She's been arrested more than 20 times, banned from airports across the US and fitted with an ankle bracelet to monitor her movements – but it seems nothing can stop her many flights of fancy.
Marilyn Hartman has jetted to many a sought-after destination – including Paris and Copenhagen – without coughing up a cent. Her modus operandi includes sneaking into planes without a ticket, passport or boarding pass and pretending to be accompanying other groups of passengers.
And because she looks like a harmless granny, she has managed to successfully fly under the radar for the past two decades.
Marilyn (69) has fooled the US Transportation Security Authority (TSA) at least 30 times, once making it as far as London before being sent back by British immigration authorities when she couldn’t produce a passport.
She was back in the news again recently when she was bust trying to board a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International, breaking a court order that barred her from setting foot in the airport. Authorities charged her with trespassing and violating a court order and for now at least it seems her days of flying for free have ground to a halt.
Marilyn was dubbed “the serial stowaway” by the US media after her plane-hopping exploits first surfaced in 2014 and she’s become something of a celebrity for managing to buck the system. Aviation authorities, however, can find nothing to celebrate.
The fact she has boarded so many planes illegally has highlighted serious weaknesses in security – particularly in post-9/11 America where airport clampdowns were seriously beefed up.
Yet Marilyn’s behaviour has less to do with wanderlust and more to do with mental illness. Her legal team paints a picture of a deeply troubled woman who doesn’t deserve to be kept behind bars.
A homeless loner, she can’t pay her R100 000 bail and will likely remain in custody until her trial starts later this year.
Experts say she needs medical help and not time behind bars. “The criminal justice system is not very good at handling mental problems that aren’t severe,” says Robert Talbot, a law professor at the University of San Francisco. “It’s set up for crime and punishment.”
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Marilyn first made headlines when she was arrested at San Francisco International Airport on 15 February 2014 after boarding a plane to Hawaii without a ticket.
“I was just let through,” she recalls.
She was apprehended when a passenger pointed out she was occupying their seat but released after police interviewed her. Three days later, she was arrested at the same airport when she tried to pass through a security gate.
Two days later she was back at the airport and arrested again after she was found trying to board a plane with a discarded boarding pass.
But these accounts tell only part of her story, as Marylin claims she’d been flying under the radar for 12 years before authorities caught on to her. “The first time I was able to get through I flew to Copenhagen,” she says.
“The second time I flew into Paris.”
The more she got away with it, the bigger the risks she took. In 2015 she was charged with fraud and trespassing in Jacksonville, Florida, after checking into a hotel using someone else’s name. Each time she was arrested, she was let off the hook with a warning and sent to a halfway house.
Marylin has often claimed she has no family, but an investigation by San Francisco magazine reveals she grew up in the steel mill district of South Chicago. She graduated from Chicago Vocational High School in 1969 and according to her yearbook, was a member of the National Honor Society, a mixed-chorus singer and an office aide.
She has three brothers – Ken, Randy and Jim Stall – but they haven’t seen her since 1970. “She’s been out of so many people’s lives for decades. Even then, there was not a lot of interaction,” Ken says.
“She’s kind of like a ghost.”
In 1985 Marylin, a former legal secretary, changed her last name from Stall to Hartman but brother Randy won’t say why. “She’s the world traveller,” he says.
“She’ll be able to give you the most information.”
Much of Marylin’s adult life has been spent drifting from women’s shelters and motels to sleeping on the streets. She claims she was forced out of her home by the FBI as part of a vast government-orchestrated conspiracy against her.
This, she says, often sparks a fight-or-flight response in her. “I feel the need to get on a plane to go away,” she says.
Following yet another arrest in 2015 – this time in Florida – Marylin was declared incompetent to stand trial by a team of forensic psychologists, who diagnosed her as bipolar. But in a recent interview, the ticketless traveller played down her mental health problems.
“I know they keep emphasising the mental illness. Law enforcement would like to have that but uhm no, I’m pretty good.”
Over the past few years, she’s been arrested for repeatedly breaking airport bans by being in and around airports, aboard planes or sleeping on benches near airports.
Marylin’s huge mugshot collection has spawned several internet memes and her travel transgressions have left many wondering how exactly a pensioner could con airline officials for so long.
Those who have followed her story say her success lies in her ability to evade authorities by blending into a crowd. It helps that she looks like a grandmotherly white woman who couldn’t hurt a fly.
Typically, she slips through security checkpoints by trailing behind airport staff, sneaking into secure areas when people are distracted and boarding planes with discarded boarding passes.
“The genius of her mode of operation is in its simplicity,” American aviation expert Jeff Price says. “It’s the unsophisticated types of plans that are often the most successful.”
Jeff, former head of security at Denver International Airport, has called on the TSA to use Marylin’s case to train new agents. “They should have a curriculum designed around how she’s able to get through security.”
Until her recent arrest, she’d been living in a housing facility where she was electronically monitored with an ankle bracelet.
The US judicial system, which has always been reluctant to jail a woman who blames her flying obsession on mental illness, seems finally to have lost patience with Marylin.
The judge presiding over her latest case has made it clear she can expect to serve time behind bars.
But her lawyer, Parle Roe-Taylor, says Marylin is a non-violent person who hasn’t shown to be a risk to others. “Unfortunately, relapse is part of what happens sometimes during treatment,” Parle says.
“Relapses must be addressed through treatment – not punitively.”
SOURCES: Dailymail.com, cnn.com, chicagocbslocal.com, sfgate.com, nypost.com, nytimes