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Serial Stowaway Says She Wants to Tell Her Story

Marilyn Hartman says she has secrets to tell, and they would explain why she does what she does

Marilyn Hartman wants her story told, but she says it's a story no one wants to hear. NBC 5's Phil Rogers reports. (Published Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015)

Marilyn Hartman wants her story told, but she says it's a story no one wants to hear.

The 64-year-old "serial stowaway," currently confined to a mental health nursing facility on Chicago's west side, testifies to a litany of past wrongs, as justification for repeated encounters with police at airports across America. And she suggests she may have been more successful in gaining access to aircraft than even airport security personnel have suspected.

Slight of build, with twinkling eyes and a hearty laugh, Hartman could pass for anyone's grandmother or favorite aunt. She has made news in cities across America. In one court proceeding earlier this year in Alameda County California, prosecutors said they had counted at least 18 times over half a dozen years that Hartman had tried to breach airport security nationwide. There have been numerous attempts since then, but the number of planes she has actually boarded may only be known to Hartman herself.

"It may have been eight times," Hartman said during a wide-ranging interview in a walnut-paneled conference room at the facility where she is currently confined. She unashamedly showed the electronic ankle bracelet she must wear at all times, a condition of her recent release from Cook County Jail.

"It's the only jewelry I wear," she laughed.

Hartman is hesitant to describe exactly how she has broached TSA checkpoints at a variety of airports. Surveillance video of numerous attempts, obtained by NBC5 Investigates, shows her trying to blend in with families, where one parent is showing a group of boarding passes to a security officer.

When she was discovered in some of those attempts, she would pretend to fumble in her purse for her travel documents, eventually retreating and slipping away.

"It looks easy, but I would be sweating!" Hartman said. "I would be sweating for hours -- I can't do this, I can't do this, I gotta get out! There was this feeling there was really no place to go!"

And she implied that during some attempts, she thought the TSA was complicit in her success.

"Not only think -- they allowed it!" she said.

But Hartman politely refused to elaborate, only suggesting during a confusing description of various attempts, that police and federal agents were well aware of her presence and what she was planning to do.

"It's almost as though we want to prove you're nutty enough to do it again," she laughed.

Hartman often veered into tangled scenarios as she described a troubled life, bouncing from Chicago, to Hawaii, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and even Arizona and Florida.

After graduation from Chicago Vocational School in 1969, she said her dream was to move to Canada for college. But Hartman charges that those dreams were derailed, accusing family members of cheating her out of a substantial inheritance.

"Dad, where is the money I did have, so I don't have to do anything illegal?" she asked, staring toward the ceiling. "Whatever money I did have, I needed for the barest of necessities!"

Hartman worked as a legal secretary in Chicago, and contends she had the goods on a former boss's rampant corrupt acts. She claims knowledge of significant corruption in high places in Chicago. So much so, she says, that had she been able to tell those stories in decades past, Chicago might be a different place today.

"I do believe God put certain people in situations to bring light to a subject," she said. And that, she insists, is why she began acting out.

"I want to be arrested, so I can tell my story," she said, beginning to sob. "I felt I never got justice, because I always wanted a trial. I wanted my full story to be told!"

While Hartman has trouble articulating exactly what story that would be, she is correct when she suggests the lack of a detailed court proceeding. The "serial stowaway" has not been served well by a system which simply wanted her to go away.

Repeatedly arrested at U.S. airports, Hartman has simply been gaveled through that system and released over and over again. Few judges took the time, or even wanted to know, why she continued to act out, simply warning her to stay away from the airport and sending her on her way.

And in nearly every case, like a horse running back into a burning building, Hartman was back at an airport within days, sometimes hours. And she insists that police and the courts should be considered complicit in what she was doing.

"I never wanted to live this life," she said. "Obviously I saw too much, and knew too much, and they were determined to make me the nut case!"

The law finally caught up with Hartman last May, after she made repeated attempts to breach security at O'Hare and Midway. Jailed for six months, she was freed in early December by Cook County Judge William Raines, who placed her on mental health probation and electronic monitoring, remanded to the care of a mental health facility where it is hoped she can finally come to grips with the demons which have haunted her for decades.

In granting her conditional release, Raines warned Hartman that "a lot of time and energy" had been spent on making sure she got the help she needed, and he advised her to follow the court's instructions.

"If not, you're forcing me to send you to jail," he said.

She has not enjoyed this most recent encounter with Cook County authorities. Hartman says she lost personal effects and a debit card with a substantial sum of money; that she never got her mail; and that during an earlier release from jail last summer, it was jail employees who handed her CTA timetables for routes to O'Hare and Midway.

"That smelled like entrapment," she said. And she insists that she was not adequately or fairly represented during her most recent stay in jail.

Hartman insists she would like nothing better than to stop the transient life she has led for the last decade. She tearfully described coming to grips with that life on one aircraft several years ago.

"I'm not getting my social security checks," she recalled thinking. "I'm living in shelters. I feel pressured to go to the airport and they portray me as a potential terrorist. This is not me at all!'

Living without a permanent home for years, Hartman suggested that during some visits to the airport she actually was not planning any stowaway attempt at all.

"Ironically," she said, "it's because airports have the best security in the world, that I feel safer!"

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