Serial Stowaway Marilyn Hartman Needs Help

Marilyn Hartman, a 69-year-old homeless woman, has been making headlines for the past decade for boarding planes illegally. She’s known as America’s “serial stowaway,” hopping from one plane to the next, magically passing security as if she were wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Her free trips include flights to London, Seattle, San Francisco, and Paris.

Marilyn Hartman / Marilyn Hartman / TSA Inspection / Marilyn Hartman.
Source: YouTube

Hartman has been arrested on multiple occasions, and it seems like it’s the same narrative every time – either she’s let off with a warning, or the judge rules that she’s “too crazy” to stand trial.

“I know [law enforcement] keep emphasizing the mental illness, but umm… no, I’m just pretty good,” Hartman chuckled as she spoke to investigator Brad Edwards in 2019.

What’s the deal with Hartman? And where is she now?

Catch Me if You Can

“The first time I was able to get through, I flew to Copenhagen,” Hartman told reporter Brad Edwards; and “the second time I flew into Paris.” According to Hartman, she has boarded around 30 flights in her impressively sneaky stowaway career. The incredible part is, she has never boarded by herself. She was always casually led to the plane by an airport staff worker.

A mug shot of Marilyn Hartman.
Source: Tumblr

In February 2014, she was caught for the very first time. It happened at San Francisco’s International Airport. Ticketless and cool as a cucumber, Hartman made it through security and confidently boarded a plane bound for Hawaii. When the person whose seat she was occupying arrived, the jig was up.

The police interviewed her, but Hartman’s innocent, baffled look had the cops saying, “oh well, just don’t do that again.”

She Did It Again

2014 was a wicked year for Hartman. Beginning in February, the serial stowaway kept creeping into the airport and getting kicked out, time and time again. She was caught at the security gate, or with a discarded boarding pass, or eating in the terminal’s food court, or at baggage claim.

A footage still shows Marilyn trying to make her way through the airport.
Source: NBC News

Hartman managed to trespass for a full year with no more than warnings, a bit of scolding, and a lot of questions that were left without any satisfactory answers. Police instantly brought up the topic of mental illness. She must be crazy, they believed. Feeling sorry for her, they let her off the hook.

Is She Really Out of Her Mind?

It’s hard to say. But for now, let’s just say she has some pretty creative excuses as to why she’s become a serial stowaway. “All I wanted to do was go to Hawaii,” Hartman told the cops during her interrogation. She made up a story about how she had cancer and was looking for a warm place to die in peace: a highly improbable explanation, considering that seven years have passed and she’s still alive.

Marilyn Hartman talks to her attorney before exiting the courthouse.
Source: YouTube

Indeed, Hartman later confessed that she did not have cancer. So, what’s really driving her to board planes continuously? According to her, it’s her “fight or flight” response that’s being triggered every so often. She feels compelled to choose the latter – flight. “I feel the need to get on a plane to go away,” she explained.

A Case of Whistle Blower Trauma Syndrome

Hartman believes she developed PTSD after an incident in 1990 that scarred her for life. She blew the whistle on a lawyer who rigged some cases with an FBI agent, and that led to what she defines as an undiagnosed condition called “whistleblower trauma syndrome.”

Marilyn Hartman talks to the media outside the courtroom.
Photo by Andrew Romanov

During her interrogations, Hartman spoke at length about how she was targeted for whistleblowing, and she blamed her homelessness on the FBI, claiming that they had repeatedly pressured her to leave her house. The story gets even stranger because according to Hartman, authorities in the airport have purposefully allowed her to board planes. They’re all in on it, she says.

How She Boarded a $3,428 Flight to London

Hartman’s sneaky tactic isn’t anything too crazy. She simply walks beside passengers with tickets and gets everyone to believe she’s with them. In January 2018, Hartman boarded a British Airways plane bound for London, an achievement she described as an incredibly easy thing to do.

Passengers queue next to a ‘’First Class’’ and ‘’Business Class’’ sign at a departure gate inside.
Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images

“I got by them, this is the thing that is so crazy, by following someone who would be carrying like a blue bag,” she reported. “And the next thing I know, I get into the TSA line, and TSA lets me through, and they think I’m with the guy with the blue bag.”

Simple, yet Genius

Aviation security expert Jeff Price told reporters that he’s absolutely stunned by how many times Hartman has managed to pull off such a thing. “For her to be able to repeat that over and over, that is just mind-boggling,” he said, adding that, “the genius of her mode of operation is in its simplicity.”

Jeff Price talks to the media.
Source: YouTube

Price warned that unsophisticated plans are the most dangerous because they’re often the most successful. No one suspects them. No one believes that someone would dare hop on a plane without a ticket. Especially if they’re as innocent looking as Marilyn Hartman.

Homeless and in Need of a Place to Read

Marilyn has been arrested on two occasions. In both, she gave her homelessness as the reason for sneaking in. One was in the winter of 2014 at St. Paul International Airport. Interestingly, it was Hartman who contacted the police, claiming that her purse had been stolen while she was in the restroom.

Marilyn Hartman sits at the police station after being arrested by the police.
Photo by Brittany Murphy

Hartman told police officers that she was homeless, bored, and looking for a place to read. The library she usually went to was closed, so she opted for the airport’s duty-free instead. Authorities wrote a report of the missing purse and issued her a trespass warning.

Homeless and in Need of a Place to Sleep

At the beginning of 2015, Hartman was caught, once again, at St. Paul International Airport. This time, officers were called to the scene after a staff member reported a suspicious woman trying to get through security without a boarding pass.

A footage shows Marilyn Hartman inside the airport.
Source: YouTube

The report read that Hartman was sleeping in chairs around the airport, using her black jacket as a blanket. When approached, she told the police that she was homeless and needed a warm place to rest her head. When asked why she tried to get through security, she responded that she felt more comfortable sleeping on the secured side.

This time, she was handcuffed and taken to county jail. She was released three days later.

Is She Alone in the World?

Hartman has claimed on several occasions that she’s completely alone. No family or friends. But her versions keep changing. She once told a reporter that she actually does have family: three brothers who live in Chicago named Ken, Randy, and Jim.

A mugshot of Marilyn Hartman.
Source: Police Chicago Department

Her siblings were phoned in the hopes of getting to the bottom of this woman’s bizarre story and maybe get a clearer picture of her mental condition. The phone calls weren’t pleasant. Ken refused to answer most of the questions and concluded: “She’s someone who changed her family name, and she’s off on her own out there.” He said she hasn’t been a part of his life since the ‘70s. “She’s kind of like a ghost,” he added.

Jim refused to answer the calls.

She’s Abandoned Several Flats

Hartman’s homelessness is an on and off affair. She’s had apartments before, but she’s abandoned them on multiple occasions. She vacated a house in Chicago back in 1990, and another one in 2000. In 2013, she abandoned a flat in San Diego after she was sent eviction papers.

The window of a foreclosed apartment.
Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

In 1985, Marilyn changed her last name from Stall to Hartman. Her brother Randy told the cops he has no interest in explaining why she did it, and no interest in discussing her at all for that matter. “Let’s close the book on this,” he told them.

Treated With Neglect

The problem with Marilyn Hartman is that she’s viewed as mentally unstable, but not unstable enough to be properly treated. She’s not violent, and she doesn’t pose a threat. She’s harmless, which makes it easy to let this older woman go about her way with a simple warning instead of trying to provide her with actual treatment.

An office portrait of San Francisco law professor Robert Talbot.
Source: University of San Francisco

“The criminal justice system,” said 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.” For years, Marilyn Hartman has fallen in between the cracks. Like a quiet student who’s neither outstandingly smart nor very problematic, Hartman is easily treated as somewhat of a ghost.

But When Given Help… She Runs Away

After Marilyn’s numerous attempts sneaking into San Francisco International Airport, she was examined by a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with PTSD and depression. “She did not qualify as having a major mental illness [like schizophrenia],” said San Mateo County district attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

Marilyn Hartman appears on a news broadcasting channel.
Source: ABC News

But her diagnosis still afforded her some compassionate gestures from authorities. “We were feeling sympathy for this woman,” the DA mentioned. They put her on probation several times, and once checked her into a home in Redwood City (CA) that takes in people with mental issues. “She was there two days, and she walked out. She didn’t like it,” he added.

She’s Extremely Polite

It wasn’t the first time Hartman had fled a facility treatment. In fact, she’s ditched several voluntary treatment facilities around the country. Escaping Redwood City, however, meant that she was violating probation. The cops went after her and reported that she was easy to find.

A screengrab of Marilyn Hartman inside a building next to the parking lot.
Source: FOX News

“She doesn’t run, and she doesn’t hide,” Steve Wagstaffe noted. In general, Hartman has been described by authorities as “extremely polite.” That is, until she’s taken to a treatment facility. That’s when she usually puts up a fight. “She doesn’t want anybody’s help,” Steve explained.

Can Depression Explain Her Airport Obsession?

Depression and PTSD don’t necessarily explain Marilyn’s airport obsession, neither do they explain why she believes the FBI is conspiring against her. “Sometimes very traumatic reactions in PTSD lead to some sort of obsessional behavior. But it’s not the norm,” psychiatry professor Stephen Hinshaw stated.

Airline passengers are watching from the terminal as an airplane takes off.
Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

“This is a diagnostic puzzle,” he added. Her puzzling state of mind makes it terribly hard for law enforcement to decide what to do with her. Hartman was once sentenced to six months in an L.A. prison but was released due to overcrowding in the facility. She was set free. Thus began her national tour again.

Everybody Has Had It With Her

In February 2016, Hartman was caught at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. After receiving an order not to go near airports, she was found at a shuttle bus center. Hartman was charged with criminal trespass and violation of probation. She pleaded guilty in front of a judge named William Raines, who had zero patience for her.

Travelers make their way through ticketing and TSA inspection.
Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

“Everybody has pretty much had it with you,” he told her. “You know, you’re on TV all the time, and I believe that’s really what you want.” He sentenced her to two years of mental health probation, which, if it were violated, would mean jail time and a $2,500 fine.

She Covered Her Face With Her Hair and Snuck In

Hartman found her way back into O’Hare International Airport at the start of 2018. She made it past two security officers by hiding her face with her long hair. She boarded a shuttle bus to the international terminal and slept there overnight. In the early morning, she snuck onto a plane heading to London.

A view Inside the airport, at the train station.
Photo by Artur Debat/Getty Images

She managed to make the trip by sitting in an empty seat, acting as naturally as ever. After landing at London’s Heathrow Airport, a customs agent stopped her and discovered she lacked the proper documentation. She was flown back to Chicago, where the police charged her with felony theft and misdemeanor trespassing. She was, once again, banned from the airport and, once again, ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

She Says She Will Follow the Rules but Keeps Breaking Them

Some authorities are more forgiving than others. Prosecutor James Murphy is among the latter. “She has repeatedly said she would follow the rules and breaks those promises,” he declared in frustration during one of her hearings.

Marilyn Hartman takes to the press at the police station.
Source: CNN

He argued that Hartman wasn’t a good candidate for electronic monitoring, and that she had “squandered chance after chance.” In defense, Hartman’s attorney, Andrea Lubelfeld, insisted that her mental illness is crippling and isolating, causing her to fall into delusions. “She has a mental illness that was triggered by something that was out of her control,” Andrea stated.

Attacked in Jail

In 2020, Hartman spent some time in prison – in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Tragically, she was beaten up by a fellow inmate. According to CBS, Hartman’s head was repeatedly pounded on a hard surface by a woman who reportedly suffered a psychotic episode.

Marilyn Hartman stands in the courtroom.
Source: YouTube

The incident sparked a flood of criticism from the public, who insisted that Marilyn should not be in prison. She should be medically treated and housed in a proper treatment facility. However, the problem is that she keeps running away.

Her Latest Arrest

Marilyn Hartman’s latest scandal involves, once again, sneaking into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. In March 2021, she left the facility where she was electronically monitored and smuggled her way back into the airport’s welcoming hallways and large terminals.

A mugshot from Marilyn Hartman.
Source: Chicago Police

“Staff attempted to contact Hartman using the phone built into the device, but Hartman did not answer,” the Cook County Sheriff’s Office told CNN. Investigators rushed to the airport and spotted her standing close to Terminal 1. She was returned to the Cook County Jail, where she is being held on two bonds.

In response to the event, her current attorney, Parle Roe Taylor, stated: “She continues to struggle as a homeless person within a system that is not designed to adequately address the mental health issues Ms. Hartman presents.”

Most Stowaway Stories End Horribly

Before Hartman, the last stowaway to capture the nation’s attention was Charles McKinley in 2003. A broke man from New York with no way to get home, McKinley snuck into a large wooden crate and shipped himself from the Big Apple to his parents’ home in Dallas. “[It was] the cheapest way to get home,” he told news reporters.

Charles McKinley waits between interviews with the media at Jail in Dallas.
Source: YouTube

Charles McKinley got the idea after spotting a wooden crate outside the church near his home. He decided to use it to ship some things back to his parents in Dallas, and that’s when it dawned on him, he could ship himself as well! Creative? Yes. Foolish? YES.

Why Would He Risk His Life Like That?

McKinley was clearly in a very bad place if he was willing to sit through a flight in a wooden box just to get home. “I had far too much pride to ask mum and dad or my friends for the money. And I had literally no money of my own and no credit card that would work.”

A view to the wooden box where McKinley was going to travel.
Source: ABC News

McKinley and his girlfriend had just broken up, and to make matters worse, a little before their split, she had overdrawn on their joint credit card. He wanted to die but claimed he was “too chicken to kill himself.” So, he called up his parents to let them know he was heading back. New York was proving to be too much for a small town boy like McKinley.

Too Much Pride to Ask Others for Cash

McKinley’s parents knew he was heading back, but they believed he had the money to pay for the trip. He didn’t say otherwise. “I had far too much pride to ask mum and dad or my friends for the money. And I had literally no money of my own and no credit card that would work.”

McKinley and his father are talking to the press.
Source: ABC News

What he did have, though, was a United Parcel Service charge card (UPS). He called UPS to schedule a delivery and was told it would be an overnight transfer. McKinley measured the box to ensure he could sit with his back straight. He was ready for the journey, which, funnily enough, cost more than a regular flight, but his charged UPS card was all he had (a regular flight cost $240 whereas a delivery was $688).

Too Late to Turn Back

When he was being loaded onto the plane, McKinley tried his best not to cough or sneeze. He barely felt comfortable breathing. “I was put on a conveyor and started bumping into other containers. I could hear beeping noises and somebody calling out numbers,” he recalled. Then the voices vanished, and he heard a door close.

Packages move down conveyor belts during the night package sort at the United Parcel Service Inc.
Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images

McKinley knew it was too late to turn back. He was now officially in the hands of… who knows who. Fate? God? The pilot?

After about 20 minutes on the plane, he removed the slats from his crate and squeezed himself out. “I was happy to be going home but I was nervous,” McKinley added.

“The Second Plane Was Hell”

McKinley flew twice. First from Newark, New Jersey, to Buffalo, New York, and the second from New York to Fort Wayne, Indiana. There McKinley’s crate was transferred to a different cargo plane in the early hours of the following morning. Miraculously, he arrived in Dallas at 7 a.m. on September 6.

A mugshot of Charles McKinley.
Source: Tumblr

“The second plane was hell,” McKinley recalled, shuddering at the thought. “That’s when I really wanted to get out. It was so cold when we stopped at Fort Wayne.” The young stowaway could hear dogs barking in the warehouse. He could see a few other containers heading for huge scanners. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s it. I’m going to get caught.’ But I was one of the first palettes to be put on the plane,” he explained.

He Was Caught Peeking Through the Cracks

When they made it to Dallas, McKinley knew right away. “You can just feel it when you’re home,” he stated. The delivery man drove his crate to his parents’ home. McKinley’s mom signed for the package at the front door, and as the driver let the lifting gate down, the slats fell out of McKinley’s crate.

The delivery man is arriving at the doorstep.
Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The driver spotted McKinley peeking through the gaps. He sighed and said, “Oh man…” McKinley’s parents looked at their son, a bemused expression on their faces. His dad remarked, “This is like something you see on TV,” and his mom simply said, “I don’t know what you’ve done, and I don’t want to know, but you’re home and safe now.”

They Called Him a Terrorist

The delivery driver wasn’t willing to let it pass and decided to call the police. Shortly after his arrival home, two officers were sitting in his living room, asking him questions about his seemingly impossible flight. “I was interviewed, and they accused me of lying about the whole trip,” McKinley shared.

A mugshot of McKinley after being arrested.
Source: Tumblr

They proceeded to call him a terrorist who could have climbed out of the box and attacked the pilot. McKinley was eventually put behind bars for nearly a month and was charged with 10 felonies, the majority related to terrorism. The charges against him could have resulted in a sentence of 50 years in jail. Luckily, all but one were dropped – “misdemeanor stowaway.” He received four months of house arrest and a $1,500 fine.

He Feels Like a Joke

McKinley’s bizarre trip has exposed a string of loopholes in cargo security in the States, and his success in sneaking through security ignited a contentious debate around screening packages. His dad, a chemical engineer, put forward about $7,000 in restitution to UPS to compensate them for all the trouble.

UPS driver unloads package.
Photo by Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg/Getty Images

When word of his flight reached the news, McKinley was approached by different media outlets. He was sent to Japan for an interview and was also invited to the Oprah Winfrey show. “I know they’ll make a joke about it like everyone else, but I’m used to it now,” he shrugged.

Most Stories Don’t End Well

Most stowaway stories don’t end well. McKinley is definitely the exception to the rule. And the majority of stowaways don’t sneak onto planes by casually boarding them like Marilyn Hartman. They sneak into the aircraft’s underbelly, and around 80% die, either from hypothermia or they drop out when the plane’s landing gear is released.

UPS signage is displayed on the tail section of a cargo jet at the UPS facility.
Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Many pass out due to a lack of oxygen. So, when they fall out of the underbelly and into the sky, they’re likely unconscious and aren’t witnessing the terrifying drop. Many stowaways have little to lose and would rather risk their lives than live another day in their current state or country.

It Isn’t Anything New

Stowaways have been around since the earliest days of aviation. Citizens want to escape their home country, desperate to cross the border to achieve a better life. Tragically, these people feel like the only thing left for them to do is climb in the underbelly of a plane and pray for the best.

A young stowaway is lifted from the rear of a lorry, which was stopped as it was traveling.
Photo by Sean Dempsey – PA Images/Getty Images

People flee their countries for all kinds of reasons, from poverty to boredom to a lack of meaning in their lives. Some try to escape so they can reunite with their family. Indeed, the life of a stowaway is a harsh one. Airports are doing their best to prevent more cases from surfacing.