To Hollywood, a transit impostor with a long history of posing as a New York City subway worker driving trains is rich material for a movie. But to transit officials, Darius McCollum is a criminal who shouldn't profit off his behavior.
The MTA said Monday that it will use the state's Son of Sam law to try to recoup any money he makes off a feature film in development about his life.
McCollum, who's been arrested 30 times for transit-related crimes, has told the I-Team that he is "drawn in" by trains and buses and steals them compulsively because of an an autism-spectrum disorder and he needs help. He was most recently arrested in November, when he was accused of stealing a Greyhound bus from a terminal in New Jersey and driving it to Brooklyn.
In his first-ever televised interview with the I-Team earlier this year, McCollum said that he needed help.
Notorious NYC Transit Thief Darius McCollum: 'It's Like I'm Drawn In'
"I want people to understand that I’m a man with a problem. I want people to understand that I need help with my problems,” he said during the interview in February.
Transit officials said they would ask for written notice from the film's producers, The Gotham Group, of their financial agreement with McCollum. The officials said they were seeking "any ill-gotten gains he receives from participation in this purported film project." The Gotham Group had no comment.
McCollum, now 50, had the subway map memorized by age 8. He befriended engineers and pilots and first started hanging around the subway as a child and had been driving them since he was 12 years old.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was asked by the MTA to help fortify their system, his lawyer said. He wanted to work for the MTA, but transit officials have long said they would not hire someone who had stolen a train, as he did at 15 from Penn Station to the World Trade Center.
"The MTA created this problem because they were lazy and glad to have him do their work," said McCollum's attorney, Sally Butler. "They also aren't involved in this case. I will fight this."
McCollum's story has been in newspapers and magazines for decades. A documentary about his life, "Off the Rails," will premiere April 7 at the Full Frame festival in Durham, North Carolina. The feature film, tentatively titled "Train Man," is rumored to star Julia Roberts as Butler, who has been McCollum's attorney since his 2010 arrest in Queens for stealing a Trailways bus.
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He hasn't seen any money yet from the producers, McCollum said.
"And if he gets any, he should be able to keep it," she said. "This is not your usual guy in jail. He's a special case."
The state's Son of Sam law originated after rumors that publishers and movie studios were offering large amounts of money to David Berkowitz for his story, and it was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 during a battle over the mobster tale "Wiseguy." The struck-down law was replaced in 2005.
In a Brooklyn court Monday, McCollum rejected a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for up to 10 years. He's pleaded in every other criminal case against him.
Butler is still trying to get McCollum into the borough's mental health court, where he'd receive treatment and have to adhere to a strict protocol or face stricter sentences. The district attorney's office initially said it would not allow the move but then backed off in court. A decision was expected April 11.
If not, McCollum may be headed for trial — his first ever.
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Darius McCollum has been called the world’s most notorious transit thief.
The 50-year-old admits he’s stolen New York City subways, buses and even trains, including Amtrak, Metro-North and LIRR. He’s currently being held on Rikers for allegedly stealing an empty Greyhound bus in November, driving it to Brooklyn.
In his first TV interview ever, McCollum told the I-Team’s Sarah Wallace that he wished he could stop stealing vehicles but does so compulsively.
“It’s like I’m drawn in,” he said. “I don’t know how to fight that feeling on my own.”
McCollum, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, said that every time he does swipe a vehicle, he gets a rush.
“What goes through my mind is the enjoyment, the thrill, the satisfaction to do it, and do it better than other people,” he said.
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That feeling has led to 30 arrests in 35 years. Every time he gets out of prison, security alerts are posted in mass transit hubs. He first exploded into the national headlines in 1981 at age 15, he was arrested after driving an in-service E subway train for several stops.
McCollum said it wasn’t the first time he’d illegally operated a train – he’d been doing it since he was 12 – but it was just the first time he was caught.
He said he saw the subway as a safe haven. At 12, McCollum said he was stabbed by a fellow student at school and decided to retreat underground. Transit workers took him in and eventually let him start taking their shifts, off the books.
“They trusted me and they know I knew the system,” he said. “They needed time off to get things done. I was available.”
McCollum said he easily got on subway trains with uniforms, keys and identification, often provided by employees. He later expanded his horizons to all different types of mass transit. He explained that sometimes he targeted a vehicle, but other times, “it just comes over [him].”
Forensic specialist Ray Cusicanqui, who has assessed and treated McCollum for 20 years, said the infamous thief usually stops stealing when his life his stable, but acts out during times of stress and anxiety. When McCollum was accused of stealing the bus 3 months ago, he was about to lose his housing and down to his last $15.
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His attorney, Sally Butler, claims McCollum has a mental disorder that should be adequately treated with therapy and medication and that prison is not the answer.
“It’s such a human interest story that nobody says, ‘What an awful guy, he belongs in jail,’” Butler said. “Everyone says, ‘How can we get help?’
"The only way he can get help is if he has services," she said. "He doesn’t get them and then he does it again. It usually takes until he kind of falls off the rails.”
McCollum is the subject of an upcoming documentary by that name, “Off the Rails,” directed by California-based filmmaker Adam Irving. McCollum said he hopes people understand that his intention was never to hurt anyone.
“I want people to understand that I’m a man with a problem. I want people to understand that I need help with my problems, ”he told the I-Team.
McCollum will be back in court next month. His attorney is hoping to get him moved to mental health court in Brooklyn. Otherwise, there’s a good chance he will go back to prison for a very long time.
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A spokesman for the Brooklyn DA’s office says they have not received an official request for mental health court, adding there must be a diagnosis of a documented mental illness for a case to be referred.