A Trail of Blood on the Rails
F-Trooper died as he had lived, with a cigarette in one hand and a can of Schmidt’s Ice beer in the other. They found him when the Montana Rail Link pulled into the repair shop. F-Trooper was sitting there in one of the boxcars as he so often had before--except this time he had five bullets in his head.
Police had little to go on: a blood-spattered cardboard 12-pack between Tracks 3 and 4. Bloody footprints in the boxcar. Some spent shell casings. A tattoo on F-Trooper that said “F.T.R.A.”
It is a symbol that has become an unnerving part of the railroad landscape across the West, where the mysterious brotherhood known as the Freight Train Riders of America has gained a foothold in the world of switching yards, bridge underpasses and boxcars--the realm of the American hobo for more than a century.
Concentrated in the Northwest along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s 1,500-mile High Line between Seattle and Minneapolis, the FTRA claims at least 1,000 itinerant train riders who police believe could be responsible for hundreds of deaths, assaults and thefts along American rail lines over the last two decades.
Police say F-Trooper, a rail-riding nickname for 30-year-old hobo Joseph Perrigo, died when a fellow FTRA member exacted revenge for an earlier confrontation. The list of potential witnesses for the upcoming trial reads like a Who’s Who of the modern American rails: Moose. Hotshot. Desert Rat. Muskrat. Pennsylvania Pollack.
The fact that there’s going to be a trial at all in the May 1996 slaying represents something of an exception in law enforcement’s long-running battle with the gang, whose exploits usually produce witnesses who disappear on the next train, a crime scene that travels from Spokane to Klamath Falls, a victim found dead in the middle of the prairie next to a set of railroad tracks, leaving no known address and an age-old question: Did he jump or was he pushed?
“They’re a criminal element that can do just about anything,” said Spokane Police Det. Bob Grandinetti, who has compiled an exhaustive database on the FTRA. “You get two or three of them together, they’ll roll a guy over and push him off the train. You’re moving at 50 or 60 miles an hour, what do you think your chances are? We’re finding bodies like that all over the country.”
Law enforcement officials say the group, launched by a cadre of Vietnam War veterans in a Montana bar in the 1980s, is composed primarily of white men, many with racist sympathies symbolized in the swastikas and lightning bolts that often accompany FTRA graffiti. The group, authorities say, has terrorized other train tramps, set up rail lines out of Texas as drug-running corridors and run a massive food stamp scam by filing thousands of fraudulent welfare applications at cities along virtually every train stop in the nation.
“There are 70 to 90 deaths a year [along the rail lines] all over the country,” Grandinetti says. “Sure, some are natural causes. Some are accidents. But some aren’t. And the problem is, the suspects and all the witnesses disappear.”
“Everybody in the country’s in the same spot,” said Saginaw, Texas, police Det. James Neale. He has unsuccessfully pursued a suspected FTRA member who he believes tortured and murdered a transient at knifepoint, stuffing the body on a train.
“These people, they fall through the cracks. They don’t live in houses like we do, they don’t have cars. . . . Our system is not designed for these kinds of people, so they can just ride the rails, they can commit murder and mayhem almost at will.”
The fact that a growing number of college students and young professionals are riding the rails for sport has heightened concern about potential conflict with a network of loners--some FTRA, some simply train tramps--who count their possessions as an extra shirt, a sleeping roll and a dog. What, police ask, will happen as weekend “hoppers” pick their way through lonely switching yards into an underground network of the deliberately dispossessed?
One of the answers came in August of 1994, when 20-year-old Michael Garfinkle of Tarzana, on summer break from college, strapped on a backpack and headed north through California on the rails. Police say he met suspected FTRA member Robert Silveria near Emeryville. Silveria later admitted killing the young man with an ax handle.
A longtime rail rider who reportedly has confessed to at least nine slayings, Silveria walked up toward Garfinkle’s camp, where the young man told him: “This is my area,” Emeryville police Detective Wade Harper said. Silveria apparently disagreed.
“What we’re seeing is that these guys, because they made this conscious decision to move away from society, as they feel encroached on by these guys who have jobs from 9 to 5, it’s making them mad,” said Salem, Ore., police detective Mike Quakenbush.
“I can see where more Joe Blow Citizen people are going to get injured and hurt. Because this riding the trains thing is increasing in popularity, and it’s pissing these guys off. They don’t like you, they don’t like you riding their trains, and if you’re not willing to make that whole transition over, then get the hell out.”
FTRA Graffitti Common on Bridges
Their calling cards can be found at almost any railway bridge or overpass in the West, the trademark scrawl of “F.T.R.A.,” often accompanied by swastikas or lightning bolts and other common slogans: “STP” for “start the party,” “FTW” for “f--- the world.”
Grandinetti, who started documenting the emergence of the FTRA in the 1980s, said it began with the railroads reporting bodies along the High Line between Spokane and Sandpoint, Idaho, and as far west as Cheney, Wash.
The bodies had their shirts and jackets pulled up around their heads, and their pants pulled down, he recalls. “The first one or two, the railroad was saying, well, he fell off a train and cut his leg and he bled to death,” Grandinetti said. “I could buy off on one or two of them. But after the sixth, I said, ‘My God, wait a minute.’ ”
About the same time, he said, a freight train derailed west of Spokane after the air line to the rear cars’ brakes was cut off. The suspect, who was killed in the crash, was wearing a black bandanna around his neck fastened with a silver ring.
Later, the bandanna would become the trademark of the FTRA--a black one for the original High Line riders, red for the southern corridor, blue for the central United States.
Suddenly, bandannas began figuring in a series of stabbings and beatings. Police began documenting the theft of IDs from bodies found along rail lines that were used later to collect food stamps at cities along train routes.
A key break came with the arrest last year in Roseville, Calif., of Silveria, who subsequently confessed to a string of boxcar killings from Florida to Montana between 1981 and 1995. A native of San Jose, the 38-year-old Silveria occasionally held down odd jobs but appeared primarily to have made his living knocking off fellow train riders for their welfare and disability checks, authorities said.
Silveria is awaiting trial in Salem, Ore., in the bludgeoning of 39-year-old William Pettit Jr. in 1995. Oregon prosecutors plan to introduce confessions to at least five other killings across the country.
Silveria, who has the word “Freedom” tattooed on his neck, purportedly explained his spree in a series of letters to a former Placer County jail mate, later filed with the court. He pronounced himself “the leader of my nation: the homeless,” and added: “I could have tortured others of your world, but I chose to torture my world, because I preyed on the weak.
“People always said I looked like the devil when I was beating the s--- out of [someone],” he wrote.
Silveria has subsequently denied FTRA affiliation, and authorities say he now claims that purported confessions were coerced. His lawyers have declined comment.
In another high-profile case, reputed FTRA member Anthony Hugh Ross, a suspect in the October 1995 boxcar killing that Neale is investigating, was picked up in La Crosse, Wis., on July 20 after a segment of TV’s “America’s Most Wanted” produced a tip.
Neale had gone for months without a good lead on the body of a 43-year-old transient found on a train sitting on a Saginaw side track. The man was identified by way of a food stamp voucher out of Pueblo, Colo., as Francis Terry.
In addition to the deep throat gash that ended his life, his body showed several healing knife wounds, indicating he also had been cut days or weeks earlier.
Quakenbush called from Oregon and said an FTRA member there claimed to have witnessed the slaying. “He described the murder, the scene, the kind of railroad car, the time of death, the weapon. . . . Things only he would know,” Neale said. “He said it was over dirty laundry, which means dope. They were hauling dope up from Mexico through Yuma. My victim stashed some of it for himself, and Dogman Tony [Ross’ road name] got mad at him.
“He said there was another guy with him who helped, a black guy by the name of Bushman. He said Bushman held [Terry] down and hit him on the head with a stick,” Neale said. “The witness said Dogman Tony . . . was waving the knife back and forth and saying ‘I could kill you in a heartbeat.’ He [Terry] was begging for his life. And then he said Dogman Tony killed him. . . . And then he said something, and this witness told me this several times. He said Dogman Tony said, ‘Another one bites the dust. Oh, well.’ ”
Ross was released last month without charges. Washington state declined to extradite him on an outstanding warrant. And Neale couldn’t get a warrant of his own. His witness--an unreliable hobo under the best of circumstances--got run over by a train. Neale hopes other leads will pan out.
“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.
“Now, they’re trying to accuse us of every murder between here and Montana,” says Lawson, shrugging. “Sure, there was Sidetrack [Silveria], but how many Jeffrey Dahmers, John Wayne Gacys are there? He’s like a bad apple, everybody’s got one.
“I swear to God, all we do is ride trains and stay drunk.”
“They call us a gang,” scoffs Lawson. “How do you organize 5,000 drunks? We can’t even agree on what kind of beer to drink.”
Indeed, the FTRA has taken on a kind of romance on the rails. Internet train-hopper discussion groups catalog its purported exploits and carry mug shots of Dogman Tony.
The world, say many train hoppers, has become a more perilous place.
Said Todd Waters, a Minneapolis advertising executive who has ridden the rails as a hobby since 1972: “You want to know what I think the biggest difference is between now and 20, 30 years ago? You know, one of the most dangerous places to be 30 years ago was a freight yard at midnight. Now, I think it’s the communities that surround the freight yards.”
George Lin of Palo Alto earned his doctorate in Soviet history at Stanford University while riding the rails. “Just speaking generally, the FTRA has become nearly mythical,” he said. “They seem to be used almost as a bogeyman, to strike the fear of God in people.”