The New York transit impostor who first commandeered a train at age 15 has been arrested 30 times over the years for transit-related crimes. Most recently, he was nabbed in November behind the wheel of a Greyhound bus that officials say he had stolen from a depot in New Jersey.
Now McCollum, who is 50 and has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, is worried what will happen to him next. He says the obsession that’s put him behind bars for half his adult life is out of his control. But instead of more jail time, he says, he needs help.
«I can’t seem to get myself out of this on my own,» he said in an interview with The Associated Press at Rikers Island jail. «But what am I supposed to do?
There’s no AA for buses or trains.»
If he were a drug user, there’d be substance abuse treatment. If he were violent, there’d be an anger-management class. Even if he had been accused of a sex crime, there would be therapy available for him.
«We applied for everything, sought help everywhere, but there’s just nothing,» said his lawyer, Sally Butler. «This isn’t how he should be treated. He shouldn’t be behind bars.»
McCollum’s story has become the stuff of New York folklore.
He grew up in Queens, near the 179th Street subway station, and would go there after school; conductors and other train operators got to know him.
He says he soaked up information, including memorizing the subway map by age 8, but he never quite understood the social rules, a hallmark of his then-undiagnosed disorder.
At 15, he managed to drive an E train from 34th Street — his favorite subway station — six stops to the World Trade Center without any passengers noticing. It started the cycle he’s been in for years.
He’s posed as a transit worker, collected fares, fixed broken tracks, operated New York City subway trains and regional rail lines and driven commuter buses. It wasn’t until after his 2010 arrest for taking a Trailways bus on a cross-state joyride that he was diagnosed with autism.
Over the years, McCollum has been the subject of numerous articles, a play and a documentary. A feature film on his life is currently in production.
«If there’s one thing that really drew me in, it is his sacrifice,» said filmmaker Adam Irving, who produced the documentary «Off the Rails.» »I don’t know anyone that would give up 20 years in prison to do something that most New Yorkers would find extremely mundane. Collecting a subway fare? Driving a bus route?»
Eric Robinson of The Gotham Group, one of the producers of the feature film, said McCollum’s story is a «poignant treatise on a lot of what’s going on in our society today about mental health.»
In the interview, on a recent rainy day, McCollum sat in a front-row pew in the chapel at Rikers. He is wearing a beige uniform and his beard is graying. He is calm and well-spoken.
«I’m too functional in some ways,» he said. «I can cook. I can clean. I can take care of myself. I can get a job. No one knows what to do with me.»
Over the years, McCollum has worked construction, as a mail room clerk and in fast-food, but he always lost the job because of the siren call of the train yards. (He prefers trains to buses.)
McCollum connects easily with people who often go out of their way to try to help him. Some get frustrated and bow out. Others, like his lawyer, are in it for the long haul. She took over his 2010 arrest and helped broker a deal with the judge that got McCollum a reduced sentence based partly on the autism diagnosis.
He was supposed to get cognitive behavior therapy, but couldn’t find a therapist he could afford. His record also made getting a job tough.
This fall, with his work prospects dim, money running out and a temporary living arrangement with his cousin about to end, McCollum once again started haunting the New Jersey bus and train depot.
«Being around the trains used to calm me, make me feel better, relieved,» he said. «But not anymore. I’m not happy.»
His latest arrest on charges of criminal impersonation and grand larceny could bring him 15 more years behind bars if convicted. It’s not clear how prosecutors plan to handle the case.
Says McCollum: «I can’t spend any more of my life in jail.»