BY LARRY LEBOWITZ, MATTHEW I. PINZUR and JENNIFER LEBOVICHJames 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.''
Suspect: I am not a 'transit freak'By LARRY LEBOWITZ AND MATTHEW I. PINZURWith an alibi from his stepmother and four pages of handwritten notes, the teen branded a ''transit freak'' by Miami-Dade transportation managers said Monday he had nothing to do with two brash bus thefts over the last six weeks.''I'm not a freak,'' said 18-year-old James L. Harris.During a hastily called news conference outside a McDonald's in Liberty City, Harris said detectives and transit employees lured him to the Central Bus garage where he was tricked into signing a confession to the first bus theft.Authorities say on June 1, Harris drove the 40-foot bus for more than four hours. The wannabe professional driver's first stop: Palm Avenue in Hialeah, where he allegedly showed off his prize to a bona fide transit driver.He later cruised through Aventura and down Collins Avenue on Miami Beach where he spent several hours picking up fare-paying passengers on South Beach before returning the bus, undamaged, and with the fare box in tact, back to the garage in Miami Gardens.Harris, who was arrested June 22, is also being investigated for a second heist of another 40-foot bus on July 13 from the transit agency's Coral Way garage.That bus was missing for more than six hours, authorities said. At one point, on-board surveillance videos show the thief making out on the bus with an unidentified man.Harris said the allegations, first published last week in The Miami Herald, ''slandered,'' ''embarrassed'' and ''publicly humiliated'' him and his family.That bus was missing from 8 p.m. until about 2 a.m. when it was tracked via Global Positioning System devices to the South Dade Busway in Florida City. A mechanic was sent to intercept the bus, and the thief fled shortly after his arrival. He later identified Harris as the thief from a booking mug, according to Derrick Gordon, assistant director of bus operations.Harris denied any involvement in the July 13 incident. He said he was home that night with his stepmother.Helen Harris said they got up early the next morning to catch a bus so he could make his first appearance at the Miami-Dade Criminal Courthouse on the June 1 bus theft charges.''They can strap me down to any polygraph machine,'' James Harris said. ``They said they couldn't find me? Monday morning I was in court.''Harris is due back in court for another hearing Tuesday morning.Miami-Dade police, who have been looking for Harris since Friday, declined to comment.Transit agency officials also refused to respond to Harris' barrage of criticisms after the impromptu news conference in the fast-food restaurant's parking lot.Harris is well known at Miami-Dade Transit. In 2004, he played an active role in petitioning the agency to develop a new circulator -- Route 46 -- in Brownsville and Liberty City. In May, he testified before a County Commission hearing over proposed route cuts.He has several friends among the unionized drivers. Two of them are accused of helping him put together a uniform and sneak past security guards at the bus lots. They have been suspended pending a termination hearing.Harris said Monday he never had a uniform. He also took issue with being called a ''transit freak'' by the agency's assistant director of bus operations.''I'm not a transit freak,'' Harris said. ``They should be calling Mr. Derrick Gordon the Transit Liar.''''I meant to call him a fanatic, not a freak,'' Gordon said Monday, before referring all further questions to the transit agency spokesmen. ``He's really a sweet kid, for whatever that's worth.''Harris' paternal grandmother said the teen has had a very strong interest in buses since childhood.''He's been loving buses since he was a little boy,'' said Odessa Harris.