‘Off the Rails’ Highlights Legal System’s Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill
Darius McCollum once described his obsession with New York City’s subway trains like “biting into a York peppermint patty.”
“You can feel the sensation,” he said.
Unfortunately for McCollum, that obsession with trains has landed him in jail more than 30 times over the course of 30 years. Yet someone like McCollum—happy, likable to most, helpful—is not what comes to mind when a person thinks of a criminal.
In fact, McCollum, who is on the autism spectrum of disorders, has a mental illness called Asperger’s Syndrome that manifests itself with brilliance, a big ego and the need for a strict routine.
McCollum also has post-traumatic stress disorder, likely from multiple unpleasant events throughout his life. He would find himself a non-violent bystander amidst jail brawls. He tried to hang himself once in solitary confinement (he was put there because officials feared he would leak subway knowledge to suspected terrorists). Studies have shown that solitary confinement can be maddening even to people who do not suffer from untreated mental illness.
But the moment that forever changed his view of the world happened in grammar school, when another student sneaked up behind him while he was sitting in his desk and stabbed him deep in the back with a pair of scissors.
Adam Irving is the director of a documentary on McCollum’s life called “Off the Rails,” playing now at film festivals across the nation. He recalls McCollum telling him about what happened that day. In “unemotional monotone,” as Irving described it in an interview with MentalHealthTreatment.net, McCollum said: “That’s when I stopped trusting people my own age.”
Indeed, the incident literally drove McCollum underground, to the subways, a refuge where he could absorb everything he could about the trains that fascinated him. There, he became an expert on the trains. According to some people featured in the film, his knowledge was unrivaled. And the MTA workers who fed him all that knowledge in bits and pieces here and there adored their protege, who (illegally) conducted his first train at age 15.
One day, a subway conductor asked McCollum to drive one of the subways so he could run off and meet a girlfriend. Darius successfully commandeered the train for six stops — to the former World Trade Center, no less.
That resulted in his first arrest, and the conductor’s too.
Other Conductors Would Ask McCollom to Fill In when They Were Sick
But it didn’t stop with that first ride. In fact, McCollum, now 51, kept driving the trains every chance he could get. He
often answered another worker’s sick call and filled in, even though he never was really employed by the MTA or had any
credentials to drive the trains. The film shines a light on how little security there actually is in MTA’s massive network. Not only had numerous workers given him access (he had his own uniform since age 16, and even had been given keys), but in one scene McCollum also explains how anyone can enter the bus yard and drive off with one of the vehicles, which are not secured.
Most people had no idea McCollum wasn’t a real MTA employee, especially since he had a uniform. He made lively announcements about the next stop, smiled at passengers, even helped to clear a train once that had encountered an emergency situation. Dozens of MTA employees were completely aware of what McCollum was doing for many years—and they loved it.
McCollum has spent most of his life either on the subways or in jail. Arrest, incarceration, release, repeat. That has become the cycle of his life.
The justice system in New York has again and again refused to accept McCollum’s Asperger’s Syndrome defense as a reason to try him in mental health court, where he would be able to get some treatment.
One judge actually returned to her chambers after reviewing one of McCollum’s train ride cases with this verdict: “I’m not a psychiatrist, but I could be one,” recalled Lori Shery, president and executive director of ASPEN (Asperger/Autism Spectrum Education Network), in an interview with MentalHealthTreatment.net.
“I went on Google, and you don’t have it (Asperger’s),” Shery recalled the judge as saying.
There is no treatment for Asperger’s from a pharmacological standpoint – no medicine to specifically prescribe for the condition. Yet McCollum has been given plenty of prescription drugs through the years, from antipsychotics to benzodiazepines. Nothing has helped.
What would help, Shery said, is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT is essentially talk and workbook therapy that teaches a person new ways of dealing with triggers that cause adverse behaviors. It also is used in substance abuse treatment.
During periods when McCollum wasn’t in jail, he would attend 12-Step groups and the like, intended for people with substance abuse problems. But it did not help.
In an interview with MentalHealthTreatment.net , Irving said McCollum told him he never has had any substance abuse problems, saying alcohol made him too sleepy. “He once told me ‘There is no AA for trains.'”
Back in Jail on Riker’s Island
Today, McCollum is in jail on Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. He is awaiting trial for charges that he stole a Greyhound Bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal last November, according to the New York Times.1
After many years in the legal system, he finally had been able to leave New York, probation- and parole-free, and moved to North Carolina, where his mother had moved some years back. She is now in her 90s. His dad is in a VA facility with dementia.
The idea of getting out of an environment of temptation (New York’s extensive subway system) and being back with mom seemed like a wise idea.
But after a few weeks, he grew bored. He went back to New York, ran out of money, and soon found himself close to being homeless.
So when he stole the bus, not only did he return to “three squares and a roof over his head,” as Shery put it, but the media once again thrust him into the spotlight. So much so that now, a feature film starring Julia Roberts as his passionate attorney, Sally Butler, is in the works. The motion picture “Train Man” is set to be released next fall.
The MTA, meanwhile, is suing to get the money McCollum made by selling his story.
Some would argue that MTA owes McCollum years of unpaid salary.
“(McCollum) has a spiritual deficit that is replaced by the trains, and he needs to find something else that makes him feel special,” Irving said.
Shery agreed, saying what would have made sense all along would have been to give McCollum a job – even a volunteer position – at the MTA.
“But they can’t, because he’s a felon,” she said. “Darius has an ego. In addition to the three squares and a roof over his head, he needs to have his ego fed and respected for his knowledge of trains.”
Asked whether she could liken McCollum’s behaviors with those of others with Asperger’s, she replied, “I’ve not seen anything like this in my 20 years of working in the field, honestly.”
1.Fitzsimmons, E. (21 March, 2016). M.T.A, as Victim, Wants Transit Thief’s Profits from Hollywood Movie Deal. The New York Times. Retrieved May 19, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/nyregion/mta-seeks-bus-and-train-thiefs-profits-from-potential-movie-deal.html
Written by David Heitz