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The Woman Who Smuggled Herself

Inside the endless gate-crashing saga of “serial stowaway” Marilyn Hartman.

The future Ms. Hartman, Class of 1969.

The future Ms. Hartman, Class of 1969.


UPDATED JULY 6, 2015: Last Thursday evening, July 2, "serial stowaway" Marilyn Hartman walked free out of the Chicago-area jail where she'd spent two months for trespassing at Midway and O'Hare Airports. The following day, Friday, Hartman was removed from a New York-bound flight at Midway. She had purchased a ticket, but she was kicked off the flight for allegedly creating a disturbance, and was charged with a misdemeanor count of reckless conduct. On Saturday, she was arrested again, this time for loitering at O'Hare, and charged with criminal trespassing and violating the terms of the bond she was given only one day earlier. She is now back at the same lockup she walked out of last week.

UPDATED JANUARY 22, 2018: And she's done it again—this time in London.

 

The telephone rings and a disembodied voice announces a collect call from a Florida correctional facility. Marilyn Jean Hartman wants to talk. And she’s not happy. “I’m in redneck country,” she blurts. For Hartman, jail is jail, and she’s experienced more than a few. But Florida is something else. “They have very Christian values,” she says. “People here don’t worry about justice on Earth; they’ll get justice in heaven. It’s very scary.”

Hartman’s calling in mid-April from the Nassau County jail, a few miles south of the Georgia border, where she is, yet again, facing our peculiar form of terrestrial justice. She is awaiting her fate at the hands of Nassau County Court Judge Wesley Poole, who will, only days later, dismiss without prejudice charges of fraud and trespassing and set Hartman free. The 63-year-old with the grandmotherly mien and the white bob haircut will subsequently be escorted onto a plane to Chicago, where she will be arrested, incarcerated, and released multiple times following a predictable spate of incursions upon that city’s airports. And so will continue a bewildering, years-long odyssey for Hartman, who has made a perplexing habit of pinballing around the country in search of something that she herself cannot quite articulate.

What Hartman is hoping to accomplish each of the many times she attempts to sneak aboard a flight is the headline-grabbing mystery of the woman now internationally known as the Serial Stowaway. “All I wanted to do was go to Hawaii,” she told San Francisco cops after being nabbed on a plane at San Francisco International Airport last year without a boarding pass. She told the authorities that she feared she had cancer and just “wanted to go to a warm place and die.” But Hartman later said she does not have cancer. Nor does she particularly want to end up in Hawaii; several years earlier, she was busted sneaking onto a flight in Hawaii, telling the arresting cop that “she really wanted to get off the island.” The sad truth is that the Serial Stowaway doesn’t seem to know where she’s headed, or why.

In a series of phone calls and emails from jails, public libraries, and points in between in Florida and Illinois, Hartman parries questions about her life history, her mental health, and her motives with soliloquies regarding a vast conspiracy that she claims compels her to sneak onto planes. The goal of this plot is to set her up for lengthy incarceration and punishment—and yet, paradoxically, her persecutors repeatedly allow her to escape lengthy incarceration and punishment, so that she may attempt to sneak onto planes again and again. She sees no contradiction in this: “I have been allowed on the plane by people working at the airport,” she tells me. They’re in on it. So many people are: leering onlookers on public transit, ingratiating jailhouse snitches, President Obama. It goes far. It goes wide.

Hartman is a slow and methodical talker; she seems, at times, to be as amazed as her interviewer by her tales of massive, improbable cover-ups. “I know how crazy it sounds,” she says more than once. A March injunction issued by the Alameda County Superior Court barred her from loitering at Oakland International Airport; that document reveals that Hartman had attempted to breach airport security at least 18 times nationwide (within weeks, she’d be arrested at two more airports). She knows how bad this looks. But, she insists, it’s supposed to look bad. That’s how they planned it. The less evidence there is for Hartman’s wild claims, the more she insists upon the terrifying ability of her tormentors to make solid proof disappear. That’s how the Serial Stowaway sees things.

All of this, Hartman says, traces back to a 1990 incident in Chicago—she says she called out a lawyer who rigged cases with a retired FBI agent, leading to her own “case” being rigged. Hartman claims that the ensuing years of retribution forced her into vagrancy; the hardship left her afflicted with a condition that she calls “whistle-blower trauma syndrome.” The malady, which is self-diagnosed and not to be found in the psychiatric literature, induces in Hartman a “fight or flight” reaction. And, time and again, she’s driven to literally do the latter: “I feel the need to get on a plane to go away.”

Dozens of times in the last six years, Hartman has been apprehended in and around U.S. airports, aboard planes, and while sleeping on random benches or in random driveways. She has repeatedly flouted stay-away orders seeking to bar her from airports, sometimes only hours after they were issued. These incidents—there were six at SFO alone—morphed Hartman from an anonymous, harmless transient into a media folk hero and Internet meme: “‘Infamous Serial Stowaway’ Marilyn Jean Hartman Strikes Again,” blared the Washington Post in February. “How does this serial stowaway keep doing it?” pondered USA Today in May. Hartman’s repetition, eccentricity, and forthrightness about her bizarre compulsion render her an addictive, even entertaining subject. Yet the blanket coverage and oft-flippant tone (“Oops! She did it again!”) obscure a darker, sadder story.

An inch-thick dossier amassed by San Francisco reveals that Hartman’s saga has lasted far longer and featured far more locales than was previously reported. That stack of legal documents and incident reports traces the Chicagoan’s path from the City of the Big Shoulders to Hawaii, to the Pacific Northwest, back to Hawaii, to Southern California, back to the Pacific Northwest, to Northern California, the Southwest, the Twin Cities, and the Southeast, and, finally, back to Chicago.

All throughout this endless misadventure, Hartman has perceived the long arm of her oppressors. They are present in the actions of seemingly incompetent TSA agents, fellow homeless women rifling her things, and random daytime computer users at the public library. Yet despite claims of a vast, overarching conspiracy, in Hartman’s more candid moments, an aging, solitary woman’s weariness is all too clear: “They just hope I kill myself or act out against society,” she moans. “Goodbye, cruel world.”

Though the facts can elicit guffaws and the carousel of near-identical lost-grandma mug shots makes for dependable Internet comedy, this is not a pleasant narrative. Hartman’s stories are all sad ones. Yet, surely, someone knows what drives her, again and again, to take flight. Someone must understand her. Someone has to be able to help. At the conclusion of a typical “Serial Stowaway” evening news segment, the golden-throated anchor will earnestly intone that Hartman suffers from mental illness—which Hartman will readily tell you is true. But then the newsman will add, “and she has no family.” And that, Hartman will eventually admit, is not true.

 

While being booked following an arrest, Hartman often claims to be alone in this world. This April, Nassau County public defenders, like those in the many municipalities where she’s waded into the criminal justice system, couldn’t turn up any family. If they had, they would have likely sprung for a one-way bus ticket. But Hartman’s stories, even basic ones, tend to tangle into a morass. Her claim that a government-orchestrated conspiracy precludes her flying under her own name is belied by the one thing Jacksonville authorities can confirm: On April 14, Hartman bought a ticket to Chicago on the debit card she has said is replenished monthly with $849 in Social Security payments.

Why return to her hometown? It’s unclear, but Hartman, in the course of a phone call from Chicago’s downtown library, tells me that she has family nearby: Ken, Randy, and Jim Stall, whom she describes as her brothers. All three men were called in hopes of fleshing out the details of Hartman’s upbringing, adulthood, and struggles with mental instability. These were not pleasant conversations.

Neither Ken, of Lake Bluff, Illinois, nor Randy, of Naperville, would explain their relationship with the woman who calls them brothers (Jim didn’t return multiple calls). “Uh, I’m going to decline to answer that,” said Ken. “She’s somebody who changed her family name, and she’s off on her own out there.” He would say that the family grew up in “the steel mill district” of South Chicago, where Marilyn graduated from Chicago Vocational High School in 1969 (the yearbook reports that she was a member of the National Honor Society, a mixed-chorus singer, and an office aide). Hartman hasn’t been a part of Ken’s life for years, since around 1970 or ’75, he estimates. But “even then, there was not a lot of interaction. She’s been out of so many people’s lives for just decades. I would guess there hasn’t been any contact for something like 20 years. If not more. She’s kind of like a ghost.”

Even to her (ostensible) family, Hartman is little more than an evening news novelty. The paper trail suggests she vacated a Chicago apartment in 1990 and another in 2000. She abandoned a San Diego flat in 2013 after eviction papers were filed. And starting with a 2009 arrest for attempting to fly out of Hawaii while posing as another woman, she began amassing a criminal history and a series of Mona Lisa–smile mug shots. The first six decades of her existence are as mysterious as that vexing expression.

Records from Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago reveal that Marilyn Stall changed her name to Hartman in 1985, but Randy said he had no interest in explaining why, or discussing her at all: “She’s the world traveler. She’ll be able to give you the most information. I don’t want to take this any further. Let’s close the book on this.” He didn’t quite close the book, though: “She knows how to work the system,” he said. “If she wanted something, I’m sure she could get it.”

But before San Francisco was able to ask Hartman about all of the missing years in her bio, she cut off all contact (“Some things were never meant to be and I do not want to hurt anyone who cares about my welfare,” she wrote me in what turned out to be her parting words). Intermittently housed in a Cook County jail throughout the spring, she ignored further entreaties to speak. The cell number that she’s used in the past now shunts callers directly to voicemail. She’s become a ghost again.

 

”The criminal justice system,” says University of San Francisco law professor Robert Talbot, “is not very good at handling mental problems that aren’t severe. It’s set up for crime and punishment.”

Hartman’s story, in this way at least, is a typical one. Again and again, arresting officers have concluded that the coherent, polite older woman (“I don’t really want to get anyone in trouble,” she told a San Francisco cop when asked about how she eluded TSA and airline personnel) wasn’t a candidate for the 72-hour “5150” mental health detention essentially reserved for people who are threatening harm to themselves or others.

That’s a 180-degree shift from several decades ago, when, as UC Berkeley and UCSF psychology and psychiatry professor Stephen Hinshaw puts it, “you could get someone into a mental hospital against their will with two paragraphs from a psychologist and a judge’s order.” Heaps of case law enacted in the ensuing years ensures that the Marilyn Hartmans of the world will be free to keep doing whatever it is they feel compelled to do. “This is a great civil right,” Hinshaw says. But he feels it’s also a Catch-22: “The people who might need help the most cannot get it.”

The Hartman canon, in fact, contains numerous small acts of leniency and compassion by law-enforcement officials. In Seattle, where Hartman in 2013 attempted to enter a plane using someone else’s boarding pass (a tactic she also deployed in 2009 in Hawaii and last year at SFO), police denoted her offense as “mental instability.” She was escorted to the light rail station, and no charges were filed. Police in San Francisco gave her BART tickets and a ride back to her SRO hotel room after admonishing her at the airport. The cop who in 2010 caught Hartman—then a reentry student at the University of Hawaii—dozing “on top of the giant chair” in front of a Kauai furniture store politely suggested that she visit a nearby shelter. Last March, an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy intercepted Hartman shambling along Oakland’s Airport Drive in the wee hours. She told him she intended to “get” a ticket to Hawaii. “I asked Hartman if she had any money and she showed me $4,” the deputy wrote in the subsequent incident report. “I asked her if she believed $4 would be sufficient to buy a ticket to go to Hawaii. Hartman said, ‘You’re right. You’re right. I’ll just go back to the BART station.’” The deputy drove her to the Coliseum BART station. It was closed, so he drove her to Broadway and 14th Streets, where she caught the 800 bus back to the city.

These minor acts of kindness by frontline officers can’t mitigate the actions—or, more accurately, nonactions—of the justice system writ large. Like many mentally ill people who are neither violent nor outwardly unstable, Hartman is treated with a sort of benign neglect. Even faced with a rap sheet that grows longer by the month, few municipalities see fit to throw the book at a harmless older white woman. But, without Hartman’s participation—which she can withdraw in the time it takes to hop a cab to the airport—there’s next to nothing that can be done to truly help her. Especially if she doesn’t want anybody’s help.

“She did not qualify as having a major mental illness,” says San Mateo County district attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who could have all but installed a revolving door in the county jail for Hartman during her 2014 assault on SFO. Documents reveal that Hartman has been listed as having depression and post-traumatic stress disorder—but all that qualified her for was compassionate gestures. “We were feeling sympathy for this woman,” the DA continues. “Let’s put her on probation. We let her go off to a home here in Redwood City where they can take in people who have mental health issues. She was there two days and she walked out. She didn’t like it.”

It wasn’t the first time. Hartman has fled voluntary treatment facilities around the nation. When she absconded from Redwood City last spring, however, she was violating probation. “We found her very quickly,” Wagstaffe says with a wan chuckle. “She doesn’t run and she doesn’t hide.” Hartman has been described in official documents as “extremely polite” by officers apprehending her for a bevy of crimes. But here “the other side of her came out,” the DA says. “She cursed the probation officer, who said she was just trying to help. And, with obscene language, [Hartman] said she doesn’t want anybody’s help.”

Not long thereafter, Hartman violated probation again. On August 4 of last year, she told police in Los Angeles that she’d chosen to travel from San Jose International Airport since it would “be easier” there to sneak onto a plane—which was, demonstrably, the case. Wagstaffe says L.A. prosecutors hinted that Hartman could be sent north after violating probation. But no dice: “With good humor, we said to them, ‘Yeah. She’s in L.A. now,’” he recalls. “Good luck and God bless.”

Depression and PTSD, by the way, don’t readily explain Hartman’s airport obsession—or her conspiratorial worldview. “There are many conditions that lead to delusional, psychotic thinking,” says Hinshaw, whom we asked to speculate on diagnoses for Hartman, although they’ve never met. “Schizophrenia, sometimes severe bipolar disorder, sometimes very traumatic reactions in PTSD lead to some sort of obsessional behavior. But it’s not the norm for any of the conditions I just mentioned.” He sighs. “This is a diagnostic puzzle.”

It’s a legal puzzle, too. Last summer Hartman was sentenced to six months of jail time in Los Angeles shortly after that clandestine flight from San Jose. Within days, however, she was released due to facility overcrowding. She was left, as ever, to her own devices. Her national tour began anew.

 

Prior to Hartman, the last stowaway to amuse the nation by sneaking onto a plane was Charles McKinley. He was the New York savant who, in 2003, mailed himself to his parents’ Dallas-area home. He was busted when, inexplicably, he emerged from the crate in the presence of a deliveryman. But most stowaway stories do not end so humorously. The Federal Aviation Administration reports a fatality rate of roughly 80 percent on stowaway attempts in airplane landing gear—and those are just the instances in which a body was recovered. The perimeter fences of even first-world airports have proved to be alarmingly permeable. In April of last year a 15-year-old boy miraculously survived a San Jose–to–Maui flight in a wheel well. In 2012, a state-of-the-art perimeter detection system at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was breached by a stranded jet-skier who hopped a fence and ambled across two runways.

Hartman’s repeated foiling of TSA screeners and airline personnel hardly inspires public confidence in aviation oversight. For those predisposed to distrust government supervision of our airports, she is living proof of widespread ineptitude. Jeffrey Price, a professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University of Denver, offers a different reading, though: Hartman’s antics, he says, present “a very minor security issue.” Yes, she sneaked past distracted guards into places she wasn’t supposed to be. But she never did so without being screened; at no known point did Hartman ever lug any contraband through an airport. This isn’t a safety issue, Price says. It’s a procedural one.

It’s also a throwback to the golden age of sneaking onto planes. In the pre-9-11 days, “it was actually pretty easy,” says Price. People would buy plane tickets and hawk them in newspaper classified sections; nobody checked your ID at the gate. Price had college buddies who economized on their vacations by chipping in on one ticket and then having the buyer distract the gate agent while everyone else sneaked through. Hartman’s success rate is low, and her methods aren’t innovative. What’s exceptional, Price concludes, “is she’s doing this in this day and age.”

Still, he says more than half seriously, the TSA could do worse than employing Hartman to test screeners’ mettle. “But it’s not like the hacker industry, where you hack into the FBI database and they hire you.” At the end of the day, what truly impresses air security experts and makes the Serial Stowaway an object of media fascination isn’t Hartman’s methodology. It’s her all-American tenacity.

 

Perhaps it was inevitable that Hartman would find her way to Florida, the nation’s curio shop and greatest repository of weirdness. It took this February visit, which ended at the Nassau County jail, for Hartman’s tale to achieve reality-TV transcendence. That was when she managed to convince the driver of a Jacksonville airport shuttle transporting guests to the elite Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort that she was a guest named Maria Sandgren; she would subsequently check in to a $300-a-night villa under the same fake name. Sandgren, however, is quite a real person and was a participant in the Biggest Loser Resort program. Hartman was eventually discovered, Goldilocks- style, in a room she shouldn’t have been in. Her arresting officer concluded his report with this caveat: “It should be noted that while interviewing Ms. Hartman, she advised that she traveled from Minnesota to Jacksonville on a flight with no boarding pass or airline ticket.”

Hartman told me, however, that she flew to Jacksonville from Nashville, where “someone left a flight ticket” to Florida. All of this, she says, constituted a sinister conspiracy. She was plagued by a snitch cellmate looking to “set up a celebrity case.” Her lawyers, she said, would railroad her into lengthy incarceration: “They are going to put me into a nuthouse very soon. I will be locked up.”

That’s Hartman’s mantra. But it never comes to pass. Prosecutor after prosecutor and judge after judge have apparently deemed that Hartman’s mere existence is already a life sentence. And so, her Nassau County public defenders, in a rather inspired bit of lawyering, managed to have Hartman’s felony fraud charge reduced to a misdemeanor before getting their client declared mentally unstable and freed outright. But, in Hartman’s eyes, this too was part of the dark plan. After her charges were dismissed and she was released, key cards to the Omni resort magically materialized in her purse: “Those were not in there when I was arrested.”

And so, before unseen hands could do her any more wrong, Hartman walked right out of the homeless shelter at the First Assembly of God church in Fernandina Beach, which her public defenders had driven her to, and caught the first cab she could back to Jacksonville. And this left Pastor Ed Shick, the proprietor of the church and homeless shelter, sorely disappointed. “Someone told me she flew all over the world for free,” he says. “Isn’t that amazing? I wanted to meet her and find out how she did it. I always did want to go to Italy and Germany.”

On May 7 in Cook County, a bewildered Judge William Raines peered down from the bench at the woman before him and posited the question to which nobody has yet formulated an answer. “Ms. Hartman,” he said, “what am I supposed to do?”

But some questions don’t have answers. Marilyn Jean Hartman’s life is in a holding pattern. She just wants to fly. Period. And she’ll try again, and again, and again, until she’s grounded. For good.

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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