Proposed punishment for CTA radio airwave thief: Cleaning rail cars and probation

The Case of the CTA Radio and Airwaves Thief lit up the blogosphere yesterday. I wrote about the 20-year-old Chicagoan who charged in federal court with impersonating a train official.

UPDATE: A CTA spokesperson has confirmed that the radio was not stolen from the CTA. Marcel Carter bought it and located the CTA frequency. So, I would call him a radio airwave thief.

Carter even gave an interview on a park bench to ABC7 reporter Sara Schulte, in which he wondered whether the charge was a misdemeanor.

Um, no. It's a felony charge.

Now, what Carter did was dumb and dangerous, but I don't believe he deserves 20 years in prison, the maximum he could receive. I do think he should be punished, though fellow ChicagoNow blogger Garrard McClendon feels Carter deserves nothing more than probation. We discussed Carter and his proposed punishment last night on Garrard McClendon Live on CLTV.

I think that while they guy may not have meant any harm, certainly it's possible that something bad could have happened. And that deserves some type of punishment -- I say at least a week's worth of community service cleaning CTA train cars.

And the CTA is not without some blame here. How could they let a radio get "lost" like that? One caller to Garrard's show last night -- who said he's a CTA employee -- noted that radios have to be signed out and back in every day. So the CTA needs to tighten up its procedures there.

UPDATE: See above update. The radio was not stolen from the CTA.

See more video from my chat with Garrard in the continuation.


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  • Spt: you ask a good question here. Frankly, I've seen conflicting reports about whether the radio was stolen. But to me, it doesn't matter as much as what he did with the radio after he got it. He could have caused a terrible accident. This most troubling to me.

  • Besides the "stolen radio" question (I had initially also come to the incorrect conclusion that because Carter said he had a stolen radio, it actually was, but people with CTA connections said that if it were actually stolen, it would have been easy to lock out its id) the other thing, which Carter didn't realize, is that he committed a federal crime, and the feds don't mess around. I'm not sure you realize it either. This will not result in a couple of weekends of scrubbing a CTA car with a toothbrush.

    In fact there are serious Homeland Security issues here. For instance, in the case where Carter was accused of instructing an operator to run a red signal, while it is not clear that that was in response to an actual operator's request, just think what would have happened if an operator actually acted in accordance with that direction. There are plenty of instances where L crashes occurred because an operator did not honor the signal, a recent one when the L split the junction at 58th and a car hung over the gore. Don't forget the 1977 crash where the cars fell off the L, killing 11. Now, what would happen if there was that kind of "accident," and the operator says "the control center told me to proceed?"

    This is not child's play, and as I said, the feds don't mess around.

  • I would agree that the main issue with regard to this incident is that Marcel Carter had blatant disregard for public safety by messing around on the airwaves and issuing "orders" to public transit operators. The issue of whether the radio was stolen or not wasn't an issue until you went on air with Garrard McClendon and placed blame on the CTA for allowing a radio to go missing for such a long period of time.

    If you go back and watch the ABC report, the radio was not "stolen", but rather purchased from an outside source and modified to be able to transmit and receive on the CTA's frequency. To go on air and imply that the CTA is somehow at fault for this is irresponsible reporting. As an "expert" on all things transit, you shouldn't be spreading rumors but rather disseminating facts. The CTA did a great job by recognizing the bogus transmissions and intercepting most of them before they had a chance to reach transit operators. The CTA wasn't "culpable" for losing the radio and they don't need to keep better track on their equipment as you stated on air. If I were Rich Rodriguez, I'd slap you with a libel suit for creating/promoting this stupid rumor.

    As for the punishment, I like your idea about a sentence to clean CTA rail cars and buses. It definitely should be longer than a week though.

    Your blog is usually good stuff and always informative, but I'm beginning to wonder what else from your blog is pure fiction and how much is based in fact.

  • In reply to jcheung:

    Jcheung: Please note my update in the post, that the radio was not stolen. Also note that I said last night I didn't know what happened, and that there were conflicting reports. Now I have confirmation of what really happened, and have duly reported it.

  • "The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force has been investigating the case for more than a year, in which someone, posing sometimes as a train operator and other times as control center worker, made over 300 unauthorized transmissions, sometimes giving false or dangerous instructions to trains." - NBC (with stories of a command to ignore stop signals)

    I don't think we can claim that he didn't mean harm. This guy was more malicious then people give him credit for.

    And jack, how would this work, locking out a radio based on id? It sounds like he just used a conventional radio, so they are probably using standard SSB or FM. (not doubting you, just curious how that would work if you know)

  • In reply to sargas:

    I'm only saying what people have posted on It has been reported that police radios coordinated by the 911 center give digital identifications, so that the transmissions can be verified. I have also seen bus radios (on other systems) where the driver had to log in using a code (such as 229102 for run number 9102). This guy has said similar things, and the Channel 7 and other reports indicate that once CTA caught on, it blocked him from transmitting to operators.

    The one thing I had assumed is that since the Orbital system in the buses is digital, the walkie-talkies on the L also were, but he said they weren't.

  • In reply to sargas:

    I think the punishment should depend on the type of "instructions" he was giving out to the operators. If he was telling them to run lights or go beyond speed limits, then by all means give him 20 years. But if it was not malicious, I can understand giving him far less than that.

  • In reply to sargas:

    CTA should promptly close the security loophole allowing someone to modify a radio set and snoop the CTA, that's bad isn't it? I think he should be tossed in jail with an appropriately harsh sentence esp. if evidence shows he put people's lives at risk during his transmissions. Consider how many opportunities he had to simply stop what he was doing over the year - is it likely that law enforcement would have caught him? My point is that if it was a 'prank', this behavior, which is very bad, would stop at one incident - in this case he did it 300 times over 1+ years, how can people give any leniency here? Too bad, probably had a good future ahead of him as an engineer or technician ... now not so much.

  • In reply to sargas:

    Probation and community service by showing someone in Communications at the CTA and at the 911 Center how he managed it.

    And some cleaning of some hobo corners.

  • In reply to sargas:

    I work in the communications security field and think some clarification is in order. The fact that there may or may not have been a stolen radio is not really an issue. The radio system that CTA uses is a conventional, UHF-FM, analog repeater system. CTAs own radios do not have the capability of remote shutdown/stun etc. All the information needed to program a radio that was purchased from eBay, or even some amateur radio vendors is freely available on websites such as Basically go buy a radio, program it up and within 5 minutes you are interfering to your hearts content. The only way that CTA can do anything to keep this from happening is to spend millons of dollars on replacing their infrastructure, and subscriber radio equipment to something that supports encryption. The reason the feds are involved is that crimes such as these are the sole juristiction of federal athorities and for good reason. CTA/CPD etc simply does not have juristiction in this matter. It is extremely fortunate that nothing serious has occured by this clown operating illegally on their frequencies, but it does not excuse or lesson the severity of what he did. CTAs situation is not unique, there are literally tens of thousands of radio systems are operate simalarly to CTAs, that suffer from the same issue of some one deciding they want to talk to the cops/bus/rail/firemen. There are numerous stories about people doing exactly what this guy did and interfereing with everyone from Amateur Radio repeaters, as well as Coast Guard and local public safety radio systems... google Jack Gerritsen to see just how serious this can be and what penalties can be imposed.

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