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Suspect in Metrolink Crash to Undergo Tests

January 29, 2005|Erica Williams and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

Juan Manuel Alvarez, the apparently suicidal Compton man accused of killing 11 people and injuring more than 180 when he parked his Jeep Grand Cherokee in front of a speeding Metrolink train, appeared bandaged and shackled in court Friday as his lawyer argued that he was the victim of a "lynch mob mentality."

Alvarez, 25, who could face the death penalty, has remained heavily sedated and under suicide watch at County-USC Medical Center since the accident, according to defense lawyer Eric Chase.

Standing with bowed head, Alvarez muttered a quick "yes, sir" to court officials when asked if he agreed to postpone his arraignment on 11 murder charges until medical and psychological tests could be performed.

Although Glendale's police chief has described him as being "deranged" and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said his despondence is no reason for leniency, Chase suggested to reporters that the severity of the charges were being driven by emotion.

"I'm sensing a mentality out there that I almost want to call a lynch mob mentality. But I'm hoping that that calms down," Chase said.

Prosecutors say that Alvarez intended to commit suicide but changed his mind as a southbound Metrolink train bore down on him. He tried to drive away, but the car was stuck, and he leapt from the vehicle seconds before the train struck it, derailed and hit another Metrolink train and an idle freight train. Special-circumstance charges of train wrecking and multiple murder, if proved in court, could bring the death penalty.

Railroad crews worked throughout the rainy day and night Friday, removing mangled train cars and pounding temporary rails into place at the site of the derailment.

"We want to have it up and running Saturday morning for freight service and Monday morning for regular service," said Mike McGinley, Metrolink's director of engineering.

Nineteen of the injured passengers remained hospitalized, four in critical condition.

At Glendale Adventist Hospital, Louis McAleer, 39, was recovering from knee and ankle injuries. An electrical supervisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, McAleer said he was in the lead car that struck the SUV. McAleer was hurled about the car as it slid off the tracks and struck the two other trains.

He said he often imagined what it would be like if his train derailed, but his imagination never came close to the reality.

"It was so much worse," McAleer said. "The abruptness, the sounds, the smells, the quick impact. I'm lucky to be alive."

McAleer said he has relived the crash every day since and has strong feelings about Alvarez.

"He should have just stayed on the tracks without his truck," McAleer said. "That would have fixed everything. I have no remorse for him. What he did is just wrong. Leaving a car on the tracks so that it derails a passenger train is just wrong."

On Thursday and Friday, two dozen Metrolink employees and about 60 contractors removed debris from twisted and damaged tracks and hoisted derailed train cars onto the tracks for removal. One of the cars was hauled away by flatbed truck and stored as evidence for the Glendale Police Department.

Crews used four "side boom trucks" to hoist the cars off the ground with cables and set them on the tracks, said Ed Pederson, a manager of safety and security for Metrolink. "Hospital trains" will tow the uprighted rail cars to Metrolink's rail yard near downtown Los Angeles for repairs. Two cab cars and two regular passenger cars were damaged beyond repair.

Crews also were replacing damaged rails with temporary ones. About 400 feet of rail will be replaced and packed into place with gravel. Until longer, permanent rails are installed a month from now, trains will have to slow to 35 mph at the site. With permanent rails, trains can travel up to 70 mph. Workers also must repair a signal bridge.

Although the tracks are owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and maintained by Metrolink, Union Pacific uses them as well.

"The Union Pacific runs a fair amount of trains on this line, and there is not an alternate route," Pederson said. "We're trying to return it to service so that the freight trains could run on it [this weekend]."

But commuter train service through that corridor won't return until Monday.

"It keeps the tracks clear for the freight," Pederson said. "We're sorry for the inconvenience, the impact on the people, but it was the best decision at the time it was made two days ago."


Times staff writers Amanda Covarrubias, Richard Winton, Caitlin Liu and Patricia Ward Biederman contributed to this report.

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