Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KMSU is off the air in Mt. Grove (88.7FM) due to signal interference. We are working to restore coverage at the site. In the meantime, some Mt. Grove area listeners will be able to listen over the air to KSMU at 91.1 or KSMW at 90.3FM. Or stream KSMU anywhere from any device.

The Case Of The Serial Stowaway, Marilyn Hartman


Sixty-six-year-old Marilyn Hartman walked through airport security onto an airplane and made it all the way to London last week. She didn't have a boarding pass. She didn't have a passport. And this is not the first time she's made such an attempt. She has tried this more than 20 times.

Hartman is being called a serial stowaway. She's not a security threat. She still had to pass through metal detectors. But her case raises a lot of questions. Joe Eskenazi is a journalist who's had many conversations with Marilyn Hartman over the years. He wrote about her this week in The Guardian. And I asked him, how does she manage this?

JOE ESKENAZI: There's not a grand master plan. It is not like "Ocean's Eleven." Marilyn Hartman is persistent and has a lot of small techniques that are fairly intuitive, such as, you know, keeping her head down, finding other people's boarding passes in the garbage and things like that and taking advantage of other people's, you know, distractions and then walking past them.

SHAPIRO: How much of it do you think has to do with the fact that she is a small, unassuming, elderly white woman who doesn't look like a threat?

ESKENAZI: I think that is a vital factor. A younger, more memorable looking and frankly someone of an ethnicity that makes airport officials nervous would be flagged and also probably would not be treated so innocuously when caught doing things wrong or sneaky.

SHAPIRO: This story has been treated in the news as harmless and funny. Some have treated it as a potential security threat. You make the argument that this is a serious story about mental illness.

ESKENAZI: I think it is, and I think that - I mean, I know here in San Francisco, this was a big story because she came to prominence in 2014 when she attempted to sneak onto six or more flights at San Francisco International Airport. And there were headlines like, oops, she did it again and things like that. So these things at first blush are funny. But on the other hand, there is something deeper and unsettling here.

SHAPIRO: As you were writing about her, you got to know her. And you say that she would frequently call you, sometimes collect from jail. Who is this woman who you got to know?

ESKENAZI: She is very pleasant to speak to on the phone. She is a chipper, energetic woman on the phone. However, in this chipper, energetic voice, she will tell you about a vast conspiracy of people who are harassing her and essentially driving her mad. And she points the finger at Barack Obama, whom she claims has known about this and been the ringleader of this for decades. You know...

SHAPIRO: Recognizable conspiracy theory talk.

ESKENAZI: Exactly that. However, it was not shouted. It was calmly explained in a very methodical way. And she would step back and say, I know how crazy this sounds, and I know what this looks like. But it did look like that.

SHAPIRO: You've said that this points out a gap in the justice system, that we just don't have a way of dealing with mentally ill people, older people, people who struggle with homelessness. So when you have this woman who does keep sneaking onto airplanes, who keeps getting caught, who keeps winding up in court, what do you think the appropriate way of dealing with that is?

ESKENAZI: That's a tremendous question. We - I don't know that anyone has figured out exactly what to do. The justice system and the mental health system have shown a great deal of leniency to Marilyn Hartman. She is again and again released to her own recognizance. Again and again, she's put into halfway houses or other homeless programs. And she doesn't like it there, and that is understandable. And she leaves. However, once she leaves, she keeps doing this peculiar and very unique behavioral pattern of trying to sneak into airplanes.

SHAPIRO: Joe Eskenazi is a writer in San Francisco, and his article on The Guardian is called "Serial Stowaway: How Does A 66-year-old Woman Keep Sneaking Onto Flights?" Thank you so much.

ESKENAZI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.