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Serial stowaway’s case poses challenge for courts, law enforcement

In all, Marilyn Hartman has eight arrests now connected to trespassing at O’Hare and Midway airports and attempting to board flights, and dozens of other arrests at airports in California, Hawaii and Florida.

No one can be sure how many times Marilyn Hartman has managed to slip onto airplanes without a ticket; just keeping track of the times she has been caught is difficult. What can be done to stop her remains an open question.

The grandmotherly 66-year-old was jailed after she was arrested at O’Hare International Airport again on Sunday — a week after she was arrested at O’Hare after she successfully got on a British Airlines flight to Heathrow Airport without a ticket, boarding pass or passport.

Her visit to O’Hare on Sunday violated the conditions of her bond for the London jaunt, and so she remains in custody. At a hearing Wednesday, her court-appointed attorney said she intended to petition the court to grant Hartman bond, and the judge ordered Hartman to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

“She’s having a difficult day, but it’s a difficult process,” said her lawyer, assistant public defender Parle Roe-Taylor. “Especially to be in (jail) custody, and there are very few options at this point.”

Hartman’s weekend visit to O’Hare came just days after she was released on recognizance bond following the London trip, and after Hartman was repeatedly warned by the judge that she was barred from setting foot on airport property. In all, she has eight arrests now connected to trespassing at O’Hare and Midway airports and attempting to board flights, dozens of other arrests at airports in California, Hawaii and Florida and other states.

Charged mostly with misdemeanors whenever she’s landed in court, and consistently judged sane despite a compulsion to slip onto jets that defies good sense, Hartman has baffled law enforcement officials just as consistently as she has airport security guards. She has seldom spent long in jail, and has walked away from mental health treatment.

Her last trip to Cook County Jail, booked in 2016 after she violated her probation for one airport-trespassing arrest by getting arrested on the grounds of O’Hare airport, was among longest time she has spent behind bars — about four months.

“Can you stay away from the airports?” Judge Donald Panarese asked her before granting her bond at a hearing two weeks ago.

“Yes — yes, Your Honor,” Hartman whispered.

“Jail’s not so fun?” Panarese asked.

Fun or not, jail might again be in Hartman’s future, though no one seems to think that is where she belongs.

“Jail is not the answer for this poor woman,” said Mark Ishaug, CEO of mental health services provider Thresholds, a Cook County Jail contractor.

“This is an incredibly unique case. This is absolutely not common for anyone to sneak onto airplanes, time and again … and the vast majority of people who get mental health treatment are able to avoid going back into the criminal justice system.”

Hartman, experts say, falls into a strange gap at the nexus of the criminal justice and the mental health systems. Despite the lengthy criminal history — a report by authorities in California in 2015 estimated Hartman had made at least 18 attempts to board planes without a ticket at that time— Hartman’s crimes don’t carry significant jail time, and her mental illness does not make her dangerous enough to be committed to a mental health facility.

Her first Chicago arrest came in February 2015, when she was arrested in Terminal 1 at O’Hare for trespassing. She then listed her address as the Pacific Garden Mission.

In subsequent Cook County arrests, Hartman has listed her address at shelters, or just as “homeless.” Hartman has said she lives off Social Security. A graduate of Chicago Vocational High School, Hartman claims to have no family, though a San Francisco magazine reporter found three apparently estranged brothers living in the Chicago suburbs.

A court-ordered evaluation in 2015 found she was sane, but suffered from “unspecified personality disorder with anti-social traits” and “adjustment disorder.” Mark Heyrman, a professor at University of Chicago Law School, said that if Hartman were found more profoundly mentally ill, and was deemed unable to help her defense or to understand the consequences of her inveterate plane-hopping, she could be found not guilty by reason of insanity, which would allow a judge to compel her to live at a mental health facility. But such a restrictive setting is probably not the way to handle Hartman, Heyrman said.

“What she probably needs is some talk therapy to get at the anxiety or whatever it is that’s driving this behavior,” he said. “But there really is nothing for that in the criminal justice system, and it’s very expensive and no one wants to pay for it. It’s a real problem with our mental health system.”

A judge might have more ability to confine Hartman if she were found to be a danger to herself or others, but she does not seem to want to harm herself, and she has never used force to sneak into a plane or airport, and is reportedly quite courteous when caught.

As to whether her constant incursions against the nation’s airport security forces is a threat to public safety in and of itself, experts tend to think not. Hartman has never made it past security checkpoints with contraband, and she has no intent to harm anyone once she’s boarded a plane.

“I don’t think she herself is a threat anymore than as a distraction for security staff who should be looking out for actual dangerous people,” said Jeff Price, author of “Practical Airport Security” and a professor at Metropolitan University in Denver.

“There is a larger threat that her ability to do this points out, that, if she can do it, so could someone else.”

When Hartman turned up at San Francisco Airport, repeatedly, in 2014, San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe chose to handle Hartman as a mental health dilemma rather than a hardened criminal. In California, as in Cook County, intensive mental health services are available to defendants with “major” psychological disorders such as bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia, but not the more mild issues facing Hartman. Hartman, Wagstaffe said, is a “tweener.”

“I asked the judge, ‘Let’s see what we can do for this person. Otherwise, she’s just going to be an incredible annoyance to the people at the airport,’” Wagstaffe said.

Wagstaffe offered Hartman housing at a local mental health facility, but couldn’t force her to stay there as part of her probation. She walked away from the facility within days, and later surfaced in Oakland, trying to board a plane. Alameda County prosecutors asked Wagstaffe if he wanted her sent back to be prosecuted for violating her probation.

“I said, ‘She’s yours now. Enjoy it,’” Wagstaffe recalled.

“We can’t force people into doing something they don’t want to do. As a society, the way things are set up, there’s not much we can do for (Hartman) than what we did in San Mateo: wait for her to move on, and breathe a sigh of relief.”