As It Happens

Chicago's 'Serial Stowaway' deemed fit to stand trial after sneaking onto London flight

Marilyn Hartman has successfully flown to at least two destinations without a ticket, but now she'll face a judge for her most recent jaunt.

66-year-old Marilyn Hartman is homeless and lives with mental illness

Marilyn Hartman is pictured in this January photo from the Chicago Police Department. Hartman, dubbed a 'serial stowaway,' was ordered released from jail on July 18 and determined fit to stand trial. (Chicago Police Department via AP)
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Marilyn Hartman, a homeless woman with mental illness who has repeatedly boarded flights without a ticket or a passport, has been deemed fit to stand trial. 

The 66-year-old woman — known as the "serial stowaway" — has been caught and arrested for the sneaking onto planes several times, but never faced serious criminal repercussions until this year.

"Nobody wants to throw the book at somebody who's obviously not well and is an aging, grandmotherly white woman," journalist Joe Eskenazi, who has written about Hartman's journeys for San Fransisco Magazinetold As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch.

That changed in January, however, when Hartman's most recent jaunt — a return flight from Chicago to London, England — landed her in jail after she was arrested at Heathrow airport.

She was later released on bond with an ankle bracelet, despite protests by the Cook County Sheriff's office. 

On Wednesday, Illinois circuit court judge Maura Slattery Boyle deemed Hartman fit to stand trial. 

Marilyn Hartman has tried repeatedly, with some success, to board airplanes without a boarding pass or security clearance at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. (Bob Strong/Reuters)

While the intrigue of the case has lent itself to light-hearted news coverage, including Hartman's nickname, Eskenazi said her story is emblematic of a growing problem is the United States.

"If you take out the novelty of someone crashing airplanes, you instead just have a mentally ill, aging homeless woman with little to no resources," he said.

"That's not funny. That's ubiquitous. That's our national shame."

'Low-tech' tactics

Hartman's strategies for evading security and ticket agents are by no means sophisticated.

"This is exceedingly low-tech and it [has an] exceedingly high failure rate," Eskenazi said.

British Airways planes are parked at Heathrow Airport in London, England. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

Her tactics, he said, are similar to sneaking into a nightclub — ducking under ropes and digging boarding passes out of garbage bins have allowed her to avoid scrutiny.

She also responds to calls by boarding agents.

"If there's a courtesy call where they say, 'Jean Smith, come to the white area,' she will come to the white area," Eskenazi said, citing police reports.

While there are only two confirmed cases of Hartman successfully boarding a plane and arriving at her destination, she has made "scores" of attempts in the past, he said.

Police 'exceedingly kind'

Forensic psychologist Mathew Markos testified in the Illinois court that Hartman suffered from "depression" and "delusion."

However, in conversations with police, she has been aware of the fact that she doesn't have the means to fly, Eskenazi said.

In this Aug. 13, 2014, file photo, Hartman appears in court in Los Angeles after attempting to board several flights illegally. (Brittany Murray/Associated Press)

Police have been "exceedingly kind" to Hartman, he added, once even driving her to a local train station.

"If a young person of colour was doing these things, I'm sure the police would be called, if not the FBI," Eskenazi said. "She's caught again and again and again, but there's never a serious charge."

Hartman's support system is small. Eskenazi said he knows of only one friend, who also reportedly has delusions. She is estranged from her Chicago-based brothers.

Inadequate care for aging people

After her arrest, Hartman began receiving treatment for her mental health and is currently at a treatment facility in Chicago.

"Her conditions are all in remission," Markos told the court. "Hartman is presently medically fit — with medications."

Care like this is necessary to make sure that Hartman doesn't reoffend, Eskanazi said.

"Anything less ... is a surefire failure," he said.

Ultimately, this isn't just the story of one elderly woman, Eskenazi said.

Aging people living on the streets are a "horrifying feature of American life," he said.

"And we don't adequately care for them."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Joe Eskenazi produced by Jeanne Armstrong.