A city man who for decades has been taking trains and buses on unathorized joy rides testifies in court for the first time about his unusual lifelong compulsion. He's fighting to avoid being sent to a mental institution. NY1's Jose Martinez filed the following report:
Darius McCollum is a repeat transit troublemaker.
"I'm just a train buff, that's all there is to it," he said in a documentary about him, "Off the Rails."
He's been arrested more than 30 times for impersonating transit workers. He claims he's taken subway trains and buses out for a spin thousands of times, sometimes with passengers on board.
But Brooklyn prosecutors want McCollum's next stop to be a mental institution.
"It just houses the worst of the worst, and there are so many more options," said Sally Butler, McCollum's attorney. "People that have autism don't belong locked up in those locations."
On Wednesday, the 52-year-old McCollum testified about his lifelong fixation.
"The wheels go round and round," he said, when asked about what grabs him about trains.
And buses? "Same thing," he said. "The wheels go round and round."
"He loves the wheels, he loves to see the wheels, he loves the sound of the motors," Butler said. "He can distinguish between different motors by the sound of them."
McCollum pleaded guilty in January to his latest transit caper: stealing an empty Greyhound bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
After every prior arrest, he's been sent to jail. But now, a Brooklyn judge will decide whether to institutionalize him.
His longtime lawyer said McCollum is autistic but has never gotten treatment. She's asked the court to send him to halfway house so he finally can be helped.
"There's so many services you get that he's never had," Butler said.
For several hours, McCollum matter-of-factly explained how, as a child, he was taught to operate trains and buses by transit workers.
"They used to give me uniforms," McCollum said. "They used to give me a vest and a flashlight."
He said he's probably operated subway trains 5,000 times, buses 4,000 times, and also Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North trains — sometimes with their crews helping him. He claimed he once was behind the controls of an Amtrak train as it traveled from North Carolina to Penn Station.
His lawyer said this was the first time he's explained himself in court.
McCollum didn't just masquerade as a mass transit employee; he also had a pin identifying him as a member of the Transportation Security Administration. He used it, he said, to get discounts.
Prosecutors said McCollum is so obsessive, if he's sent to a halfway house, he'll quickly go back to his old tricks, endangering passengers and the public.
The hearing is slated to continue next week.