Marilyn Hartman, 69, managed to travel the world at least 30 times over the past 19 years without a passport and airline tickets.
Hartman—a female and a pensioner— is not an obvious person to set security bells to ring. And her ability to just drift away like a ghost past airport security, airline check-in staff, and flight attendants without attracting their attention is the key to her success.
Hartman, who’s also known as ‘the serial stowaway’ said she always walks on with the other passengers and finds a seat.
If she’s stopped, Hartman is extremely polite, coherent, and plays the totally innocent.
“I don’t really want to get anyone in trouble,” Hartman once sweetly told a police officer who asked how she had got past airport security and onto a plane.
Unfortunately for the Chicago pensioner, her free-flying days may soon end with a prison sentence.
On Tuesday, Hartman was arrested for criminal trespassing at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport as she was about to board another passenger flight.
The 69-year-old is homeless and claims she suffers from bipolar disorder. Hartman had been wearing an ankle monitor which alerted police that she left the house where she is living. The security alarm triggered the ankle monitor when she was about to enter Terminal 2, and the game was over.
The U. judicial system has always been reluctant to imprison an old woman who blames her flying obsession on mental illness. But now, the system finally seems to lose its patience and a judge has made it clear that Hartman will face a prison sentence.
The courts have plenty of evidence on how Hartman behaves in airports and just two days before her latest arrest, she gave an interview to CBS and explained how she did it.
“The thing I’ve got to tell you: I have never been able to board a plane by myself. I was always let through [with others],” Hartman revealed.
Hartman added that she was happy to reveal it all because she is now sure that she would never ever plane-hop again.
About avoiding the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, she said: “I got by them by following someone. They would be carrying like a blue bag. And the next thing I know, I get into the TSA line and TSA lets me through. They think I’m with the guy with the blue bag.”
Hartman is not averse to slipping under security barriers. Once through security, she sometimes manages to obtain someone else’s boarding pass that has been accidentally dropped or thrown because the passenger has a replacement.
At flight check-in, Hartman employs the same techniques at security, moving with other passengers (preferably a group) or simply slipping past when staff is dealing with someone else.
The simple tactics have got her a long way.
In 2019, Hartman was sentenced to 18 months probation after admitting she had sneaked past Chicago airport security and boarded a British Airways flight to London the previous year.
The pensioner wasn’t caught until she got to Heathrow and immigration officials found she had did not have a passport or ticket.
A Security video in Chicago showed her hiding her face with her hair and slipping past a security guard as he checked other passengers’ documents. Hartman first tried to board a flight to Connecticut but was spotted as she tried to attach herself with another passenger who was having their papers checked.
Hartman told investigators she got past check-in staff, boarded the plane, then hid in a lavatory until she could find a seat.
The Heathrow officials flew her back to Chicago, where she was charged with criminal trespass and theft. A judge agreed to release her on bail provided that she wore an ankle monitor.
“There is no pun intended for your client, but she is a flight risk given the number of offenses,” the judge told her lawyer. Hartman was given probation and instructed to avoid both Chicago Airport and British Airways.
However, she was arrested at the airport again in October 2019, after being spotted trying to pass through security without an ID or ticket.
The authorities may be wise now, but for years there was no such thing as a ‘Marilyn sighting’, as they never look out for her: she was either not caught or, when she was, officials didn’t want to make too much fuss about it.
Hartman said her plane-hopping started in 2002 when she managed to sneak on to a Chicago flight to Copenhagen. Her next trip, later that year, was to Paris. It is unclear whether she was stopped when she reached her European destinations but, unlike on U.S. domestic flights, she would technically have had to have shown her passport.
Hartman also stowed away on flights to U.S. cities including Seattle, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Jacksonville.
The pensioner has been caught many times, and one prosecutor described her as ‘persistent, if not relentless’, and has promised repeatedly to stop, only to head straight to the nearest airport.
By 2015, Hartman was on U.S. police files as a ‘serial stowaway’. That year, she flew from Minnesota to Florida without a ticket, then checked into a smart hotel by posing as a contestant in The Biggest Loser, a weight-loss TV series.
It’s clear that Hartman is not trying to get on specific flights but any flight.
Hartman is a former legal secretary, and is long estranged from her family in Illinois. Much of her adult life has been spent living in women’s shelters and motels.
Hartman also claims she was forced out of her home by the FBI after she became a ‘whistleblower’ in a corruption scandal. She said that this often sparks a ‘fight-or-flight’ response in her, which she takes literally: ‘I feel the need to get on a plane to go away.’ and added she likes to hang around airports because they make her feel safe.
Experts are undecided and divided on whether Hartman has exposed a serious security breach — some say she gets through precisely because she is clearly not a threat while others insist that it simply is irrelevant.