Atlantic Cities

The People Who Steal Transit Buses

The People Who Steal Transit Buses
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The trial of transit super-thief Darius McCollum begins next month in Queens. McCollum has compiled a record of 27 arrests in about 30 years for the illegal operation of subway trains and transit buses in the New York City area. His first effort was conducting an E train to the World Trade Center back in 1981. His latest caper, for which he awaits trial, was stealing a Trailways bus from Hoboken in August of 2010.

The Hoboken bus is hardly an outlier. McCollum has reportedly slid behind the wheel of about 150 buses in the past decade. "That's why I love the city so much — so many trains, so many buses," he's said. "I don't know what to do with myself." McCollum's lawyers intend to argue that his obsession with transit theft is not malicious but rather an unavoidable result of Asperger’s syndrome. Jeff Tietz wrote a sympathetic profile of McCollum for the May 2002 issue of Harper's [PDF].

Darius McCollum may be prince of all transit thieves, but the bus-stealing band of merry men has a long history of its own. A brief survey of major newspaper reports dating back to World War II shows that swiping a city bus — often for no apparent reason — is a pretty popular urban pastime. Here's a brief look at ten of the most interesting heists to take place from the 1940s up through the early years of McCollum's career:

White Plains
via New York Times, 19 Feb 1943
An unidentified man took a 20-passenger bus from the White Plains line, just outside of New York City, while it sat at a garage awaiting repair. He drove at "break-neck speed" along the regular 7-mile route, cruising past passengers who tried to flag down the bus in vain. The bus was found 2 hours later parked in a bus terminal at the New York Central rail station; witnesses saw the driver leave the bus and make a mad dash for the train.

Manhattan
via Washington Post (U.P.), 12 Nov 1948
In an attempt to make some "fast" cash, if you will, someone stole an Eighth Avenue bus and drove it along the regular route for 5 hours collecting fares and passengers. He paid little attention to red lights and "set an all-time speed record for the Eighth ave. run," according to the Times. The driver eventually abandoned the bus at 2 a.m. shortly after sideswiping one taxi at 47th Street then another four blocks later. All told he took home $15 in fares — "twice as much as the union scale for five hours' work" — before fleeing into a subway station.

Santa Monica
via Los Angeles Times, 23 Nov 1948
A man who stole a Greyhound bus from a Santa Monica depot found himself trapped in Santa Monica Canyon neighborhood, unable to turn the vehicle around. At 4 a.m. a resident of the neighborhood named Jay Robinson went outside to hear the commotion. Finally the thief gave up and told Robinson: "You'd better call the depot." Robinson did, but by the time he came back outside the drive had fled the scene.

Manhattan
via New York Times, 23 Feb 1950
In early February a longshoreman named John Maione forced 20 passengers and a driver off a bus at knifepoint on Broadway and 53rd Street. Evidently drunk, Maione only reached Times Square before being caught. He was arrested and taken to Bellevue Hospital where he was pronounced sane, though a chronic alcoholic. At a sentencing in April, where he received up to 2 years in prison, the judge told Maione "apparently without liquor you are a peaceable man, but otherwise, the only place for you is in the Sahara Desert."

Queens
via New York Times, 8 June 1951
A man stole a bus from the Triboro Coach Company garage, in Woodside, Queens, at about 4 a.m., then crashed it into three parked cars in Jackson Heights. Bernard Gryzbowski, an official driver from the company saw the abandoned bus and pulled over. When he did, the thief took Gryzbowski's bus. Gryzbowski hopped into a taxi and followed the bus but lost it in traffic in Manhattan. It was found on Broome Street two hours later. The Times headline read: "He Just Loves Buses."

Inglewood
via Los Angeles Times, 6 Aug 1959
A 22-year-old named Robert Harold Patrick stole a bus from the Los Angeles transit authority at 54th Street and Crenshaw Boulevard while the driver was using a restroom. Patrick gunned the bus to 55 m.p.h. and ran a red light before crashing into a service shed 2 miles later. "I was in a hurry to get some place," Patrick told police. "I don't know where."

Washington, D.C.
via Washington Post, 13 Mar 1966
An unnamed 12-year-old boy stole a 35-foot Greyhound bus in early March and drove it 30 miles out of the city. The kid told police he studied manuals on bus driving for a year before making the theft. It was his third appearance in front of a juvenile judge — in fact, he was out on probation for stealing a Volkswagen when he took the bus — and he was compelled to check into a treatment clinic for disturbed youths in Maryland.

Salisbury (Maryland)
via Baltimore Sun, 21 Oct 1979
An unidentified person swiped a Trailways bus from the company's parking lot after 11 p.m. on a Friday night — finding the door unlocked and the keys inside. The thief smashed through a six-foot fence to leave the lot then drove 2 miles before crashing into Erma Donoway's chicken coop, killing 25 chickens in the process. Police believe whoever drove the bus couldn't get it into reverse after hitting the hen house, and decided to abandon the scene on foot.

Harrisburg
via Los Angeles Times (U.P.I.), 24 Mar 1983
An 18-year-old named Columbus Mathis Jr. stole a Greyhound bus in Scranton, Pennsylvania, then led police on an 80-mile nighttime chase along Interstate 81. Police fired at the bus, which Mathis was driving without its headlights on, in an effort to disable it. They blasted the tires then blew out the windows and followed up by firing tear gas into the vehicle. Mathis ran off the highway at 4:30 a.m., about 10 miles north of Harrisburg, and was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Queens
via Los Angeles Times (U.P.I.), 5 Feb 1987
John Gillespie of Queens, a 26-year-old who took a New York City bus on an early morning joy ride, unwittingly tripped an emergency switch that flashed a message on the bus's destination sign reading "CALL POLICE!" A Nassau County cop stopped the driver just outside the city limits. "This guy apparently triggered it by accident and didn't know it was going off," the cop told reporters.

Top image: JEO/ Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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