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07/19/2013

The world's biggest public transit fan -- and why he needs help

 

DariusMcCollum
Darius McCollum is arrested at the 59th St.-Columbus Circle station in New York City in June 2008. Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

This is Darius McCollum. He loves New York public transit. In fact, he adores it so much he has spent more than a third of his life in jail in the name of transit love.

McCollum, 48, has been arrested nearly 30 times in 30 years. Most recently, the police picked him up in 2010 for stealing a bus from a New Jersey maintenance facility -- and then, reportedly, using it to pick up a flight crew outside a hotel and drive them to the airport.

McCollum's crimes have all been like this: victimless and transit-related. His first arrest was in 1981, when the 15-year-old smoothly operated a subway train for six stops before getting busted. He has since been caught numerous times stealing buses and impersonating transit workers -- in the 2008 photo above, McCollum is being arrested for posing as a subway worker. He was discovered wearing navy blue (the same colour as the NYC subway uniform) and carrying a hard hat, transit logo gloves and transit system documents, according to the New York Times.

His parents, lawyers and advocates say there is a simple explanation for McCollum's behaviour: Asperger's syndrome.

Until recently, Asperger's syndrome was considered a high-functioning form of autism. But with the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, Asperger's is no longer a separate disorder and has been moved under the wider umbrella of autism spectrum disorders.

As Jeff Tietz writes in his profile of McCollum for Harper's Magazine (highly recommended -- you can read it here), people with Asperger's have a tendency to fixate.

Tietz writes:

Asperger's patients choose obsessions the way other people choose interests: personality accounts for choice. Sometimes, usually, when they're young, patients acquire and discard fixations in swift succession, but eventually a single subject consumes them. They are born to fall down some rabbit hole, from which they never fully emerge.

According to the Harper's piece, McCollum tumbled into his rabbit hole after riding his first subway at the age of three (he could visualize the entire subway system by the time he was eight). But when he was 11, a classmate inexplicably stabbed him in the back with scissors. The near-fatal attack drove a traumatized McCollum underground, where he sought refuge by riding the rails; according to the Harper's profile, McCollum came to understand the transit system after a motorman named "Uncle Craft" took him under his wing.

Recently, McCollum told the Wall Street Journal that the subway system is his "comfort zone, the place I know, the place I grew up in."

"I feel I just need to be there even if it's just for a little while," he is quoted as saying. "And then the more I'm there the more I want to get involved."

But how to deal with someone like McCollum, a gentle man whose crimes have yet to harm anyone but very well could? Treatment would seem the obvious answer but unfortunately, McCollum has continuously fallen through the cracks.

He wasn't suspected of having Asperger's until a prison psychiatrist examined him following one of his arrests. His parents' efforts to keep him with them in North Carolina have failed because he keeps running back to New York. The MTA won't hire him and according to the New York Times, McCollum quit a seemingly perfect job found for him by the New Jersey-based Asperger Syndrome Education Network: working at a train museum.

And in 2001, a judge dismissed the Asperger's diagnosis after looking it up on the Internet and deciding McCollum didn't quite fit the bill (the Harper's profile describes this fascinating courtroom scene, which concludes with McCollum being sentenced to five years in jail).

With his recent arrest, his lawyer Sally Butler considered using an insanity defence. But this means McCollum would be sentenced to a psychiatric facility until doctors deem him "cured."

"And since there's no cure [for Asperger's], he could spend the rest of his life there," Butler told the Wall Street Journal.

But on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that McCollum could finally be getting some help. According to his lawyer, the district attorney and parole board have finally accepted his diagnosis.

And, for the first time, a residential treatment program -- with a long-term therapy plan -- has been made a condition of McCollum's parole.

“Everybody’s worked hard,” Butler told the New York Times, noting this is the first time this type of approach has been taken with McCollum. “We’re trying to put together a solution that will keep him from doing it again. It’s a health issue. He needs to get moved to another place in life.”

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

Comments

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love it how a judge googles something and suddenly thinks he knows more than trained physicians....

I feel sad for him.... I'm glad that he can be treated.

Just give the guy a job as a maintenance man. I'm sure he would do his best to keep his beloved transit system clean and would probably one of the truly happy workers.

A judge that looks up something on the internet and bases his judgement on that is a crappy judge and should be fired because of that and whoever made him a judge should be fired. There's one a Old City Hall as well who shouldn't be a judge, they slip through.

The man is a born Transit worker with Asbergers. Find out if he can function. Give him a job. On a transit workers pay he can probably afford to pay and bring along a support worker to help him through the parts he can't handle.

Sounds like an insanity is his best bet. He obviously isn't responsible to take medicine on his own and there doesn't seem to be anyone taking care of him. Turning him over to the state is the best bet for public safety.

@mark, the judge was a she, not a he. But yeah, she specifically said that he needed to be sentenced "or he will never learn his lesson". Because as we all know, jail is for teaching people to become better people.

"seperate"? Come on,really?

@mark - If you read the Harper's article you will find he doesn't just "google something" but actually consults a website about Asperger's and the DSM. But I agree, the judge didn't do any service to Darius with his judgement

@John, there is no such thing as "medicine" for Asperger's. This is not a problem due to McCollum's lack of self discipline. He cannot help himself, that is part of the syndrome.

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