A man who was discovered after living at O’Hare International Airport for three months without detection was cleared of a related criminal charge this week in a case that raised security questions at one of the world’s busiest airports.
A Cook County judge found Aditya Singh, 37, not guilty on Tuesday of felony criminal trespass to a restricted area of an airport.
Judge Adrienne Davis made the ruling in a directed verdict without the defense having to put on a case. Singh still faces a separate escape charge related to an alleged violation of electronic monitoring while he was free on bond earlier this year. That case is due in court Friday.
After coming to the United States nearly six years ago to complete a master’s degree program, Singh boarded a Chicago-bound flight from Los Angeles on Oct. 19, 2020, to begin his journey home to India.
He never made it.
Prosecutors said Singh told authorities that the coronavirus pandemic left him too afraid to fly and so he instead remained in the airport, often relying on the kindness of strangers to buy him food.
Singh hid out in the airport’s secured terminal area with access to shops, food and public bathrooms until his Jan. 16 arrest after two United Airlines employees asked to see his identification. He showed them an airport ID badge that an operations manager had reported missing in late October 2020, prosecutors said.
His arrest made national headlines, with comparisons to the 2004 Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal.”
The Transportation Security Administration launched an investigation. The TSA regulates O’Hare security for the Chicago Department of Aviation.
Authorities found no evidence that Singh left the secured public side of the airport, according to his assistant public defender, Courtney Smallwood. The TSA investigation earlier this year found Singh did not violate airport regulations.
“Mr. Singh did not breach or improperly enter secured areas — he arrived there like tens of thousands of arriving passengers do every day, by stepping off a plane,” Christine Carrino, an aviation department spokeswoman, said in a statement to the Tribune earlier this year. “While we won’t speculate on Mr. Singh’s motivations, he decided to remain in the secure area and made every effort to blend in as a passenger and airline employee until his arrest.”
Singh does not have a prior criminal record.
After he completed a master’s program at Oklahoma State University in summer 2019, he moved to Orange, California, southeast of Los Angeles, and lived with a man who told the Tribune he had offered Singh a place to live in exchange for helping him care for his elderly father and other odd jobs.
Singh’s visa was expiring, the man said, so he planned in October 2020 to return to India, where his mother lives. The two men met through a mutual friend, Mary Steele, who told the Tribune Singh is a kind, nonviolent person who revealed to her in late November 2020 that he was living in the airport as part of a spiritual awakening of sorts.
After his highly publicized arrest, Steele shared a series of texts with the Tribune that she said were exchanged between her and Singh last year as he hid out in the airport. Singh told her he planned to return to California with the goal of getting to India. The two discussed bus fare prices, and Steele offered to help.
On Dec. 1, 2020, he wrote in a text to her, “I need to complete my karmic lessons that I’m learning here. Then I’ll be able to go back home to India.” Singh said he enjoyed speaking to other people in the airport, sharing his Buddhist and Hindu beliefs on healing and trying to help improve their lives, according to Steele.
In a Jan. 3 response, Singh texted, “I’m actually growing spiritually due to this experience and I know I will come out stronger.”
Two Chicago nonprofits stepped up to aid the man after his arrest. The Chicago Bail Project posted $1,000 bail and A Safe Haven, a nonprofit that helps homeless people, provided him a place to live.
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