BY LARRY LEBOWITZ, MATTHEW I. PINZUR and JENNIFER LEBOVICHhttp://www.miamiherald.com/news/breaking_dade/v-print/story/608717.html
James Harris loves public buses so much, he stole one from a Miami-Dade depot last month and, wearing a genuine uniform, chauffeured unsuspecting fare-paying passengers around South Beach for hours, police and government officials said Thursday.
When Harris, 18, was arrested a few days later, he posted bail -- and promptly stole a second bus.
''He's a real transit freak,'' said Derrick Gordon, assistant director for bus operations.
The transit fanboy got an official shirt, jacket and hat from two actual drivers he had befriended, Gordon said. Both drivers have been suspended as the county moves to fire them. The hat was important -- he wore it pulled down low with big sunglasses, Gordon said, theorizing that may have helped him amble past security guards at the depot.
He lifted the first bus on June 1, Miami-Dade police said, and quickly called another bus driver who was on the job. The driver, Larry Johnson, thought Harris was joking -- until he pulled up behind him in bus No. 5139 on Palm Avenue in Hialeah, according to a police report.
Johnson told him to bring the bus back, but Harris instead drove the 40-footer east toward Aventura and then south for a beachfront roll down Collins Avenue.
He spent the afternoon picking up 25-cent fares along the South Beach Local. The route, which circulates around Alton Road, 17th Street, Washington Avenue and South Pointe, is a popular line.
There was no sign Harris pocketed any of the cash, no complaints from passengers. He returned the bus undamaged to the Miami Springs yard around 7:45 that night, Gordon said.
Harris was ratted out by a legitimate South Beach bus driver who wondered why a full-size bus was being used on a route normally serviced by smaller, 30-foot circulators.
Three weeks later, while police were investigating, Harris called dispatch to apologize. The dispatcher transferred him to Gordon, who convinced Harris to come talk with police the next morning.
He was charged with burglary and grand theft, to which he pleaded not guilty.
Harris, who has spoken about buses at county government meetings and participated in Transit's ridership survey, was still out on bail when he returned to the driver's seat last Sunday, Transit officials said.
He wore the same uniform but went to a different depot, this one at Southwest 79th Avenue and Coral Way. Gordon said he strolled onto the yard around 8 p.m. and drove down to the South Dade Busway.
It was unclear whether he picked up any fares during the second trip, but one passenger made it a real joyride: With the bus pulled to the side of the road, security cameras show Harris making out with an unidentified man.
Transit realized the bus was missing and used GPS to track it to Florida City.
Dispatchers called Harris on the radio and told him there was a problem with the bus.
Stay put, Gordon said they told him, and wait for the mechanic to arrive.
''He's totally dreaming at this point -- he's fantasizing he's a bus operator,'' Gordon said. ``He wants to be one so bad.''
When the repairman arrived around 2 a.m., Harris overheard dispatch asking for an employee badge.
He ran off, and police have been unable to find him.
The Miami Herald's attempts to reach Harris on Thursday were unsuccessful, as well.
The wild story came out during Thursday's Miami-Dade Commission meeting, when Commissioner Joe Martinez dropped it to illustrate the ludicrous problems that continue to plague Transit.
''It's really embarrassing,'' Martinez said, sending the packed chamber into hysterics.
The former cop later said he was not aware he had divulged details about a pending investigation, with a suspect who was still on the street.
Other commissioners, half-jokingly, wondered if the young man allowed seniors to ride for free on the Golden Passport. But there was also indignation that such a cavalier crime was possible.
''Now we find out that buses have been stolen?,'' said Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, chairman of the Transit Committee. ``That's a g--d----- joke.''
Transit Director Harpal Kapoor promised a swift and thorough investigation, including a look at whether depot security guards were lax. Those guards work under a county contract with Wackenhut, which the county has previously accused of abandoning Metrorail and Metromover stations they were paid to patrol. The company is on notice of having its contract canceled.
Kapoor also said the department will begin installing cameras at entrances to the county's three major bus depots. Guards have started checking identification for everyone entering the facilities -- even those in uniform -- and Kapoor said he may institute a taxi-style system of prominently displaying drivers' photo IDs where passengers can see them.
Harris is unlikely to earn one.
''I know he has a dream of becoming a bus operator one day,'' said Eric Muntan, transit's director of safety and security. ``He's going to have a hard time getting a bus operator job -- or anything else -- anytime soon.''
"A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” - Muhammad Ali