"The funniest thing is, I love the system," he tells us from the notorious New York City jail.
Darius McCollum is something out of New York City tabloid lore: the thief of all thieves, the guy who gets caught over and over again (30 times, in total), seemingly the minute he gets out of jail or prison for his previous caper. When he is inevitably arrested, the local press corps adds the latest incident to its running list, and his exploits in newspapers almost always carry roughly the same lede, Darius McCollum, the infamous subway thief....
It's no surprise, then, that Off the Rails, the documentary out this spring about McCollum's life, ends with the man behind bars on New York City's Rikers Island. Because for the last three decades, he has been through the notorious jail complex many times, always roughly for the same reasons: impersonating a subway conductor or bus driver; stealing said vehicle; and then, eventually, getting caught.
But as McCollum likes to say, "The thing is," he doesn't exactly steal the vehicles—at least not in the traditional sense. He drives them to their next destination, dropping off people as he goes, just like any bus or subway driver would. The only problem, of course, is that he isn't one—McCollum has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, which his lawyers and defenders say plays a key role in his pattern of criminal behavior, an "obsession" he just can't seem to shake.
On a recent afternoon, I sat down with McCollum on Rikers Island, where he's currently awaiting trial on charges of criminal impersonation and grand larceny after allegedly stealing a Greyhound bus last November. (That case is ongoing, and, per his lawyer's request, we did not discuss it in detail.) His voice is calm, his sentences articulate: By the end of the conversation, we were talking about the intricacies of New York City's subways more than him actually stealing them. We touched on his favorite station (Herald Square in Manhattan), his concerns about local infrastructure ("It's not what it used to be"), and the eternal dilemma of delay ("It's gonna take you longer than three years," he says, of the L train's pending closure).
What struck me most is the man's sense of self-awareness. He's almost painfully cognizant of the bizarre nature of what he's up to—as if he's watching a movie or news reel of himself play out on repeat. So we talked about that, the documentary (which he still hasn't seen), mental health behind bars, and what he describes as a possible movie about his life starring Julia Roberts and Idris Elba.
VICE: What's it like returning to Rikers, having been here so many times?
Darius McCollum: I try not to know it well—I just have to deal with it while I'm here. That's not something I really look forward to. There are things that go on that are particularly cultured, so to speak, and like I said, you just have to deal with it. So what I do is try to keep myself busy, occupied, help out people, and so forth, like that. Not really workshops, but programs throughout the field that I could benefit from. I try to do whatever I can to help the inmates, and sometimes the officers, just to help with different jobs and so forth. I try to keep myself busy.
Sometimes when you're out working, or on a certain detail, you don't feel like you're in a jail. You don't have that locked down feeling; you feel more responsible for doing something, as opposed to just doing nothing.
"It's bad enough from here—I don't want to go to federal prison."
How did this documentary happen?
In my prior case, it was introduced to my attorney, Sally Butler, and it was something that we had spoken about. She asked how I felt about doing it, or whether I would want to. It kind of seemed interesting, and Adam [Irving], the filmmaker, came to meet me in jail to talk about it. I said, "You know what, let's run with it." We finished up last year in August; I was home at that point, in North Carolina. Adam would go with me, and I would have to demonstrate how I did things. I would talk about how I did things, and sometimes, we'd go to the train and bus yards.
The thing is, I gave him a lot of information that a lot of people don't know about—for example, one of the biggest things that has been incorporated is that everything now is post-9/11. So I kinda got myself in trouble a little bit more, because I got placed on the federal watch list, and what happens is that they say I'm listed as a potential terrorist, meaning that if terrorist were to get a hold of me, they could try to use the information that I know to do nefarious crimes and things like that. And I'm like, "I don't want to be a part of no terrorist group." That's the least of my problems. It's bad enough from here—I don't want to go to federal prison.
A main part of the film is your belief you could be of service to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), by pointing out their security flaws.
I believe I would definitely be a service to them. The thing is, would they allow me to be a service to them? Because one of the things I've been trying to do over the years is try to be a service to them. But they make up excuses to not put me in that kind of service.
If someone approaches you and says, "I want to film a documentary on your life," does that filming experience—or even just having your story seem valuable enough to be a doc—make you view your own story differently?
It makes me feel differently in the aspect of the camera and the publicity behind it. People who didn't even know me will now know more about me, and they'll be like, "Isn't your name Darius McCollum?" "Aren't you the guy who..." And who I try to pass myself as other people at different times, they're gonna be like, "I know who you are. I'm gonna call the police." So I have to think about all of these things that I have done, as to how it's going to affect folk like that.
How has your mental health been addressed behind bars?
That's the problem that I kinda have, because it seems like people want to sit there and say that my diagnosis isn't that severe, or whatever the case may be. But you don't fall into that category to where you can make that determination. If you're just going by the law part of it, but you don't go by the psychology part of it, it hinders my movement. As long as I'm doing time, you're happy. But what service am I getting? You sit there and say that I'm supposed to do all this sort of stuff, but upstate or when you're on parole, they don't do what you tell them to do—it's the opposite.
What gets overlooked for people like yourself in places like this?
Pretty much the mental health part of it. And the thing is, years ago, they tried to say that I was the poster boy for Asperger's. But I'm not the poster boy—there are other people who have it beside me. Asperger's is just a small role, because there's more to it than that. You have OCD, the impulse control, certain things that make it into one. They don't just treat each symptom different; they try to focus on the issues at hand. So how far can I go?
People are trying to figure out, "Who is that guy?"
When I tell people your story, and I say that you don't go for joy rides—you (briefly) try to do the job like anyone else who works for the MTA—that's what interests people the most. And I'm wondering what you think of that part of your appeal.
I always appreciate the comment at the end, when people say, "Oh, thank you—I appreciate riding with you." Or, "Have a nice day!" That happiness you get sometimes is more than enough to let you know that you have successfully done your job, so to speak. And those are the things I look forward to, more than anything else. Those are the things that make you feel... Okay, I feel good. I feel happy. I want to do it again.
And what do you think when you read about people taking other vehicles for joy rides?
You got people who want to try to mimic Batman. Or Superman. And then there's people who try to mimic me. I just look at them, like, OK. I go through the challenge sometimes... "Are you the guy who drove the A train years ago?" No, that was a different guy. But I have driven the A train anyway. That guy got stuck in Brooklyn. And for me, I want to know where certain buttons are, and why certain boxes are there—what they do, who they go to.
So this is the difference between me and him. If I had been on the A train that day, I know for a fact that I wouldn't have gotten stopped. I would've pushed the right button, and gone to Lefferts [Boulevard] or whatever, and came back out. But he got stuck and didn't know what to do. The thing is, if you don't know, you don't know. You can't be held accountable for what you don't know. But if you do know, then you're held accountable. That's why I've made it my business to want to know.
There's one scene, where Adam picks you up from prison, and you're in the car heading back to NYC. And there's this sense that he's watching you to see if you'll get in trouble again. Do you feel that pressure still?
I'm thinking along those lines. I'll tell you the truth: When I get out now, and because of the extra bout of publicity, I feel like I'll be a bit more watched than I was before. As to how long, I don't know. But I also have a solution, and the solution is, let's say that if I did make money, I would just buy a car. That way, I'm not near the MTA. That way, you're not bothering me—just leave me alone. I'm leaving you alone by being up here, just driving around wherever I want to go. I happen to know that they only bother me when I'm on their property. But they don't bother me when I'm not. You're not gonna bother me in a car. So I figured I'ma have to do that.
If and when you get back out, do you have plans to go back to North Carolina to be with your parents?
Definitely. Even though it's boring down there, I definitely have plans to go back. It's beautiful and nice. But that's the whole thing: It's like a 24-hour city in New York. Twenty-four-hour country is just not making it, because at nighttime, you just hear crickets and have cows looking at you. I miss the lights and action. Prime example, even though New York City is noisy and has a lot of people, I like that mass transit atmosphere of New York. That's the whole thing. You got people cursing all day, yelling like, "You can't put your garbage over here!"—it's always something. The city is a fast-paced town when people want answers within a split second.
In the country, you have time to think. Here, you don't have time.
How did you originally get obsessed with subways and transportation? I read you stole your first train at fifteen.
The funniest thing is, I love the system. People used to classify me more so as a train buff years ago, but I've been on them so much that I learned things of the system that not everybody's supposed to learn. It kinda puts people on edge, because it's like, "Who is this guy? Why is he here?" And then I just say, "I'm just here." "Well, who are you with?" "Well, I'm not with anybody." "Oh, you can't be here. This is a restricted area." And I'm like, "Oh, OK." I just get up, put the paper down, and go leave. "How did he get in here?" The door's open, and I came in myself.
People are trying to figure out, "Who is that guy?"
These are the kinds of things that go on. So I've learned things about the subway system that it's just over another level. I was just told that I'm the person that people wish they could be, because I actually took the time to do something that people want to do. They had the case the other month when the guy in Florida wanted to be a doctor, so he got a building and impersonated a doctor. But actually, you can't do that, because of the ethics of medicine. I'm that kind of person, where I did the things that people want to do. In fact, there's a show on TV called The Pretender, and I heard I was in two different episodes, but they never showed my face. They mention me. There's another show called Person of Interest, and I kinda include myself in that category—I'm a person of interest. That's just how I see it. There's so much that I've done, and I can't begin to tell you half the stuff that I wish I could still do.
OK, so I've been hearing about a possible movie deal. What's that all about?
The movie deal is very interesting. We're not getting our hopes up yet, because there's still too much stuff involved, but the thing is, from what I understand, Julia Roberts wants to play Sally. And supposedly, Idris Elba is supposed to play me. It's not guaranteed.
How does it feel to maybe have Idris Elba (considering) playing you?
It's different! I was trying to say, "Well, why can't we make it like, Catch Me If You Can, Pt.2." But they said, "No, we can't use that title."
What do you want viewers to take away from knowing your story?
Take away the media. That's the main thing. Don't focus on the media part. Because the media, sometimes, will mislead you. I try to deal with that. I do have a problem. Take away the fact that the courts need to do something better than what they're trying to do. I need something to help me, as opposed to something that's going to discourage me. It makes me want to come back and do the same thing all over again. That's the whole thing. A lot of guys here will tell you the same thing.
Off the Rails will screen this weekend at the SF DocFest, in San Francisco.
Follow John Surico on Twitter.