‘Serial stowaway’: How does a 66-year-old woman keep sneaking on to flights?
Jan 27, 2018-It required a concatenation of foul-ups for Marilyn Hartman to elude security at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and make it all the way to London Heathrow last week without a ticket or a passport. She kept her head down. She hid behind other passengers. Somehow she managed to walk past airport security agents, shuttle bus drivers, and ticketing agents. If she’d managed to sneak onto a domestic flight instead of an international one, she may well have pulled it off.
A few people may well lose their jobs, and a few policies may have to be reviewed. But, make no mistake, Hartman is not some manner of gate-crashing Moriarty. She’s just persistent. Because this is not the first time the 66-year old Chicagoan has managed to fly without a ticket. And it probably won’t be the last.In the US, Hartman is known as the “serial stowaway,” an inveterate sneaker-onto-planes. Her exploits have spawned countless news stories, scads of bad puns (a Chicago judge last week declared her a “flight risk”), and a wall of near-identical lost granny mugshots by now resembling a Warhol diptych.
The techniques that got her into the UK last week mirrored those she’s been practicing since 2009, according to multiple police reports. These include ducking under the velvet ropes, piggybacking her way into small groups, presenting other
people’s boarding passes, or simply answering “yes”, when airport staff ask leading questions such as: “Are you Maria Sandgren?”
These are not sophisticated or even novel procedures and, even before sneaking onto planes, Hartman is often caught by airport workers. The befuddled older white woman, however, is never summarily thrown in jail. The Department of Homeland Security isn’t called and triumphalist press releases about a terror suspect attempting to ferret herself onto a plane are never issued. Instead, Hartman is usually told to get out of line and sit down. And she does. Until she gets up and does it again.
Hartman’s story started in 2014, when she waged a virtual assault on San Francisco international airport, where she attempted to sneak onto half a dozen planes over the course of several months.
She is not, however, just a chancer seeking a free holiday. The reasons why Hartman, a longtime homeless woman, feels compelled to do this, insofar as she can address them, would appear to have more unhappy origins. In 2009, she told police in Hawaii that she’d attempted to masquerade as another woman and board a plane because “she really wanted to get off the island”. And yet, in 2014, she told San Francisco cops that she needed to secret herself onto a plane to Hawaii; she worried she had cancer and “wanted to go to a warm place and die” (Hartman didn’t have cancer).
While researching a lengthy 2015 article about Hartman and her unusual preoccupations, I found arrest records dating back to 2009 documenting her attempts to sneak onto airplanes. During this time, Marilyn Hartman called me—frequently. There were collect calls from jails and then rambling cellphone conversations from buses and libraries and Chicago streets and halfway houses.
These monologues described a conspiratorial worldview in which every passing glance from a fellow transit passenger or store patron was an indicator of a vast illuminati dedicated to a decades-long mission of harassing Marilyn Jean Hartman. Mysterious individuals left her tickets to various locales and airport officials let her use them, only to pounce later. It was all part of the plan to hound her into vagrancy and, per Hartman, it went up to the very top (“For 25 years, Barack Obama knew about my case and all that went wrong when the ruling came down against me, but chose not to do the right thing,” she claimed in one email.)
Eventually, Hartman stopped responding to my calls and emails. Before cutting off contact, however, she claimed to be suffering from “whistleblower trauma syndrome,” a self-diagnosed condition not found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This condition, Hartman claims, induces her with a very literal “fight or flight” reaction: “I feel the need to get on a plane to go away,” she said.
A generation ago, people tried to pull stuff like this more frequently. Back in 2015 , Jeffrey Price, a professor of aviation management at Denver’s Metropolitan State University, told me that distracting the agent at the gate and sneaking your friends onto the plane used to be de rigueur among cheap college kids looking to economise. Airports were vastly different places prior to 9/11, after all.
On that note, for those worrying about what a 66-year-old woman’s ability to elude the system says about our terror readiness, Price has one word for you: don’t.
Hartman managed to make a lot of people look foolish and took a $2,400 flight for free. But that’s not a security issue. That’s a business issue. Hartman is not Jackie Chan. She is not going to take down a flight with her bare hands. And while she managed to get past security without a boarding pass or passport, she was screened for weapons—and, presumably, nail files and tubes of ointment—like everyone else.
Her secret weapon is revealed by that wall of mug shots: Hartman is an aging and grandmotherly white woman who blends into crowds and does not make airport figures nervous. It is impossible to conceive of a younger person of, say, Middle Eastern origin, being treated so innocuously at the airport after being caught in the midst of sneaky behaviour. It is also impossible to conceive of such a person being allowed to do this again and again and again with minimal repercussions.
But that’s what’s happened to Hartman. Despite her claims that the vast army of shadow agents plotting against her are setting her up for some manner of lengthy punishment she is, repeatedly, freed by well-meaning judges and told not to misbehave again. She often promises to do just that—before breaking those pledges within days or even hours.
Marilyn Jean Hartman hasn’t really revealed serious weaknesses in airport security. But she has shined the light on a justice system ill-equipped to handle mentally-ill rule-breakers who don’t present a serious threat to themselves or others. In state after state, public defenders successfully argue jail is not the solution for her problems. In state after state, she’s released and sent to homeless services she finds filthy and unacceptable. She bounces, quickly, and the cycle begins anew.
There is not a battalion of aging, white-haired women inundating our nation’s friendly skies. But there are legions of mentally ill homeless people, many of them older and unwell, wandering the streets of every large American city. And not only do we not do all that much to help them—we don’t even know how.
And that is the real tragedy of Marilyn Hartman.
—©2018 The Guardian
Published: 27-01-2018 08:26