Movie-inspired stunt by 2 teens could have caused derailment

(The following article by Ed Zagorski was posted on the Greater Milwaukee Today website on August 15.)

THEINSVILLE, Wisc. -- Some say imitation may be the best form of flattery, but two local teenagers may have taken it too far when they emulated a scene from the 1999 movie "October Sky" and removed more than a 150 railroad spikes from tracks spreading from Thiensville to Mequon.

"In cooperation with the railroad we are going to request charges of damage to property, theft and endangering safety by conduct regardless of life because their willful actions had the potential for a train derailment," said Dick Preston, Thiensville police chief.

Preston said his department received a report of suspicious persons in the village and when officers spoke with the 17-year-old Thiensville boy and the 18-year-old Mequon man at 11:08 p.m. Aug. 3, the pairís story didnít sound legitimate.

Upon further questioning, police discovered the two had removed 157 spikes from the tracks and three railroad connector plates between Highland and Mequon roads.

The 17-year-old Thiensville boy told police the two were imitating what they had seen in "October Sky," which tells the story of Homer Hickam Jr., a coal minerís son who was inspired by the first Sputnik launch to take up rocketry and later work for NASA.

In the movie, the characters begin taking railroad spikes and selling them for money to aid them in building rockets of their own. Police said the two teenagers were not interested in building rockets, but, instead, were looking to make some extra cash.

The 17-year-old Thiensville boy, Robert Otto, is currently facing charges associated with the negligent handling of a weapon for using a paintball gun to shoot an acquaintance in the face in March. He will be in court for that matter on Aug. 21.

But now Otto and the 18-year-old, whose name is not being released until he is formally charged, could see more serious penalties.

According to the police report, the two went to the train tracks to find some loose rail stakes. They searched for 30 minutes in Thiensville and another 30 minutes in Mequon and put the stakes in an ice cooler, which was found in the 18-year-old boyís car.

The teens told police they planned to sell them; and they could have received about $3 each for the spikes and $10 apiece for the three steel plates that were removed and are used to connect the tracks, the report says. Police also found a crow bar and a tire iron, which were used to remove the rail spikes.

Police estimated the damages at $2,500 with an additional $3,000 in replacement costs.

David Knuth, a CN Railroad commission risk manager and criminal investigator for the railroad, said crews were on the scene immediately.

"There was a significant amount of train delays in that area because of this, but public safety is a number one priority for us," Knuth said. "We were not going to have any train traffic until the tracks were inspected once and then again before we were going to resume traffic. There is always a chance for a derailment, and this was not a favorable situation for us, but we will not compromise public safety."

Knuth said the partnership between the Mequon and Thiensville police departments enabled CN Railroad to quickly halt train traffic and begin inspections before something went wrong.

Knuth said the investigation in this matter continues. He also said this is the first time something like this has occurred on that particular stretch of railway.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

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