Man Scared Of Coronavirus Lived At Chicago O’Hare Airport For Months

Filed Under: Travel

A man was arrested at Chicago O’Hare Airport this weekend after having allegedly spent three months airside in the terminal without being detected.

Man arrested after living at O’Hare

A 36 year old man was arrested Saturday, and has been charged with felony criminal trespass to a restricted area of an airport and misdemeanor theft. He has been banned from entering the airport, and bail has been set at $1,000.

The man flew from Los Angeles to Chicago on October 19, 2020, and hadn’t left the airport’s secure zone since. How did he finally get caught? On Saturday, two United Airlines employees approached the man and asked to see his identification, having realized he had spent a lot of time in the terminal. At that point the man showed them an airport ID badge that he had been wearing on a lanyard around his neck.

However, the badge belonged to an operations manager who had reported that badge missing on October 26. At that point 911 was called, at which point the man was taken into custody.

Why did the man stay at the airport?

This is the part of the story that’s tough to figure out. Why would anyone want to spend a few months living at O’Hare? The man was allegedly “scared to go home due to COVID,” and that’s why he decided to spend months at the airport. He survived by asking other passengers to give him money for food. Apparently he had a place to stay and roommates in California.

In many ways the explanation of what happened raises more questions than anything else. Arguably the most dangerous part of the travel experience nowadays is being at airports rather than on planes, given that the latter at least has much better air filtration.

We have sometimes heard of people living in terminals due to entry restrictions for countries changing, leaving them without options. However, that wasn’t the case here, since this was a domestic flight.

We also sometimes hear of homeless people trying to live at airports, but that’s almost always landside, since they typically don’t purchase tickets.

One other story that comes to mind is that of the serial stowaway from a few years back, who would constantly find a way to get past security and onto flights, even without a ticket. She even did this several times at O’Hare Airport.

Was there any security risk here?

The judge in the case expressed disbelief about how someone could live in a “secure” part of the airport undetected:

“So if I understand you correctly, you’re telling me that an unauthorised, non-employee individual was allegedly living within a secure part of the O’Hare airport terminal from 19 October 2020 to 16 January 2021, and was not detected? I want to understand you correctly.

Based upon the need for airports to be absolutely secure so that people feel safe to travel, I do find those alleged actions do make him a danger to the community.”

Personally I’m not really surprised:

  • Just because the airside area is “secure” doesn’t mean that tabs are being kept on everyone, but rather just that they’ve been screened and that they either had a valid arriving or departing boarding pass
  • You see people sleep overnight in airport terminals all the time
  • Many airport employees can be seen hanging out in the terminal daily, so it’s not necessarily unusual to observe the same person every day
  • It has been even harder to identify people when everyone is wearing masks

Personally I don’t find that detail surprising at all, and I’m not shocked he was able to live at O’Hare for three months undetected. The real question is why he’d want to do that…

Bottom line

A man has been arrested after living at Chicago O’Hare Airport for three months, allegedly because he was afraid to fly home due to coronavirus. I’m not sure I follow the logic, but that sure is a strange situation. The man ended up being arrested on Sunday, after he was approached by employees and asked to show his ID. At that point it was determined that he had a lanyard with a stolen airport employee ID.

What do you make of this situation?

Comments
  1. There’s no “logic” to follow, Ben. This behavior has all the hallmarks of mental illness – likely paranoid schizophrenia. Very sad that he wasn’t found sooner.

  2. Just another example of how stupid society in general is becoming. He’s “scared” of COVID yet spends 3 months (unshowered BTW) in a crowded airline terminal with no social distancing.

  3. Confused as you are Lucky.

    But why prosecute him for this? Doesn’t that seem unfair? Just send him home.

  4. @Endre

    Exactly, I doubt there is.

    Prosecution needs to be about breaking laws, not just doing something unusual – and harming nobody

  5. George N. Romey – how can you say there was no social distancing if the man had not showered in 3 months? I’ll wager nobody came within ten feet of that guy – whew!

  6. The most amazing part of this story to me is that he was able to find enough money to live off airport food for 3 months. Airport food is ridiculously overpriced so he would have to beg for an awful lot of money.

    And why would people give it to him? ‘I need some money to find something to eat’ would surely be met with a response of ‘then why are you airside at an airport?’

  7. The ignorance of Americans really gets to me sometimes. This is such a clear case of mental illness and in the rest of the world, this wouldn’t even be news. Like it wouldn’t be news that an elderly lady doesn’t recognize her relatives anymore. The person in that airport could be you. Maybe read up on illnesses like schizophrenia, so you don’t have look like an idiot asking questions like: “Why would you want to live in an airport?”

  8. @ Marvin

    I am from the U.K. and not biased.

    I do find it appalling that they arrested this man. What harm has he caused anyone?

    However, I do think the biggest question is the motive for doing this.

    You can’t just pin it down to “mental illness”. Most psychiatric work is still just a theory and even practicing psychiatrists acknowledge this. In the 80s people were given electric shocks “to fix their brain” and try doing that now. In the 60s minor “disorders” had people locked away.

    Whether or not this is related to a mental issue that doesn’t mean there isn’t a motive, and like Lucky I’m curious of the motive more than anything else. Well, I probably find the fact that he was prosecuted and brought before a judge more appalling.

  9. Pretty sure this is why he was arrested and it should have been done.

    “At that point the man showed them an airport ID badge that he had been wearing on a lanyard around his neck.

    However, the badge belonged to an operations manager who had reported that badge missing on October 26. At that point 911 was called, at which point the man was taken into custody.”

  10. Afraid of infection, yet spent months wandering around one of the dirtiest places on earth. Makes perfect sense.

  11. @ Adam Ward

    Whilst you could argue that is deception and fraud, it’s important to note two things

    -The owner of the ID reported it as lost not stolen.

    -He was more than likely asked if he “had ID” we don’t know that he claimed it was his own ID. It would be simple enough for a decent lawyer to argue that he was returning the airport ID that he was in possession of.

    Ok I know you might say that that is twisting the law to suit him. Sure, it is because he didn’t harm anyone and the law is not intended to catch people out. The purpose of law is justice.

    There’s nothing unjust about someone not leaving a publicly accessible airport for a long period.

  12. Some people missed the point here: he allegedly stole or at least was wearing an ID badge which was reported lost by its owner — without that theft, I’m not sure if he would have got arrested

  13. The most surprising thing to me is that he wasn’t reported for suspicious behavior while begging for change inside the secure departure terminals area. Begging for food money is something you don’t see inside security where passengers have / had valid tickets.

  14. A lot of the wonderings about this man’s motive and the logic of his behavior (e.g., “Afraid of infection, yet spent months wandering around one of the dirtiest places on earth. Makes perfect sense.”) could only come from people who have never witnessed firsthand the effects of schizophrenia or related disorders, or who simply think it is confined to “crazy” homeless people.

    Mental illness is real, and it is more common than most people realize. It affects people from all walks of life, including business professionals who travel for work.

    I have a relative with schizophrenia who has had an episode like this at the airport. She once got off a plane in a particular city and insisted to the gate agent that she was in a different city, despite all evidence to the contrary. She did not have a “motive” in acting this way. She was simply in crisis and had lost her grip on reality.

    This man was in crisis and should have been discovered sooner. Everyone who deals with the public for a living, including gate agents and police officers, need training to recognize signs of mental health crisis.

  15. Props to this guy for finding a way to panhandle that didn’t involve standing by an on-ramp with a sign.

  16. @Endre

    If he found it on the floor, it’s hard to assert theft.

    The owner of the ID said it was ‘missing’, this doesn’t imply it was wrongfully taken.

    When he showed the ID, he could easily (and should sensibly) state that he was returning it.

    @Stephen

    So by recognising its mental illness, what would have changed?

    As far as what I am saying goes, if it wasn’t causing anyone any harm, he should not have been arrested anyway.

    ___________________________________________________________

    I do not want to bash the USA, but seriously the justice system there does need some work. As I touched on in a previous comment; the justice system is supposed to seek justice.

    Can someone please tell me what justice is being achieved by arresting, taking bail, and presenting a man before a judge for being in an airport (albeit for a long time.)?

  17. At least he wasn’t buying refundable tickets to use the lounges for free food and shower. On the other hand, couldn’t he have picked a better airport than o hare?

  18. @Stephen: Thank you.

    @K4: The way this would have been handled in a country with a proper system is he would still have been taken into custody. They would then have tried to figure out what’s going on (medical tests etc. – performed by medical staff) and finally a judge would decide what the correct course of action is. In the case of mental illness, the person would most likely be admitted to psychiatric hospital and any potential charges would be dropped.

  19. @Marvin

    Whilst that does sound like a better situation. Here in the UK, where I practice law, police would not be allowed to arrest someone simply for being in an airport. There would need to be some malicious intent.

    If he refused to leave, the police may get involved, but he would really have to ignore their request.

    Take two very different views on this:

    1. Someone finds him with an ID that is not his own, in ‘staff only’ areas of an airport.
    They tell the police that they believe he stole the ID, and is sleeping in staff only areas.
    They also state that they asked him to leave, but he refused. Nor was he intending to take a flight.
    Even in the UK this would attract police attention. Although if no law has been broken and any evidence is circumstantial unless the man says otherwise, the first action by police would also be to ask him to leave, not arrest him. If they did arrest him there would need to be some very strong evidence that the ID was stolen, which it was not according to the article, because the owner of it described it as missing not stolen.

    2. He is standing in the gate area of the airport.
    Someone who notices he was there for several days, asks him why he’s there.
    He says he missed his flight because he was scared of COVID.
    They ask for ID.
    He says he found this one, and gives that ID.
    If the police were called for this in the UK, they would probably charge the one calling them for wasting police time. Especially if the person left the airport when asked to do so.

  20. @K4: I’m not a lawyer, but as far as I know, for example in Germany (I’m a German expat), they would obviously not be able to arrest someone for no reason. The person needs to either have committed a crime or be a threat to themselves or others. I would expect mental illness cases to usually fall into the latter category. Without a court ruling, people can only be held in police custody against their will for up to 24 hours if I recall correctly. There are always judges available who then go to the hospital to decide if that person is, in fact, posing a threat to themselves or others, or not. For example, someone who is convinced he can fly might not be committing a crime, but would be posing a threat to himself. A friend of mine is a criminal judge and he told me he has “released” people from psychiatric hospitals several times, so to me it seems like the system is indeed working quite well.

  21. And as for your second example, they would probably try to persuade the person to seek medical help if he isn’t a threat to himself and leaves the airport when asked to do so.
    They definitely wouldn’t charge anyone with wasting police time.

  22. When I saw this on the BBC, I was really confused with what he was being charged with. And the BBC article quotes the judge as saying, ‘Based upon the need for airports to be absolutely secure so that people feel safe to travel, I do find those alleged actions do make him a danger to the community’. To call him a danger to the community seems quite outrageous. Even if he was breaking a law, I certainly wouldn’t say he was a danger to the community and I hope he gets good legal representation, because this seems incredibly unjust.

  23. here in the usa, i have been kicked out by the police at the las vegas airport many times for trying to sleep in the airport either rooms were too much or had an early flight, or lost all of my money or most of my money gambling, and i was always under the impression that airports before security were public places 24 hours a day, but i guess not in las vegas,nevada.

  24. @K4

    We could go in circles discussing whether this man’s behavior violates some US law or or UK law or EU law, but there is a more important lesson to draw from this odd situation.

    We can quite reasonably assume that such highly abnormal behavior — a paying passenger, flying halfway across the country, doesn’t even leave the destination airport for three months — is a result of a mental health crisis. There is simply no other rational explanation. Yet the first reaction of many — including Ben, no offense intended — is to wonder why he would “want” to do this. Mental illness is still such a poorly understood phenomenon in this country that most people do not recognize its telltale signs, which are all over this report, and strain to ascribe some logical explanation to behavior that is obviously illogical.

    This man’s crisis could have evolved and worsened over that long time period into a dangerous situation, for him or others. He may not have been breaking the law, but all he needed was for one passenger, airport employee, or police officer to recognize the abnormality of his behavior in some chance encounter for what it really was. Maybe he played it cool in each and every interaction, but ask yourself how likely that is considering what we know about the situation.

    This is a hell of a tangent for the original post, but it should be obvious to everyone that we are all far behind in recognizing and responding to mental health issues. I am not saying he should or should not have been arrested, just that we need to do better at spotting these situations (whether as airport employees at O’Hare or readers of this blog) and responding accordingly.

  25. I’m afraid to stay in O’Hare airport and relieved when I can get on a plane again. The place is too crowded. Nobody social distances. And it has the most mask policy violators of any airport I’ve been to in the past 10 months.

  26. This seems like a heavy handed handling of the situation….an individual, mentally ill or not, having possession of a missing (not stolen) badge. No harm was done to anyone and I am sure there is no law against lengthy stays at the airport.

    I ended up spending the night at EWR due to weather, and again when a crew timed out during a delay. This is not exactly robbing a 7-11! I am sure there is no law stating how long you can remain in the terminal. I have heard of people stuck for a week.

  27. * He lives in LA.
    * He had already flown from LA to ORD.
    * He then never left the terminal at ORD.

    I freely concede this may be a movie plot scenario, but that sounds like someone who learned something in the terminal that made him really, *really* reluctant to leave, and then couldn’t figure out a way to go back to LA since he was airside. If he either a) didn’t have a smartphone, or b) didn’t realize you can make a boarding pass on your smartphone – both of which have non-zero probabilities – then how could he get a boarding pass back to LA without going landside? (At least in his mind.) And if landside was seen as being too dangerous… well, what do you do?

    (I realize I’m going to be ganged up on by other readers. But we are well above median in knowing what can be done.) The COVID thing and the security pass strike me as red herrings.

  28. @Marvin
    Agree with most of what you say, but with regard to wasting police time, I have to humbly disagree from first hand experience.

  29. @Stephen

    I don’t see how recognition of his mental health issues change the outcome.

    If people he does not know don’t know what’s wrong with him it doesn’t make a difference.

    The issue here is definitely that he didn’t deserve legal action.

    If he’s being treated as a criminal then motive is important. The fact is he didn’t do anything criminal and therefore questioning the motive is very important, because there clearly isn’t one and thus should never have appeared in court for this. Just ridiculous.

  30. Great logic K4. Unfortunately some don’t get it… including the judge. He goes from a valid statement (the concern about being in a secure area for that period of time undetected) to an unsupported conclusion (the passenger was a threat to the community).

    Detection is done by authorities, not the passenger. So the issue he raised is with them, not the passenger. Nothing in the facts tendered shows threatening behaviour.

  31. @K4

    I am a lawyer in the US, and I agree with you that he did not deserve to be arrested. I was simply making a different point. The police interact with mentally ill individuals every day without arresting them, and they often are in a position to steer those persons toward needed help. That is what should have happened here. No more, no less. They are not doing anyone a public service by arresting him, but they also would not help by turning the other way.

    By the way, as a purely legal matter, neither “motive” nor intent is an element the relevant offense under Illinois state law. 720 Illinois Compiled Statutes 5/21-7 (Criminal trespass to Restricted areas and restricted Landing areas at airports).

  32. @ Mh

    I tend to agree with you about the judge reaching the wrong result based on what we know. But bear in mind that you are relying on a heavily edited version of the court hearing. We don’t know whether prosecutors presented other information about his activities while using those credentials at the airport.

  33. Part of this which saddens me is that I think of people who are stowaways, or have tried to sneak onto planes before, like the same culprit at O’Hare, and I think about how I’ve utilized flying and moving through airport spaces just to get lost in time and not have to think about the world outside of it. I wonder if for these individuals, the same comforts that I found in airports and airplanes and through flying in the past, are things that they want to access as well.

  34. One might assume that he arrived in Chicago with a roundtrip ticket. Then he “froze” being unable to decide if he could leave the airport or use the return portion of the ticket. At some point he missed the return flight, and if he did not have the resources to buy another ticket (since he was panhandling for food money, a reasonable assumption is he did not), his fear of venturing outside the terminal would become a day-to-day effort to survive – finding a place to sleep, getting food, etc. Terminal employees (cleaning crews, guards, agents, vendors) probably didn’t pay much attention to him once he had a security badge around his neck. They have their own jobs with which to be concerned. Pretty easy to not be noticed at O’Hare anyway. As far as arresting him, he was in a secured area with a badge that wasn’t his own. Whether he was there for an hour or a year, airport security is going to be all over that individual. Even if he has a story to tell about living there for 3 months, he will be detained and investigated.

  35. Ok this is the kicker. During COVID airports are no longer allowing passengers in the sterile area. Some US airports never did. Arriving at ORD late night I’ve seen the airport police telling people to leave the sterile area. So this guy would have needed to clear Security everyday with a stolen badge-unshowered in unkempt clothes for 3 months. And no one noticed?

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