No Passport or Ticket: How a Woman Evaded Airport Security and Flew to London

A serial plane stowaway snuck onto a Chicago O’Hare International Airport flight to London, without a passport or a boarding pass, and got all the way to Heathrow before being found and turned back.

66-year-old Marilyn Hartman has been sneaking onto planes for nearly a decade. This is the fourth time she has been convicted of misdemeanours for criminal trespassing at O’Hare in recent years, and she’s also been arrested in airports in Arizona, California, and Florida. During a 2016 hearing in Chicago, the prosecution said she had been stopped by police more than a dozen times since 2009. But this is the first time the serial stowaway has managed to make it on an international flight.

Hartman entered O’Hare airport on January 14th and snuck past the TSA agents checking boarding passes while they were busy with other customers. She first attempted to get on a flight to Connecticut before being asked to sit back down by an agent, then she successfully slipped past the person checking boarding passes on a flight to Heathrow. Although she was able to find a seat, she was discovered mid-flight and detained by British customs officers when the plane touched down at Heathrow. Hartman was sent back to Chicago on January 18th and charged with one felony count of theft and one misdemeanour for trespassing.

Under fire for their security protocols, the TSA issued a statement saying that they were taking the case “very seriously,” but mentioned that Hartman had been screened for possible banned carry-on items. The Chicago Department of Aviation also issued a statement through representative Lauren Huffman, saying that Hartman didn’t pose a risk to anyone in the airport. “We are working with our law enforcement partners to support a comprehensive and thorough investigation while continuing to maintain the highest levels of security at O’Hare Airport,” she added. As of yet, there is no notice on what internal changes may occur as a result of the investigation.

After being held in the Cook County Jail on a $25,000 bond, Hartman was tried on January 25th and released under the condition that she received a psychiatric evaluation after she was let go.  Judge Donald Panarese Jr. also warned Hartman three times to “stay away from the airports.” When asked whether she could do that, Hartman quietly said, “Yes — yes, Your Honor.” It’s unsure whether this means that Hartman will actually stop attempting to sneak into airports; she has previously said that she will stop before being caught sneaking into an airport literally days later.

Hartman has a history of homelessness and apparent mental illness. After her arrest in August 2014, Hartman told reporters she thought authorities were deliberately allowing her to stow away so they could arrest her later. And when Guardian reporter Joe Eskenazi wrote a story on her back in 2015, he received frequent calls from Hartman, detailing “a conspiratorial worldview in which every passing glance from a fellow transit passenger or store patron was an indicator of a vast Illuminati network dedicated to a decades-long mission of harassing Marilyn Hartman.” Parle Roe-Taylor, Hartman’s publicly-appointed defender, also believes that Hartman has unspecified mental health-related issues.

For many familiar with the case, Hartman’s repeated airport break-ins are as much about the failures of the mental healthcare system as they are about the failures of airport security. Representing her client back in 2016, Roe-Taylor (below) said that until the justice system is able to devote more resources to mental health rehabilitation, “we are going to continue to see more Marilyn Hartmans.” And Jeffrey Price, a professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University, agrees. “Marilyn Jean Hartman hasn’t revealed serious weaknesses in airport security,” he said, in a 2015 Guardian interview. “But she has shone a light on a justice system ill-equipped to handle mentally-ill rule-breakers.’

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