FREE e-Newsletter
Important News - Hot Topics
Get them Now!
Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Richard Valdemar

Richard Valdemar

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

The Freight Train Riders of America

Where getting railroaded is even more ominous than it sounds.

November 30, 2007  |  by Richard Valdemar - Also by this author

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.

Nomadic Terrors

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.

Death Tracks

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.

Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

Railroad Employee @ 4/14/2012 12:13 PM

I noted a few errors in the story. BNSF stands for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, not Burlington Nothern Santa Fe Pacific. Also, when the brakes are cut or severed on a train, it automatically places the train into an emergency stop (unless someone closes some valves prior). I have ran into plenty of freight train hobos in my job, most of them have a criminal record or drug/alcohol problems. A number of them even have tuberculosis, so be careful not to get in a confined space with them (like a locomotive, boxcar, or police car). Hotspots for hobos are nearly every major city. They have even gotten smart and started riding in the electrical compartment of locomotives (which can be found as steel door on the outside of the locomotive directly behind the locomotive cab doors on the engineer (right) side of the locomotive. Be careful, as these locomotives have 600 volts and thousands of amps in them. Another good hiding spot is the locomotive toilet (in nose of locomotive) or traction motor blower room (under cab floor).

Yard aster b @ 6/11/2012 11:17 PM

Talked to two of them catching out a south bound under the route 9w bridge in selkirk ny on my last ride back in 2011 we got away from them fast by telling them we would walk off the tracks on to. 9w to a store and bring back some beer we left on the bus for nyc

Snakebite @ 2/13/2013 11:58 PM

I met a dude that claimed to know some of the original ftra members.. He had some great stories man.. He said he knew Dan'l Boone. The founder kinda?

realtramp @ 9/1/2015 2:50 PM

This an amusing story really.I have rode 1000s of miles in the west and into the midwest.I have met the original FTRA members.These guys arent criminals.They rode trains.Now the originals are either dead or in their late 60's-70's.There is a new group calling themselves FTRA.They are bunch of drunks,criminals and just plain losers.Grandinetti just wants to make a name for himself and tries to string a lot of info to make it fit.

Bo-dean @ 2/23/2016 11:03 AM

My friends and I have been riding the same roads as these guys for the past decade, and yeah, they might be drunks, dope fiends, and criminals- most of them guilty of nothing worse than shoplifting or double-clutching( e.b.t. Fraud)- but the black hand? Bikers without bikes? Maybe if they HAD bikes the cops would fawn over them and I'd see toddlers and lawyers wearing ftra shirts like the treatment the 'Angels get nowadays. Fact is, yes it is unwise for yuppie college boys to don a bandanna and go ride freight for spring break, same way dressing like a biker and acting tough, or putting on a G front and dropping N-bombs could get U killed. I've been lucky enough to meet several of the old-boys, and ya, you give them a beer and show them respect, no doubt. But little old ladies don't need to start locking their doors just 'cause the tracks run by their house. I assume the officer that wrote this has no idea what he is talking about, as well as low self-confidence, a superiority complex concerning the poor and the homeless, and marriage-trouble's stemming from inadequacy issues. Keep fighting the little guy, forget about the actual biker-gangs, the real mafia, the crips, bloods, ms-13, the a. B., the kkk, and those terrible clown-dressing juggalo idiots. Damn fine police work there.

James Alexander @ 4/14/2016 12:12 PM

In 1949 at age 13, I was walking to school after missing the bus. I walked by the train yard and, on impulse, climbed into a boxcar on a freight train headed south and, a week later, I arrived at Odessa, Texas. At late evening that day, in Bakersfield, I met a man named Blackie. When he saw how young I was, he took me under his arm and showed me how to stay warm while going over the Grapevine into LA. At LA we went to a jungle near the Los Angeles River and had coffee. I was sent to a bakery across the river to get as much day old bread as I could. I got two large bags of bread. When I got back, the men there celebrated the large amount of bread I got. Blackie had left to snipe cigarette butts for all of us. From there we went to the Colton Hobo Jungle. That night, before we got there, we slept in a small shack. Blackie left to find something to eat. He came back with a case of shredded prunes, baby food. Then we found the HOBO Jungle. There is much more but I have run out of words.

James Alexander @ 4/14/2016 12:20 PM

I started my story above but there isn't enough space to finish it. If any are interested in the entire story, I put it on video on You Tube and you can see it at this link, The four videos across are the complete story. It was a wonderful trip and I met many very interesting people. I had no trouble with any of them and my recollections are very fond.

Join the Discussion

POLICE Magazine does not tolerate comments that include profanity, personal attacks or antisocial behavior (such as "spamming" or "trolling"). This and other inappropriate content or material will be removed. We reserve the right to block any user who violates this, including removing all content posted by that user.

Other Recent Blog Posts

Politics Trumping Tactics: [Don't] Sit Down… You're Rocking the Boat
Elected officials have one underlying goal that informs and influences all their other...
Foot and Hoof Patrol: Meaningfully Connecting Cops and Citizens
Foot patrol is the essence of community policing—officers on foot create opportunities for...

Police Magazine