A 50-year-old man who has been arrested more than two dozen times for crimes that include piloting a subway train, stealing a bus and donning uniforms to pose as a conductor is being held without bail after his latest arrest, and his attorney says there are better options for the man who has autism.
Darius McCollum pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he stole a bus from the nation's busiest depot, the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. He was sent to Rikers Island with no chance of bail.
"This is not necessary," said his attorney, Sally Butler, who has become McCollum's friend and advocate over the years. "We can do something about this as a society rather than lock people up and throw the key away."
Butler said McCollum is an only child whose mother suffers mental issues and whose father is in a VA hospital. He also has Asperger's, an autism spectrum disorder. In 2013, McCollum agreed to undergo cognitive behavioral therapy to resolve a 2010 bus theft case. Prosecutors, the judge and his attorney said at the time they were hopeful he would be able to stay out trouble, and McCollum said he wouldn't let them down.
"He was doing really well," Butler said Friday. "He was trying to get services but qualifies for nothing. He was actually applying for jobs."
Then he "ran out of money and didn't want to tell us," said Butler. "He was going to be homeless on the night that this happened."
The extreme stress heightened his obsession with trains, trucks and buses, she said.
"That's where he really has difficulties, when he gets scared, and any person facing homelessness without a dime in their pocket is going to be scared," Butler said.
Exclusive surveillance video obtained by NBC 4 New York showed the stolen Greyhound bus rolling down Union Street in Park Slope Wednesday after it was taken from the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan.
Butler said she understands the potential risk of someone stealing and driving a 35,000-pound bus.
"There's balance," she said. "I appreciate that the D.A. is in a spot that they want to keep somebody that doesn't have the right to drive a bus not to drive a bus."
But she added that if McCollum did steal the bus, the city has much bigger issues.
"We have terrorists. Terrorists. And this guy that's functioning in the level of a 10-year-old is able to allegedly take a bus," she said. "If the allegation is true that he's taking a bus and driving through the Midtown Tunnel. Hello? This is like a wake-up call."
She said McCollum would gladly show the system's vulnerabilities and help keep New Yorkers safe.
McCollum had the subway map memorized by the time he was 8, and tried unsuccessfully to get a job with the transit system. Instead he became a transit impostor and has been arrested 29 times. But he is not a violent criminal — he just drives the routes, fixes tracks and takes tolls without an official job until he's caught by police.
McCollum has become a celebrity for escapades that began at age 15, when he piloted a subway train six stops without any passengers noticing. He grew up in Queens near a station serving two MTA lines, and learned the mechanics of the transit system from workers who took an interest in him.
Part of the problem is McCollum was only diagnosed with disorder in the last few years. He was first handed literature on the topic about 10 years ago during a Manhattan case, but the judge refused to order a psychiatric evaluation after she said she looked the disorder up online and decided he didn't have it. A treatment program had never previously been proposed as a solution to his crimes.