Off the Rails: Documentary on Autistic Train Thief Darius McCollum
I sat down with Adam Irving, director of Off the Rails, a gripping documentary about Darius McCollum, the notorious autistic individual who has spent most of his life in prison due to “stealing” subway trains and buses in New York City throughout his entire life. The film features interviews with Darius, his family, and many experts as well as reenactments of Darius illegally driving subway trains (which he started doing at the age of 15).
This tragic but fascinating documentary explores how a harmless special interest turned into a life-changing obsession that resulted in Darius being arrested over 30 times throughout his life. I believe the film took a nuanced look at Darius and treated his character in an understanding and compassionate light. I thought it was absolutely fantastic and one of the best documentaries I’ve watched in a while.
The film has it’s international premiere tonight at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Here’s the trailer:
Alex Plank: So how did you find out about Darius?
Adam Irving: A few years ago, my older brother sent me a YouTube video of a guy filming a train going by and you can’t see the man but you hear his voice and he’s so enthusiastic about the train, like it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to him. And at the bottom of the YouTube video, you see comments. A lot of people are writing “This guy is such a foamer. Oh he’s such a foamer.”
I was so curious what’s a foamer so I looked it up It’s a derogatory term for an individual who’s so obsessed with trains that they foam at the mouth when they see one. And it’s sort of an exaggeration; they don’t literally foam at the mouth but it describes their enthusiam.
In the U.K. they’re called trainspotters. In Germany they’re called metrogeks. There’s even a word in Japanese for these kinds of people. And they’re usually men. They’re often on the spectrum, live with their parents, don’t have good social skills, and they really, really, really like trains.
And so when I read the Wikipedia article about foamers, at the bottom there is a section on notable foamers and Darius is one of them. So I clicked on his article and I was hooked the first line that I read about him that said “Darius Mccollum has spent more than a third of his life in prison for impersonating New York City transit workers.”
I thought “what an interesting crime to spend so much time in prison for.” He’s just pretending to be a transit worker. He wasn’t hurting anyone and he wasn’t damaging any property and it’s not like he just got a slap on the wrist.
He’s doing years and years in maximum security prison for these crimes. In my mind the punishment–like the sacrifice he made– was very, very high for the very low level of reward that he got. Driving the train is the greatest thing the world for him. But, if someone said to me “you can drive this train for five minutes but if you get caught you’ll do five years in prison,” I’d say no way. Driving a train is like job people get paid to do.
AP: And people don’t want to do it; I feel like that’s one of those jobs (especially driving a bus).
AI: Yeah I get it. Make the stops and collect the fares and deal with people. But he loves it. It’s like being in the military. It’s a sense of duty. He feels it’s a public service that’s making the world a better place.
And then I noticed from reading the Wikipedia article that there are actually a lot of other articles in The New York Times, the other New York papers, and this amazing award winning Harper’s magazine article about Darius called The Boy Who Loves Trains that just captured so well his obsession and his Asperger’s and what it was like for him as a kid to be in this world on the subway.
And it really humanized him in a way that some of the tabloid newspapers in New York like the New York Post and New York Daily News didn’t. They would just say like “Transit kook arrested again” and “Bus Bandit Caught Again!” But the Harper’s article really got into his childhood and how he had trauma and just all the things that happened to him and I thought this would be a really really good documentary. That was three years ago and now I’m about to premier the film.
AP: So you only shot it for three years?
AI: I only shot it for one year actually and then edited it for two years. So when I started filming, Darius was in jail. He’s usually in jail. So I wasn’t able to film him at least for a while. So in the meantime I interviewed about fifteen people in New York who knew him, like his lawyer, his social worker, therapist, people that worked on his case. And I also interviewed his mom in north carolina. All the while just kind of killing time and getting what I could until Darius got out of jail.
So finally he got out of jail after me filming for maybe five or six months (although I also did film in the jail twice.) And then he got out and I had really as much time as I wanted with him.
But I live in LA and he’s in New York so I had to make a trip and it was like the coldest winter in New York in forty years. So it was not pleasant and I just filmed as much as I could with him because I knew that at any moment he could get arrested and be back in jail and then I wouldn’t have access to him anymore.
AP: Did you know much About Asperger’s before this?
AI: Yeah, yeah. I knew what it was and knew what kind of defined it (what the traits were.) And I think I even knew that there was a connection between trains and people on the spectrum. That’s a particularly common interest especially among boys. I remember reading that Thomas the Tank Engine is the favorite show of boys on the spectrum.
So yeah, I did actually know a bit. My initial major in school was psychology and my dad is a therapist. My dad is actually in the movie, Dr. Howard Irving. So that wasn’t so much of education for me.
What was educational was learing about the spectrum community, such as the different organizations like Grasp and ASPEN and ASTEP that I didn’t know. All I knew was Autism Speaks but I didn’t know about some of the others and that they had actually advocated for Darius and helped him; try to help him at least.
AP: Yeah I’ve spoken at the aspen conference.
AI: Oh so you know Lori.
AP: Yeah. When you were filming Darius, did you actually film him committing any crimes?
AI: No I decided when I started the project that it that I would not. I would not be a witness to any of his crimes whether filming it or not because then perhaps legally I would have some sort of moral or legal obligation to stop him or report him. And I didn’t want to take that risk because then not only would Darius get in trouble but I would possibly get in trouble too which not only would mean the end of my movie but possibly the end of my career if I participated in any of his crimes or encouraged him.
And also even if even if he didn’t get caught and I didn’t get caught and I was able to film him committing a crime and I ended up using it in the movie people could say that I encouraged him or he only did it for the camera and if I wasn’t filming him he wouldn’t have done it. And so I just didn’t want to put myself in a situation where I would make my life or Darius’s life worse by filming his crimes because the truth is he’s done it so many times before which had maybe not been documented in the moment. But he’s been arrested. There’s the mug shot. There’s news footage.
I just didn’t think it was necessary to film him in the moment as much as I did kind of want to see what that would look like. For his last arrest in November, he took a greyhound bus on a joyride. It would have been really cool to get the footage from the bus (if there’s a camera in there that’s recording) to show what his face looks like when he’s driving. Because he had the bus for like thirty six hours just driving around New York by himself and I think it would be really cool to see what that would have looked like, how we got in there, how he got out of the depot and that kind of thing.
AP: It’s fascinating. How did you get in touch with Darius?
AI: I flew to New York and had coffee with a woman named Jude Domski who wrote a play about Darius called Boy Steals Train. She’s in the movie. She adapted it and the BBC did a radio play by the same name.
So she gave me the 411 and then I went back to LA and started exchanging letters with him. And we exchanged over one hundred letters. So I got to know him pretty well.
I also tailored my letters to what I believe someone on the spectrum would really connect with. So my initial letters to him were very precise. They were unemotional. They would just kind of state facts because I thought he would respond to that best.
And then as time went on I would answer some of his questions. He asked if I had a girlfriend and what I would do if I won a million dollars and all these sort of personal questions that had nothing to do with me making a movie about him but I wanted to get to know him.
So then finally after months of writing letters I decided to actually meet him in person in jail in New York at Rikers Island. And the idea was if we connected, if we hit it off, then we would make a movie together.
He was just a normal guy. I was just very surprised at how normal he was, seemingly. And he was surprised; he thought I would be like older a little bit. He was like “you’re just this kid” but I convinced him that I was a professional and a smart and mature individual and he said “Let’s do it. Let’s make a movie.”
AP: What was the most surprising thing about Darius for after meeeting him?
AI: I guess his calmness and his sense of humor. So for calmness, I just assume that just someone who had been through the prison system so many times with all of the intimidation, , violence, fear and overall terrible living conditions, I would have thought that he just be a little bit more rough around the edges; like a tough guy; not mean but I thought he’d have the posture of a tough guy.
But he was like a teddy bear; almost like a little kid in an adult’s body. And then the sense of humor thing was surprising again because you think after going through all of that he won’t have much of a sense of humor. But also because my understanding of Asperger’s is people on the spectrum have difficulty with certain nuances or they might not pick up on humor; like they might not understand a joke. Like if I just said “oh have a seat” they might take an actual seat.
AP: Yeah. It’s literal thinking.
AI: Yeah, literal thinking, exactly. But he understood how to be charming, he understood not only how to take a joke but he also had no problem teasing me and making fun of me which I did not expect from someone on the spectrum. So that was surprising that he was able to poke fun at things, poke fun at himself, poke fun at other people, and just laugh at jokes like a neurotypical.
AP: What was the biggest thing you learned about autism that you hadn’t learned before. I mean other than what you’d said.
AI: Yeah, Lori Shery told me that that statistically individuals on the spectrum are no more and no less likely to commit crimes in the United States. And I would have thought they would actually be less likely because they’re so–
AP: Well they’re more likely to be a victim of a crime.
AI: A victim yes, of course, bullying, all kinds of abuse, being taken advantage of even in prison. But I guess I just assume because hey tend to like rules and structure, that they’d be more likely to follow the law. But it turns out statistically either they’re about the same.
And someone that I interviewed in the film, Marcia Scheider (she’s at ASCAP), does employment consulting with companies to encourage them to hire people on the spectrum. She’s in New York and so she said you can have Asperger’s and be an asshole. Just because you have Asperger’s doesn’t mean–
AP: Just because you have Asperger’s, you’re not a saint.
AI: Yeah exactly just like someone in a wheelchair can commit fraud. Someone who’s blind can beat you up. Being a jerk just doesn’t discriminate.
AP: But that’s what’s so fascinating about Darius. I mean he had his crimes are pretty much victimless.
AP: That’s what was striking to me.
AI: They’re never malicious. They’re never meant to deprive anyone of a property or service. But he is taking a risk that theoretically could hurt people and that could be perceived as a “bad thing.” Maybe evil isn’t the right word but it’s a disregard for other people’s well being. But the way I see it is anyone driving a train is putting passengers at risk if there’s an accident.
He’s just as qualified, if not more qualified, than younger drivers who have been only driving buses and trains for a few years. He’s been doing it for thirty five years. So he’s actually more experienced, assuming when he is driving he’s doing it regularly and paying attention and all that. Now he isn’t formally or properly trained but that doesn’t mean he’s not good at what he does.
But I don’t see him as a traditional criminal; someone who is committing a crime for their own benefit which usually means someone else is deprived of property or safety or whatever.
AP: What do you think about the latest news with this case? [After news of a Julia Roberts potentially starring in a movie about Darius, the MTA is attempting to use the New York State's "Son of Sam" law to deprive Darius of financial compensation from the movie.]
AI: I think it’s very interesting. In general I’d say Darius is a very polarizing figure. I love reading the comments in any [online] article about Darius because I find that about seventy percent of people will say “Give this poor guy a job. He can’t help it. H’s addicted. He’s never hurt anyone. You know he doesn’t belong in jail.” And then the other thirty people say “He’s a criminal. He’s a risk. He belongs in jail. Keep him away from the trains. He’s a crazy guy.”
I guess you have to ask “were they really crimes in the traditional sense that like he hurt someone or damaged any properties now and now he’s benefiting financially through this movie. That’s one thing. ”
The second thing is–and this is more important and this is what’s more polarizing– should the MTA be getting that money? Why are they going after him? Because one could argue that they’re the ones that have caused a lot of his problems.
One by never hiring him.
And two, when they do find him on the property, instead of just doing nothing or talking to him or asking him to leave, they almost always call the police which results of him getting arrested and going to jail, sometimes when he hasn’t even done anything wrong. Like he may be wearing blue pants and a blue shirt, obviously because he kind of wants to look like a transit worker. But he isn’t actively impersonating anyone. He’s just walking around but he feels comfortable wearing what looks like transit gear.
And if they just see him at the end of the platform kind of looking suspiciously, they’ll call the police and they’ll arrest him even though he hasn’t broken any law.
AP: I don’t understand why he got arrested the first time.
AI: When he was fifteen? Because he drove a train 18 stops by himself.
AP: He was given permission to by the driver and he was a kid .
AI: Yeah but the driver is not in a position to. It would be like if a pilot gave a kid a permission to fly a plane a kid still not allowed to fly.
AP: I don’t think of kids should get arrested though. It’s a kid that was given permission by an adult.
AI: Minors are treated differently. They’re not given conventional prison time. Darius, when he was fifteen and he was caught was not given the kind of punishment that he would get now for doing the same thing. It wasn’t that big a deal although it was the first of many.
Yeah the driver handed over the controls to him. But Darius accepted them. He could have said, “No this is against the law. I don’t work for the MTA.” But of course he didn’t say that because he was dreaming of it for years. He wanted to do that and he knew even at fifteen (he wasn’t stupid) that if he got caught he’d probably get in trouble with the police. So he has to be held responsible to some degree. The problem is that the guy that gave him the controls obviously is a grown up and should have been punished more severely and should have been fired but instead was just given a few weeks suspension. Whereas Darius who’s just this kid who didn’t really know better, it really ruined his life. So it was like an unfair proportion of punishment and balance in that case.
But getting back the MTA thing, I can see the MTA’s perspective that Darius has embarrassed them, he has put their employees at risk, he has put their reputation at risk. Darius has proven how easy it is to take an MTA vehicle. And he makes the MTA look bad. So to get revenge and to get compensation I can see how they would go after him for money that he got from making them look bad.
But you can see the other perspective of that. The guy doesn’t have any money. He never really hurt anyone. And Hollywood is interested in telling his story. Why shouldn’t he benefit from it? It’s not like he killed someone and now he’s getting money as a reward for the crimes. he’s getting a reward for his interesting life and his good service to the people of New York for driving them around for free.
AP: Yeah and it’s kind of funny though because they’ve had all this time to fix the security flaws and they haven’t done anything really.
AI: They’ve tried. Since 9/11 almost every transit agency united states has beefed up security through surveillance, extra cameras.
AP: But that’s not a reaction to Darius
AI: No it’s not a reaction to Darius. When he is released, they put up posters, in staff areas to warn them that he’s just gotten out of a prison and you should watch.
AP: That’s only for him. He’s not the bad guy really. The person that they don’t want stealing the train is a terrorist. And yet they haven’t really done anything to respond to what Darius has done. It’s kind of like he’s like a hacker in a way.
AI: Yes it’s true. He’s like a hacker.
AP: Where he exposes a security flaw but instead of fixing the security flaw they just go after him.
AI: Yeah. There’s actually a good [article] I think it was in the New York post or the New York Daily News in September of 2010. The last time Darius was arrested he took a bus as well. They actually went into the bus depot two days later where he took the bus to show how easy it is to take a bus. And they actually went onto the bus and one of the reporters took a picture of himself. And then he went back the next thing they did it again to show that even after Darius got arrested for this crime the bus depot in New Jersey didn’t really take any extra measures to to stop it.
But yeah I don’t know why they don’t. I guess there’s only so much they can do. And also, luckily there aren’t that many Darius copycats.
AP: Do you think there’s any validity to the idea that he shouldn’t be put in prison because of the Asperger’s element? Because for me, I noticed sort of an undertone in the movie that maybe he’s not to blame entirely because of the Asperger’s but I didn’t buy that. What do you think?
AI: I could see that perspective but I tried in the movie to show that Asperger’s is the reason he likes trains but the reason he’s committing a crime has to do with mental illness. He has depression. He has anxiety. He was stabbed as a child and it affected his view of the world. It made him feel like he didn’t have any value. And the only way he could get value was by being somebody– being part of a team.
And so by being part of the MTA and having the uniform and having a rank and a position, that makes Darius feel that he matters and he has value.
He really thrives on [the media attention] because again, when he was a kid he felt like he was nothing. And by getting in the newspaper, getting on TV, people are talking about him. It makes him feel like he matters– like he has a place in the world. And so the media attention, the uniform, being part of of this MTA team and having a duty– like getting people from point a to point b– all that makes them feel like a somebody.
And that’s not healthy. There are many times in this life where he was not loved, where he was alone. He doesn’t have a lot of friends. He doesn’t really have much of a family life. So that to me is what is at the core that’s driving him, not the Asperger’s.
AP: Yeah and the movie in a way is really heartbreaking. Did you expect it to be as sad as it is?
AI: No. . . It became more heartbreaking. If it was a movie made for me, I would probably have made it a little bit more about the logistics of how we actually steals the trains. Because that’s what fascinated me–sort of like Catch Me if You Can–how he would kind of manipulate and charm his way in–that was really interesting to me.
But the end of the day I found that when we started testing the movie out people responded more to the emotional– the sort of pathos– feeling for Darius that he’s been through a lot. That he’s a nice guy. And that he’s been screwed over by the system, that he fell through the cracks, and that he’s just a good guy that wants to do good in the world.
And the more we talked about how we got the keys and how we got into this train yard and how he got away with it that time, the less we would feel for Darius as a victim of trauma even you could say racism– just all kinds of things because of the sort of lot in life that he’s been dealt.
So if people are willing to sit through a four hour movie, I would get into more of the nuts and bolts of his imposter life.
AP: How did he generally do it?
AI: There’s four or five main ways.
One, and this is what surprises and angers people the most, is that MTA workers essentially helped him and gave him their shifts so that they got paid and he did the work. They took advantage of him.
So some driver, instead of calling in sick, would call up Darius and say “I don’t want to go to work today. I want to go and see a movie with my wife. Can you take my shift?” And they would maybe give him their ID, maybe their uniform and Darius would just go in there confidently hoping they don’t check the ID. He would say “I’m here to sign out the A train.” And they say “OK. No problem. Take train 4412.” And he would return at the end of the day and as long as nothing went wrong he would get away with it. And the guy who was supposed to drive the train would just take over the next day.
Number two would be in the middle of a shift he would take over. So if there was a bus driver who had an eight hour shift, they would have arranged to meet Darius at some point on their route and Darius would get on the bus to relieve him, in uniform. And the passengers of course thought it was just another bus driver taking over. But that that person’s shift still had four hours left but Darius would finish it.
And again. As long as a supervisor wasn’t there no one would know that any crime had been committed.
AP: So he’s done this a lot. He’s only caught thirty something times.
AI: Yeah he claims to have taken over one hundred and fifty buses and I think several hundred trains shifts. In fact he claims at certain points in his life he would have as many as thirty or forty subway conductor shifts a month. So literally every day he was driving.
So another way he would do it would be to just get a uniform either from borrowing one, getting one from someone who retired, or just stealing one from a locker. And he would put on the uniform, go to work, and just give either a phony name or the name of someone that he knew that worked there. And then they would give him a vehicle.
Another way that he did it is he would just find a way to get into a rail yard or train depot by walking along the tracks through an unauthorized area or getting a ride in with someone who worked there. He describes it as once you’re in you’re set. Because when you’re in there no one would question they’re not supposed to be there especially if you know the lingo and you’re wearing the uniform and you look like you know where you’re going.
So once [he was in] Darius would play chess with the guys, he would take a shower. He might look look at the bulletin board to see what union meetings were coming up and he might go to the union meetings.
And so he started to become a regular face at a lot of the big rail hubs like Coney Island–anywhere where it’s like the end of the line where all the trains go to rest. That’s where he would sneak in. And once he was in he could just take a bus and drive it out and no one would suspect that it was stolen. Because you know he could drive it well he would just wave at the guard.
And he also got a lot of keys to things over the years and if you have keys you can get into certain rooms. You can access certain vehicles. So those are the main ways that he did it. He never used force or violence.
It bothers me in the media when they use the term hijack because hijacking is where you usethe threat of violence to commandeer a vehicle that has passengers on it. He never did that. He just essentially did the job of the driver until the job was done and then went home. He never took over a train from an existing driver who didn’t want to give up their control.
AP: Do you have anything else to add?
AI: I noticed in people commenting on seeing my movie that some of them were bothered by the fact that the term Asperger’s was used because it’s not in the DSM IV. They wanted “autism spectrum disorder.” And I even noted some comments online in articles about Darius, “This reporter is an idiot. He’s still using the word Asperger’s. No one uses it anymore.”
AP: Clearly people do.
AI: and I actually think it is clearly related to autism and it is on a spectrum. But I think it should be its own category because it’s different than someone who’s a nonverbal autistic. You just kind of know it when you see it and I don’t see anything wrong with giving it its own designation. I don’t see the harm in that and I don’t see why someone who uses the term should be considered unprofessional or outdated .
AP: I understand why you would not want to use the term [Asperger's] just because there’s a fine line. It’s sort of an arbitrary distinction. But obviously in practical use it does make senseto use the term Asperger’s.
AI: Also, a lot of people who saw the movie just kind of assumed that Asperger’s is a mental illness and I would sort of have to teach them that it’s a neurological disorder
AP: Yeah it’s a developmental disability.
AI: And people who have Asperger’s, assuming all other things are emotionally healthy, do know the difference between right and wrong and should, I believe, be treated like a like a regular criminal if they do know the difference between right and wrong.
Obviously if they’re being approached by a police officer or they’re being arrested I think it’s helpful if a law enforcement officer knew they might respond differently to certain commands. They might get scared or panic or not want to be touched or things like that in a way that might lead to a law enforcement officer to think that they’re resisting.
So that’s important but otherwise in a court of law I think they should be treated the same. So I think it’s important or stand that Darius’s issues in not really getting the law and not being able to stop himself from from the crimes is is really not about his Asperger’s. There are other things that are going on.
And I think that’s something that audiences should should know.
AP: As you said there are so many people on the autism spectrum who like trains and he’s probably the only one that’s doing this.
AI: Yeah. There’s so many people who like trains but don’t steal them. And so when people watch the movie are like “oh poor guy has Asperger’s he can’t help it” I’m like “no. Most people of Asperger’s are perfectly capable of loving something studying it memorizing it and not committing a crime to get more involved with it.”
AP: But you know it’s interesting because I think that a lot of times people on the spectrum are super interested in something and sometimes that gets misinterpreted as being nefarious or being a bad thing. Like, my friend Jack robeson., when he was in high school, he was obsessed with chemistry. So he actually started making explosives and making YouTube videos.
AI: People thought he was a terrorist.
AP: He actually got arrested and faced decades in prison. But he won the case but that was a pretty traumatic event for a teenage kid.
AI: Yeah. Yeah I can imagine. I guess it’s ideal when it’s a topic that no one would suspect you could do anything nefarious with. Like Temple grandin you know. Like no one would think “Oh, she likes designing abattoirs. No one would think she would do it for evil. She’s just obsessed with making the murder of cattle as humane as possible. And that just kind of makes sense to people. But chemistry you can imagine can get misinterpreted as doing stuff from evil.