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COLUMN ONE

A Trail of Blood on the Rails

Police say an elusive band of train-hopping transients could be responsible for scores of deaths along U.S. freight lines. In a world where clues shift constantly, catching suspects is a daunting challenge.

September 17, 1997|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"He's free," Neale sighs. "He's riding the rails. He's out there. He could be found. It might take a couple, three weeks, maybe. . . . Building a case with solid evidence is the problem because the crime scene is mobile. The minute I got through with the crime scene and released it to the railroad, they were out of there. The scene was mobile. The victim was mobile. The suspect was mobile."

Railroad officials tend to play down the impact of the FTRA, saying it has not had a major role in official incident reports along rail lines. "We are aware that this organization exists. We have had minimal encounters with anybody who claims to be a part of this group. We've probably heard more about them than we've actually heard from them," said Jim Sabourin, spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

"Some of these people [arrested as transients] sometimes identify themselves as members of this organization, but they don't do anything different than anybody else that takes chances and gets on trains," said Edward Trandahl of Union Pacific.

Still, railroad officials admit they are fighting an uphill battle against a rail-riding culture whose idea of freedom is, as it has been since the days of Jack London, a set of tracks and an open boxcar. Union Pacific last year spotted 4,200 trespassers a month, averaging 600 arrests.

"There are people nowadays, a lot of them are young, college-age types that do this for fun, regardless of the fact that it's very, very dangerous," Sabourin said. "The other type is a transient, who sort of lives from town to town, and from train to train. We treat both of them the same way. They're trespassers."

'A Loaded Stick of Dynamite'

Look up on the concrete supports of the Freya Way Bridge in east Spokane, over the Union Pacific tracks, and you can find him.

"Dogman TW. F.T.R.A.," it says in scrawled letters.

"I don't even wanna see Dogman Tony. He'll kill you in a heartbeat. He's a loaded stick of dynamite," says a thin, blond-bearded man stretched out under the bridge.

His companion, Pamela Dawn Pierce--who calls herself "Spitfire"--claims she was raped by an FTRA member. Fighting them has become her passion. She holds up a sign that she has carried on rail lines across the country.

"We aren't FTRA. But we are people, too," it says. "We don't beat each other up to prove our brotherhood. . . . Leave us alone. We used to be safe. Now we aren't. Only because of FTRA. They seem to think they own everyone, to beat them to DEATH."

She points up the tracks, where the Union Pacific joins the Burlington Northern out along the river. "You want FTRA," she says. "They're up there."

In a camp near the old rendering plant, a thin, weathered man wearing a black bandanna shrugs. "It's just a bunch of guys who ride trains," says the man, who identifies himself as "Sideline."

"It started out as a family thing. It was a brotherhood. They call us racist, but I get on white people same as I do anyone else." The bandanna, he says, is a symbol. "It just means I earned my place. I proved myself. I wasn't a user. I wasn't a taker. I gave. I was a brother."

He talks about Horizontal John, the FTRA member who died of alcohol poisoning under the Freya Street bridge earlier this year. "They said we kill each other when we have our little rituals. Like we killed Horizontal John. Well, America killed Horizontal John. He had Agent Orange from Vietnam."

"Me," he said, "I just don't like people. I prefer to be off by myself. It's hard for me to deal with a job, because I don't take orders well. I don't got a job, but I got what I need. I got a tent, a sleeping bag, a dog. I'm good to go. What do I need with a house, a mortgage, 12 kids running around? I'm not bothering anybody. My camp's clean."

Further up the river, the hum of city traffic gets more distant, the squeal of the freights more pronounced, and there are signs of a small camp nestled in a grove of trees on the water's edge. Here, according to the rumor of the rails, can be found Melford Lawson, one of the founders of the FTRA. Lawson, it is said, has come to town for the veterans' clothing handout scheduled the next day.

*

Like visiting royalty, the gray-bearded Lawson, clad in combat fatigues, a black Rottweiler at his side, holds court at the very back of a tent of trees, narrowing his eyes to the sunlight as a visitor walks in.

Eventually, Lawson is persuaded to tell the story of the late-night meeting in Libby, Mont., when FTRA founder Daniel Boone, now a Pentecostal preacher in Montana, got together a group of friends in 1982 and suggested forming a group called "F--- the Reagan Administration."

"It started as a joke. There were 12 of us. They said, 'What are you?,' and we said, 'FTRA.' " Only later, says Lawson, did they come to be known as Freight Train Riders of America.

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