Wealth I ask not, hope nor love, Nor a friend to know me; All I ask, the heavens above, And the road below me. —R.L. Stevenson, "The Vagabond"
In the late 1980s, my LASD surveillance team was requested by the Sheriff's Homicide to assist in staking out the turf of a gang known as the FTRA or Freight Train Riders of America. Their turf was trains and train right-of-ways from Seattle, Wash., to Mexico. It seemed that a serial killer was murdering hobos who rode the rails and camped in outdoor hobo jungle camps along the railroad tracks throughout the Southwest.
The victim vagabonds were commonly shot in the head at close range with a small caliber pistol while they slept in homeless encampments at night. The suspect had to be one of them, because he knew the camps and was apparently able to closely approach these wary travelers for a point blank shot to the head. Many of the victims were physically handicapped in some way. The unknown serial killer had earned the moniker "Bum Blaster." Profiles of the serial killer suggested that he was a "mercy killer" who felt sorry for the poor homeless transients and effectively put them out of their misery. Others suggested that he was a cold-blooded "thrill killer" who preyed on the most vulnerable victims, knowing that nobody would demand justice in their behalf, or even miss them.
My surveillance team was assigned to covertly monitor some of these camps of sleeping transients to prevent any further murders in Los Angeles and to watch for any suspicious activity.
Wanderlust and Rail Buffs
There are people who love trains and everything to do with them. Behind the County Jail in downtown Los Angeles there are railroad yards where cars are switched and locomotive engines pull in to refuel and do maintenance. Early in my career, I had run into these train enthusiasts, known locally as "the train freaks," while patrolling the perimeter of the jail. They could recite the name, origin, and destination of every train passing through the L.A. yards. They could even tell you the scheduled arrival and departure times. Sometimes they took photographs of the more famous engines.
This is when I first heard about the FTRA. Like the muffled whispers about the "Black Hand" of the Mafia in the Italian community, these "train freaks" whispered of a gang of outlaws that lived to ride the freight trains in the West. They were robbers, burglars, and hijackers with colorful names. Cross one of their members and they would get you. These were desperate and dangerous men. At the time, this "Homicidal Hobos" idea seemed a little far out for me to take too seriously. After all, we dealt with some of L.A.'s most dangerous local gangs. But I became a believer after the Bum Blaster case.
During our nighttime surveillances, I saw the signs of the passing of Freight Train Riders under railroad overpasses, switching yards, and along the tracks on boxcars, switching boxes, and lean-to buildings. Strange monikers, swastikas, lightning bolts, and the letters FTRA, FTW (F--- the World), STP (Start the Party or Stone Tramp People), and ATAPAW (Any Time, Any Place, Anywhere) could be seen mixed among the tagger and traditional gang graffiti. They leave their messages in signs and FTRA graffiti to let fellow FTRA members know that they were there, and possibly where they were last headed.
People who abandon our normal American way of life and society do so for a reason. Who would choose to sleep along the tracks and live in this underground world to ride the dangerous freight cars? They are loners, and many are alcoholics, the mentally ill, drug addicts, and outlaws on the run. They live by panhandling, selling scrap, and through criminal activities like petty theft, burglary, identity theft, and food stamp and welfare fraud. They carry weapons like clubs and canes, knives and pistols. And whether they are the witnesses or suspects, they can disappear by catching the next freight train out. The FTRA are the most predatory of this lot.
Some railroad officials will deny that the FTRA exists at all. Some say it is an urban legend. But law enforcement investigators believe that the gang began in the early 1980s in a Montana bar. Started by a group of homeless and disgruntled Vietnam veterans, the loosely knit original members were mostly white men who rode the famous "High Line," the name they gave to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Pacific rail road line (BNSP). They swore to watch their brother members' backs and to share their food, booze, and women. They had monikers like Pennsylvania Pollock, Desert Rat, Moose, Muskrat, Hotshit, Side Line, F-Troop, and women like Bubblehead.
Described by many as "bikers without bikes," members of the FTRA who ride the original "High Line" often identify themselves by wearing a black bandanna around their neck with a silver ring band. The FTRA "Southern Corridor" or the "Midwestern" lines, riders who ride the CSX out of Georgia or Kansas City Southern through Texas and Oklahoma, are more recent offshoots of the original gang. The "Southern Corridor" Freight Train Riders identify themselves by wearing red bandannas with silver rings. The "Midwest" FTRA identify with blue bandannas and silver rings. During the winter months many FTRA members migrate to warmer states, such as California and Arizona. FTRA members often posses several false identification documents for use in obtaining food stamps and committing welfare fraud. They will usually give false identifying information and deny they are members of the FTRA when asked by the police or railroad authorities.
Nationwide an estimated 30,000 homeless freight train hoppers annually "catch-out" somewhere on the 30,000 miles of railroad track. Beside the hobos, tramps, and carneys, there are a growing number of illegal immigrants and even entire migrant families. Recently it has become a fad for college students and young adventurous Yuppies to hop a freight car for "fun." Such activity is illegal, and is considered highly insulting to most train hoppers and especially offensive to the members of the FTRA. Many adventuring armatures have been robbed, beaten, or worse by genuine transients. Each year nearly one hundred deaths occur along the railroad lines. This number includes those transients who die of natural causes. But this number also includes those whose deaths are presumed accidental when the body is found after falling from or under the train and there are no eye witnesses to tell us differently. Finally, there are those who are the clearly the victims of foul play.
In the late 1980s, the FTRA began systematically stealing high value merchandise from the trains. They also began doing multiple burglaries around the train yards specifically targeting firearms. The Union Pacific Railroad reported taking more than 30 burglary reports a day at the Colton Yard in San Bernardino, Calif. Firearms and high value items could be sold for large profits in the underground drug cartels in Mexico. Some FTRA members formed associations with Mexican criminal groups to facilitate this trade. Members of the FTRA were also known to commit armed robberies near the railroad tracks and immediately hop a freight car out of town.
In 1996, a transient with the moniker of F-Troop was found in a boxcar on a Montana Rail line, shot in the head five times. His real name was Joseph Perrigo, a 30-year-old train hopper who wore an FTRA tattoo. Just one of the more than 1,000 transient train riders along the 1,500 miles of the High Line, he was the victim of fellow FTRA member Martin Moore, also known as Mississippi Bones. The murder was Bones' payback for F-Troop stabbing him more than a year before.
According to retired police officer Bill Palmini, author of "Murder on the Rails," the most notorious murderer and FTRA member was Side Track, or Robert Silveria. His book describes how Spokane, Wash., police officer Bob Grandinetti had begun documenting the FTRA gang early in the 1980s. He closely followed a series of reported dead bodies along the High Line between Spokane and Sandpoint, Idaho. Many of the victims had their shirts and jackets pulled up around their heads and their pants pulled down. Bob Grandinetti didn't buy the railroad's explanations of accidental deaths.
After a freight train derailed west of Spokane, it was determined that the brake lines had been deliberately cut and that the suspect had been killed in the resulting crash. He was wearing the signature black bandanna and silver ring of the FTRA. Grandinetti compiled documentation on 800 known and suspected FTRA members and noted that in the1990s there were more than 300 unsolved murders along the rails.
He suspects that many of these murders can be attributed to members of the FTRA, but the cases were especially hard to prove. In a "Stuff" magazine article by Christopher Ketcham (2/28/03) Grandinetti is quoted as saying, "The problem is the suspects and all the witnesses disappear."
Silveria was a scarecrow-looking heroin addict who had a tattoo of the word freedom on his throat. Eventually Side Track was connected to the FTRA and several of these unsolved railroad murders. He was featured on "America's Most Wanted" and dubbed the "Boxcar Killer" by the media. After his arrest, he confessed to a five-year nationwide murder spree ranging from Florida to California.
One of his victims was college student Michael Garfinkle who was on a weekend odyssey when Side Track murdered him in a hobo jungle in the switching yard outside Emeryville, Calif. But mostly he preyed on the helpless homeless, killing them for their clothing and social security cards. Perhaps it was guilt that made him cover the faces of his victims with their clothing. He confessed to 14 of the unsolved murders.
Back in Los Angeles, my surveillance team was unable to cover all the hobo jungle camps, and the unknown railroad serial killer murdered another victim. He probably disappeared after the killing by "catching out" on an outbound freight train, but the LASD Homicide detectives were pretty sure they had identified a suspect. A few weeks later, they told us that their primary suspect had been killed in Mexico. Was he an FTRA member? We may never know, but the railroad murders in our area stopped.
Don't wait to be overwhelmed by the multiple burglary or robbery reports in and around the railroad tracks snaking across your jurisdiction. Don't wait for the lifeless unidentified body to be discovered in some tramp camp or boxcar one fine morning. Check the area for FTRA graffiti, photograph graffiti, learn the monikers and gang symbols, and stop to talk to vagrants and hobos. Watch for the FTRA gang, because the devil rides the rails.