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Fatal Amtrak sabotage in Ariz. still unsolved

(The following article by Dennis Wagner was posted on the Arizona Republic website on October 9.)

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Exactly one decade ago this morning, under the glimmer of a full moon, Amtrak's Sunset Limited snaked through the Gila Bend Mountains about 60 miles southwest of Phoenix.

The train, heading to Los Angeles from Orlando with 268 passengers, descended toward a trestle at Quail Springs Wash - the only significant curve along 100 miles of track.

Rolling along at 50 mph, engineer Gean Haffey checked the 12 trailing cars in a mirror. His assistant, Gary Lawrence, looked ahead through a windscreen. They passed a green light indicating the rails were safe ahead.

Most of the passengers were nodding in their seats or dozing in sleeper cars.

At 1:23 a.m., the desert stillness was broken by a grinding crash as engines jumped the tracks. With a sickening scream of torn metal, both engines and eight cars left the rails, some of them toppling down an embankment. Mitchell Bates, a porter, was killed. Seventy-eight people were injured, a dozen seriously.

The Sunset Limited had been sabotaged for maximum damage. Those responsible pulled 29 spikes that held the tracks in place. They used jumper cables to reconnect wires so that a red-light warning system failed.

The perpetrators also left notes - "Indictment of the ATF and FBI" - decrying law enforcement sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge. They compared federal agencies to Nazi secret police and identified themselves as "Sons of the Gestapo."

"Operation Splitrail," as it became known, was the nation's second-largest terrorism probe to its time, behind the Oklahoma City bombing.

Janet Napolitano, then U.S. attorney for Arizona, declared: "It may be a day; it may be a week; it may be a month. But we will be successful."

Ten years later, the case remains unsolved. But FBI Special Agent Scott McKee has not given up.

"If there was something more we could have done, somebody needs to hit me over the head and tell me what it is," said McKee, who has been assigned to the case for seven years. "It's still a major case. . . . It'll never be closed."

After the crash, Arizona investigators and 125 FBI agents initially focused on left-wing radicals and right-wing militia types. They soon decided the Gestapo letter was a hoax and targeted ex-railroad Amtrak employees or others with a vendetta against the railroad. Finally, they pursued firefighters and first-responders who might have derailed the train to fulfill a hero complex.

"We had a list - a huge list - of possible suspects," McKee said. "We assigned each one of those people to an investigator. That was their baby. But they were ruled out - every one of them."

Agents received hundreds of tips, all dead ends. They developed psychological profiles. They searched houses and barns for typewriters, tires, railroad tools. They conducted polygraph exams and hounded West Valley residents until some complained to the media.

Tipsters were offered a $320,000 reward. The case was featured on Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted. In 1998, authorities descended into an 800-foot-deep abandoned mine, searching for dead bodies and a vehicle used by the saboteurs.

Each lead fizzled; each suspect walked away.

McKee said the case has "gone into folklore and conspiracy theories" on the Internet. He still gets occasional tips, mostly from prison inmates who fabricate information in hopes of making deals.

Meanwhile, the saboteurs wrecked lives as well as a train.

Vivian Pleasant of Tennessee, who suffered serious injuries, contemplated suicide during the ensuing months. An obituary indicates she passed away in 1998.

Dan Comesano, a conductor from Mesa, suffered back injuries in a wreck that killed his close friend. Comesano told The Republic years ago that the crash sent him into unemployment, debt, depression, alcohol and marriage problems.

Aside from victims, members of the Tonopah Valley Fire Department were hit hardest. Two years after the sabotage, an FBI secretary mistakenly faxed an Operation Splitrail bulletin to Arizona media outlets. The report identified Steven Albert Mills, a former captain at Tonopah's department, as a suspect and also mentioned firefighters Larry Leforte and Steve Hurley.

Mills, who never was arrested, could not be reached for comment.

Hurley, who reportedly claimed to have been the first emergency worker to reach the wreckage, committed suicide three years ago, according to attorney Daniel Inserra, who added, "He never really recovered mentally from all his problems with that train."

Leforte said he has never understood why he got mentioned to the FBI, because he wasn't even part of the rescue effort.

"This had some profound effects on my life," added Leforte, who now works for the state. "We ended up dealing with the aftereffects: the finger-pointing and driving to Phoenix to deal with guys in gray suits and black cars."

Leforte said suspicion and fear tormented him: "I struggled for a couple of years, thinking, 'My God, I'm (seen as) a criminal. I didn't do anything, but I'm being accused.' You never knew if someone was going to show up at your door. . . . It would be great to have a resolution."

McKee, the case agent, said he's hoping a new round of publicity will coax someone with information to call the FBI at (602) 279-5511.

Monday, October 10, 2005

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