McCollum took the stand and when asked how many times he had commandeered trains and busses he responded that he estimated he’d driven about 5,000 trips illegally. Meanwhile, Hollywood is planning a movie about Darius McCollum, called Train Man. Julia Roberts may even play McCollum’s lawyer, Sally Butler.
MTA has filed suit against McCollum, citing law that says a criminal may not profit from his crime. MTA is filing as the wronged victim and demanding McCollum’s cut of any proceeds from the Hollywood venture. On May 30th, McCollum’s lawyer posted on Twitter: “Prosecutors questioned Darius today about a pillow fight with his roommate at the psychiatric hospital, and tried to use that to suggest he was dangerous. Really, a pillow fight?”
The special hearing continued into June. McCollum’s lawyer quit updating the Twitter feed. No news stories have been published. I am unsure where Darius McCollum currently is, or what his fate might be. I worry about him. He doesn’t belong in prison or in a rough criminal psychiatric hospital. At one point his lawyer asked to have him moved back to Rikers Island because it was safer than the hospital, where Darius had already been attacked. Kirby Hospital is notorious for housing the most violent criminals.
The justice system failed Darius McCollum. He never got the therapy he needed, and repeatedly asked for. Everyone, right down to Darius himself, agreed that he needed treatment for his irresistible compulsions, but instead he just got locked up repeatedly. After the 9/11 attacks, McCollum helped Homeland Security and MTA authorities discover and seal the weak places in the transit system that were vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Then the city “rewarded” McCollum for his compliance by denying his freedom on the grounds that he was too eager to help Homeland Security and would be just as eager to help a terrorist.
After over three decades of notoriety and even a bit of celebrity, Darius McCollum has vanished from view. May he be well and may we never forget the lessons he has taught us at such high cost to himself.
Off the Rails is a 2016 American documentary film about Darius McCollum
Written, directed, and produced by Adam Irving
Zipper Bros Films, 1 hour 30 minutes
Available through Amazon
For further information about Darius McCollum and his case: