• Sun, Jun 15 2008

Obsession or Crime?: Darius McCollum & the NYC Subway

43 year old Darius McCollum was arrested Saturday for the 23rd time for being in a secure area of the Columbus Circle subway station in Manhattan while wearing clothing that resembles that of a transit worker’s uniform. According to WCBS news radio, “Sympathizers claim McCollum’s nocturnal infiltrations stem from Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism typically reflected in obsessive behavior.” McCollum was first arrested in 1981 when he took control of a subway laden with passengers and steered it to the World Trade Center:

Hardly just a youthful prank, it was the first of many forbidden rides. By the mid-1990s, frustrated Transit Authority officials posted thousands of wanted posters in trains and stations so riders could report McCollum sightings. But most riders who ran into him found him simply friendly and helpful.

McCollum was sentenced to three years in prison at Sing Sing Correctional Facility for trying to steal a locomotive after pleading guilty to grand larceny. Says his 82-year-old mother, Elizabeth McCollum, in today’s New York Times:

“With all these kids who are autistic, they slip behind the cracks, but nobody is trying to help him at all,” she said. “I tried when I lived in New York. Every time he was arrested he wasn’t hurting anybody, and nobody could figure out what is his problem.”

She said that sometimes, when he was younger and they were living in Jamaica, Queens, she did not know where he was and people would tell her he was in the subway. “I used to call them and go down there and look for him,” she said.

She said that he would put together model trains and other toys with ease: “We had all kinds of toys, like trains and monorails, and different kinds of things when he was growing up. And he went on to bigger and better things.”

A play and a BBC radio play have been made about him (more at Neurodiversity.com)—-is it right to treat as a criminal or is something else warranted?

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  • Linda

    “…taking control of a subway laden with passengers and steering it towards the…hardly a prank, first of many forbidden rides…” Wow, lucky nobody was hurt. Not a criminal…then what???

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    Good thing he was caught before he could fence that stolen subway car.

    Did he have to “hot wire” it? Or were the keys left in it? Or are there no keys?

    Maybe the NYC Transit Authority should take more precautions? Maybe a “real” terrorist might decide to do something less benign.

  • http://www.jonathans-stories.com jonathan

    Maybe they could just give him a job in the new york city transit department, then he would not be considered a crook anymore and he would be happy doing what he loved and the New York Transit system would be happy.

    Of course it is probably not all that simple, though I don’t know the circumstances I suspect that for some reason he was not able to get a job with them. This would sort of dispute temple grandin’s contentions that obsessions can be channeled into meaningful careers.

  • http://club166.blogspot.com/ Club 166

    I don’t think Grandin ever said that all obsessions could be turned into successful careers.

    I was obsessed with astronauts growing up. Yet earthbound I remain.

    I do think it’s a great idea to try and channel people’s special interests into careers, whether you are NT or not. As the saying goes, “Do something you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

    Joe

  • Regan

    Giving Darius a job has been suggested. There’s some liability problem, apparently, but I don’t know the details.

    It is a shame that something productive can’t be found as opposed to incarceration. For an example of how an obsession could lead not only to being useful, but respected and esteemed, see the Oliver Sacks essay, “A Walking Grove.”

  • http://aoskoli.blogspot.com/ VAB

    He seems like a nice guy, but his behavior is criminal. I think many people who run afoul of the justice system have atypical ways of thinking, so that doesn’t really entitle this fellow to special treatment. On the other hand, I can’t see that locking anyone up in a prison does much good other than in terms of removing them from society for a while.

    I guess I would say that getting some people to work with the fellow and putting some supports and supervision in place, such as a location tracking device and maybe a daily check in would be a good start. But then I would say the same of 95% of all criminals in all jails, so I would not be cutting this guy any extra slack just on account of him being autistic.

  • Eleanor

    The legal tests for criminal liability don’t actually match up very well to any particular psychological or neurological diagnoses. Rather, the focus is (in most states) on the person’s capability to appreciate what he or she is doing–knowing right from wrong, if you will. My guess is that some people with Asperger’s will meet the test for criminal liability and some won’t.

    As to whether Mr. McCollum should be held criminally liable, all I can say is that, in most systems, the alternative–”guilty by reason of insanity” or “not guilty by reason of insanity” just mean you get locked up in a mental institution instead of a prison, and I doubt that he would necessarily be better off in a place like that.

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  • http://storkdok-nos.blogspot.com/ Storkdok

    Tony Attwood’s SIL works on trains in England and Europe. She is obsessed with trains, and her obsession finally led to a job so she could be on her beloved trains. He tells the story of how she disappeared for a week once before she got the job, and he put out the word through the train authorities and they found her riding a train throughout Europe. The family figured if she liked trains so much, why fight it, and helped her get the job!

    A year ago my then 6 year old son was allowed to go into the engine on a narrow gauge railroad that we often rode. He remembered the dials and switches from 2 years previous when they let him go in. He started the engine up (yes, it was a key) and luckily the engineer stopped him from putting it into drive. I had no idea he would even remember all the dials.

    Tony Attwood has quite a few stories like the train obsessed man here. It is sad that no one recognized the characteristics and tried to get him help to understand what is acceptable/legal and what is criminal behavior in society. Why would it take up to 23 incidents to recognize that a psychological evaluation might be in order? Why wouldn’t the court order psychological/behavioral therapy to help him? Warehousing him isn’t going to help him. It obviously hasn’t worked yet.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    This past Sunday, October 5, McCollum was arrested for the 26th time, for impersonating a federal agent.

    http://www.ble.org/pr/news/headline.asp?id=23896