My guide to the tracks, Bob Hopkins, watching the Bitterroot river drift past. Montana.
DEATH ON THE TRACKS
Hobos have been taking free rides on America’s freight trains since Civil War days – they have always been a law unto themselves. But in recent years, the old camaraderie has given way to violence and murder. No one much cared until a few determined police officers began to suspect a serial killer was at work. Alex Kershaw rode the rails himself to follow their trail
To escape the brutally cold night, William Pettit Jr, a 39-year-old hobo, crawled into his sleeping-bag and pulled his High Times baseball cap over his wind-burned forehead. Finally, he fell asleep, huddled in a corner at the end of a metal box-car. While he slept, a lank-haired heroin addict called Sidetrack climbed aboard the freight train and crept towards him. With a blunt object, Sidetrack bludgeoned Pettit to death before taking items he could later sell to buy a fix. Then he washed his bloodied hands and face in a nearby stream and put on Pettit’s clothes. The sleeping bag became Pettit’s shroud – it was too blood-stained to be of any value.
Riding the rails – a uniquely American experience – has always been a dangerous pastime. In the 1860s, many of the first hobos died of exposure after hopping aboard steam trains leading home, they had hoped, from the killing fields of the Civil War. In the Thirties, when a million Americans “caught out” – jumped a train – and wandered the West looking for work to avoid starvation, countless thousands were crushed between carriages or simply fell to their deaths from moving trains.
America is a nation based on migration. It was the railroad that first opened up the West and the railroad lines are still the great arteries of the United States. Passenger trains have dwindled, but the freight trains trundle endlessly on, still offering the chance of a free ride.
Today, “riding the rods” is more perilous than ever. As millions are dumped off welfare rolls and mental institutions are emptied, more and more homeless people cower in the box-car shadows, rolling cigarettes with hands shaking from the DTs and cold. The railroads have become the last refuge of the destitute, moving from place to place collecting welfare benefits, hoping to find something better. Among the most pathological and drug-crazed, as befits America’s Social Darwinist society, predators such as Sidetrack have evolved.
The most violent of this new species belong to a gang of rogue riders calling themselves the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA). Formed by Vietnam veterans – legendary figures with names such as “Melford Lawson”, “Uncle Joe”, “Joshua Long-gone” and “Daniel Boone” – and now estimated to have several hundred members nationwide, today’s stalwarts of this band of “welfare outlaws” are proud of their lightning-bolt tattoos and links to far-right militia and racist groups such as the Aryan Nations. Past and present members of the gang and their associates are suspected in some 300 murders nationwide in the past decade.
In the weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, an Amtrak train was intentionally derailed in Arizona, killing one and injuring 40. Four FTRA members were investigated as suspects. They included John Stanley Boris, aka “Dogman Tony”, suspected in two murders including that of 43-year-old Francis Terry, who was found in October 1995 in a grain car in Saginaw, Texas, with his throat slit. Boris is still at large.
“It’s real hard to find suspects after the crime,” says detective Jim Writer of Big Springs, Texas, who investigated Terry’s death. “The FTRA provides criminals with perfect mobility. In three days, you can be on the other side of the country. And there’s no record of your trip.”
According to Writer, there are cadres within the FTRA that are more organised and vicious than others. The most feared is the “Wrecking Crew”: “The most hardcore, alcoholic, and violent members belong. Many are ex-bikers who have fallen out of Hells Angels gangs because bikes have gotten so expensive.”
Only by taking to the rails would I see the fault-lines running through America’s rail-yards: the class and generation divides that often lead to bloodshed as one tribe of rail-riders encounters another. I decided to “catch out” on a box-car.
The country’s leading expert on the FTRA – Spokane Police Department’s detective Bob Grandinetti – was not enthusiastic about me taking a trip. “The odds are,” he warned, “you’re gonna end up lying dead between a couple of towns.” As if to stop me in my tracks, one FTRA member’s name was cited over and over: Robert Silveria, a 37-year-old, known to have committed ten murders between 1991 and 1995, and suspected in dozens more. In fact Silveria, as I was later to discover, was the one hobo I was unlikely to meet.
I decided to “catch out” anyway. The stretch of track I chose was the “Billygoat”: the most picturesque route through the Rocky Mountains as well as the heart of FTRA country, some 300 miles long, and the last journey made by one of the most recent victims of FTRA murderers.
On a freezing cold night, I arrived in Montana and headed straight to the rail yards in the town of Helena. Close to the tracks stood a row of stone buildings: a pawn shop, a thrift store and Hap’s Bar, rumoured to be where the FTRA was founded in the early Eighties. Two local characters were able to fill me in on the FTRA’s history. Leigh Lynn was a world-weary woman who had worked with the homeless for 13 years and, in so doing, had become a mother figure to ten retired FTRA founder members who passed through her mission from time to time. She chivied some into joining AA. Before others, she held up the Bible. Few had been saved.
“The FTRA, as people know it now, is a different group from the old days,” Lynn told me. “The original guys were great. But there’s a new bunch, kids in their twenties, doing drugs and attacking others when they get high, stealing the old guys’ names when they see them tagged on bridges, calling themselves FTRA.”
Another Hap’s Bar regular was Jerry “The Frog” Fortin, the 1997 National Hobo Association’s “King of Hobos”. Toothless, his face was prematurely aged by travelling more than a million miles in often extreme weather. Fortin explained that the FTRA originally stood for “Fuck The Reagan Administration” and was founded by a “bunch of guys who wanted to ride together and just came up with a joke name”. They were Vietnam veterans who had not been able to fit back into “normal society” and who wanted to ride “free” and see America their own way, surviving as they had in the jungles of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by hunting, fishing and living off the land. In the past decade, however, they have been replaced by a new breed of drifters, who have murdered and assaulted many old-time hobos.
Last summer in North Dakota, a group of teenagers jumped Fortin, beat him nearly to death with a baseball bat and stabbed him five times before taking his boots and backpack. “This latest generation have no respect,” Fortin told me bitterly. “They don’t understand the proud traditions of the hobo – the hard worker who built the West, kept the jungles [railside camps] clean, shared what he had with his fellow ‘bos. This new bunch are dirty – they defecate in camps, do hard drugs, don’t give a damn.”
Around 2am, I decided to call it a night at Hap’s Bar. The barman had mentioned that a “junk-train” – one made up of assorted wagons, grain containers and box-cars – left as regular as clockwork at six every morning, headed towards Missoula and then on to Spokane, the Pacific Northwest’s main railroad hub. I dropped a couple of dollars on the old oak bar, etched with lovers’ giddy initials, and headed out into the frigid pre-dawn air. I snatched two hours sleep in what locals called a “shotgun shack”, a cheap motel, and then I made my way to the furthest reaches of Helena yards, hoping to “catch out” before dawn on the Great Northern line: the Billygoat route.
Suddenly, a Ford Bronco, with a “bull” (railroad security guard) at the wheel, sped towards me. I could hear my heart pounding as I ducked behind a pile of fresh-cut logs. It’s illegal to ride a freight train, and I was trespassing on railroad property. In many yards, bulls have traditionally turned a blind eye to hobos, regarding them as minor nuisances. In recent years, however, they’ve become aggressive in pursuing trespassers because of the railroads’ increasing security concerns. Incidences of vandalism are on the rise. Then there’s the FTRA, a surge in derailments, and organised crime’s gathering shadow in many rail yards, particularly along the US borders.
The Bronco passed by. A few tracks away, I spotted the junk-train due to leave within the hour. I clambered between a couple of trains and, after ten minutes of jogging alongside the junk, I found an open box-car – first-class travel for any hobo, offering protection from the wind and rain and magnificent views through the open doors. Freight trains can be up to a mile long.
From an Internet website, Rail Rogues, I’d already memorised several dos and don’ts for the prospective rail rider. Don’t walk between rails. Don’t cross under couplers or cars. Expect trains to move suddenly, often silently, and at any time. Don’t jump on a moving train – “catch out on the fly” – unless you absolutely have to, though freight trains rarely travel faster that 12mph. Stay near the front of the car: if the train stops suddenly, you don’t want to go flying out of the door. Above all, as any hobo will tell you, don’t join anyone else in a box-car.
With a great deal of effort I managed to pull myself up into an open box-car, five feet above the tracks. I stowed my sleeping bag and a small backpack, full of water bottles and snacks, in a corner of the cavernous, metal-based box, and then I sat down and waited. As my entire backside became numb from the cold, the train slowly screeched into life. The metal seemed to groan as the couplings took up slack. Adrenaline rushed into my bloodstream. With a jerking motion the train pulled away, out of Helena, and up a long incline towards the 6,000ft Continental Divide that stretches down the Rockies.
I was headed for Missoula, and hopefully a breakfast of steak and eggs. “F-Trooper”, victim of a fellow FTRA member, was found on this same Montana Rail-Link with five bullets in his head, a cigarette in one hand and a can of Schmidt’s Ice beer in the other. Luckily, perhaps, I met no one.
Scenic routes such as the Billygoat are particularly popular with growing numbers of “weekend riders”, especially in the summer. Lured by what the writer James Michener once described as the last “red-blooded American adventure”, each year an estimated 30,000 people illegally catch out from hobo encampments dotted along the 170,000 miles of track. Some of them are rich, some of them famous, the actor Christian Slater among them.
Another such recreational rider was 20-year-old Santa Cruz engineering student Michael Garfinkle, the very opposite of the stereotype one might expect to see bumming on the rails. An academic “top gun”, he never did drugs, meditated three times a day, and ran a successful business. He also liked to ride the rails, and, in August 1994, he hopped on a freight train for the hell of it.
According to detective Wade Harper of Emeryville Police Department in northern California, Garfinkle then met Robert Silveria near Emeryville, America’s largest switching yard, just outside Sacramento. “Silveria said that Garfinkle didn’t belong,” Harper told me. “He said that he was an amateur, a tourist in Silveria’s world of the homeless. He wore new shoes and even his backpack was new.”
When Garfinkle’s back was turned, Silveria occupied Garfinkle’s spot in a rail-side jungle. “What are you doing in my space?” asked Garfinkle upon his return. “I go anywhere,” Silveria replied. “And this is the last day you’ve spent.” America’s first known railroad serial killer then hit Garfinkle at least 13 times with an axe-handle.
Elated but exhausted, I finally arrived in Spokane just as the sun was going down. I had gone from ice-cold conditions to the baking heat that stifles any occupant of a metal box-car in midday sun. I’d been thrust into pitch-blackness and clouds of diesel fumes as the train thundered through a tunnel that seemed to last forever. I’d glimpsed a white wolf, sparkling trout streams, abandoned homesteads, the stark majesty of the Bitterroot Mountains – all of it framed by box-car doors and set against an epic backdrop: the Montana portrayed recently in films such as The Horse Whisperer. It had been the thrill-ride of a lifetime, and it hadn’t cost a cent.
In Spokane, I found the man who knows most about the FTRA in his office, sipping weak coffee. Bob Grandinetti was about to retire after 30 years’ service with the Spokane Police Department, 12 of them patrolling the rail yards. His fascination with the transient underworld developed after a 13-year-old girl, Marsi Belcz, was found stabbed to death near the rail yards in May 1985. Her unsolved murder gnawed at him. “Because of where she was dumped, we believed it could be the work of transients,” he said.
Grandinetti discovered the FTRA’s existence after recording ten deaths between 1990 and 1992 on the “High Line” between Seattle and Minneapolis: “The bodies had their shirts and jackets pulled up around their heads, and their pants pulled down.” It seemed obvious that a gang was at work. Then Grandinetti noticed that some transients he interviewed were wearing “colours”. He discovered that there were several initiation rituals for those joining the FTRA, and that there was a “Goon Squad” – a group of 50-100 FTRA “enforcers” – which maintained discipline among the gang.
On a bitterly-cold, grey morning, I visited the switching yards of Spokane, home-town of serial killer Ted Bundy. Near disused warehouses, I ran into a bearded, shivering man in a dirty three-piece suit. He showed me a three-inch scar on his forehead. “I ran into the FTRA a few times in Helena,” he grumbled. “They robbed me and beat me half to death with a chain. Got me when I was asleep.”
Under a nearby concrete bridge, I spotted the signature graffiti for “Sidetrack”: a white daubing of two tracks, a spider’s web and a crushed skull.
From Spokane, I took the train again, this time buying a $150 ticket on Amtrak’s Empire Builder service, and rode in a sky-lounge with glass ceilings. I arrived in Portland, Oregon, eight hours later. I had a lunch date with a remarkable police officer called Mike Quakenbush, a hero to hobos who made him a Knight of the Hobo Order of Merit in honour of his brave and relentless pursuit of Robert Silveria.
Quakenbush could barely hide his anger about the fate of the dispossessed and the “double standards throughout America”: “There’s a great system of justice for the rich. But forget it if you’re a nobody.” His odyssey through the rail yards and doss-houses of the Pacific Northwest began in December 1995, when a railroad worker peered into an empty box-car during a routine check in Millersburg, Oregon, and found the body of William Avis Pettit Jr.
The case landed on Quakenbush’s desk when a computer trace of the box-car revealed that it had passed through Salem, where the murder had probably taken place, according to an autopsy report. The case resembled hundreds of others around the nation in the past decade: a couple of homeless guys have a fight and one gets his head smashed in. Some cops have a code for such deaths: N-H-I – no humans involved.
Quakenbush, however, was determined to “show that no one could kill a man and get away with it because the victim is unknown and homeless”. Soon, he had entered the world of the hobo, and was learning the rail-rider’s lingo and habits. He spent many hours trudging through switching yards, where he interviewed bulls and hundreds of transients.
He came across “Chooch Johnson” and a friend, both of them hobos, who were later to confirm key details about Silveria’s appearance. Silveria, they said, had told them he was a travelling roofer by trade, using the rails to move between jobs. He claimed that he sent child support payments to his wife, though he’d been on the road for five or six years. According to Johnson, “Silveria cheerfully said he was a member of the FTRA, but said that the FTRA had gotten a bad name based on the actions of a few.”
Most often, it was later revealed, Silveria would wait until his victims were asleep or drunk, and then cave in their skulls with a blunt object or baseball bat. Between April and December 1995, he managed to kill a fellow rail-rider once a month. After killing, Silveria adopted the identity of his victim, even dressing in his clothes, in order to claim ever more public welfare. When finally apprehended, he had 28 food stamp accounts around America, and was picking up $119 from each one, each month.
In a homeless shelter in Eugene, Oregon, I met Tony “Fireball” Stanley, a 62-year-old who had been homeless for seven years since suffering a heart attack and then going bankrupt when he could not meet his medical bills. He told me that he had met Silveria several times. Offered a camping stove by Silveria, Stanley refused it believing it was “hot” – stolen. As it turned out, Stanley was right: the stove was taken from James McLean, 50, found on July 25, 1995, beaten and stabbed near a hobo camp. McLean’s dog was also stabbed.
Silveria really was a predator, recalled Stanley. “He’d kill just for a buck, out of pure and simple greed… Silveria took from the poor and then killed them because he could, because no one cares about what happens to us. We’re worthless losers in a country which only respects the rich.”
The Silveria case broke open when Union Pacific Railroad police found another body in a box-car near the Willamette River in Portland. Quakenbush attended the autopsy of Michael Andrew Clites, 24. Six-foot-four and heavily tattooed, Clites had been riding the rails for six months when he met Silveria. Like Pettit, Clites had been bludgeoned repeatedly and died of severe head wounds.
The box-car in which Clites was found was part of a train that had pulled out of Eugene. In Eugene, Quakenbush interviewed several groups of homeless men. He showed them photographs of Clites and Pettit. Several of the homeless men remembered Clites because of his height. One said Clites had been in a mission in Vancouver, Washington, on December 4, 1995. At the mission in Vancouver, Quakenbush found a man who’d ridden a box-car with Clites to Eugene: Carl De Paul. De Paul said that the last time he’d been seen, Clites was walking off in search of methamphetamine with a tall stranger who called himself “Sidetrack”.
Meanwhile, investigators from Utah, Montana and Kansas contacted Quakenbush. Each was investigating the murder of a transient that had happened within the previous eight months. The Utah victim had been beaten over the head with a board and stabbed in the ear. The Kansas victim had been smacked with a rod, and finished off with some other blunt instrument.
The detectives exchanged information. Quakenbush asked whether any of them had come across the name “Sidetrack”. None had, but one did say he had heard the name Robert Silveria mentioned by a couple of rail-riders. Quakenbush thought he was now looking for two people: Sidetrack and Robert Silveria. He did not yet realise they were the same person.
Finally, Quakenbush’s persistence paid off. On the afternoon of Saturday, March 2, 1996, he got a call at home from a bull working in Roseville, one of the largest rail yards in the West. “Hey,” the bull said. “I have Silveria.” The bull had come across Silveria in the Roseville yard, run a routine check on him and then arrested him on an outstanding warrant for probation violation.
When Quakenbush first laid eyes on Silveria at Placer County Jail, his appearance and demeanour were baffling. Silveria didn’t look like a transient with the “eyes of a devil”, as other hobos had described. He was calm, polite, soft-spoken, 6ft tall and 180 pounds. Quakenbush read Silveria his rights. Then he leaned close to a Plexiglass window separating him from Silveria. “When you ride the trains, what name do you use?” asked Quakenbush. Silveria answered blankly: “Sidetrack.”
Quakenbush now realised that he had his man. To his surprise, Silveria quickly confessed to two killings in Oregon, said he was a prominent member of the FTRA “brotherhood”, admitted to being a heroin user, and then gave details of six more killings. “He wanted to get it all off his chest.” Quakenbush told me. “He was tired of the lifestyle. He said he was glad he got caught because he would have continued to kill.”
First brought to trial in June 1997, Silveria was convicted of two murders in Oregon. According to court records presented in Oregon, Silveria had monstrous delusions of grandeur, believing that he was the leader of his “nation” – America’s homeless, estimated by some charities to be well over 500,000-strong and fast growing.
In May last year, Silveria pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in Kansas for the murder of Charles Randall Boyd. In June, Silveria was tried and convicted in Tallahassee, Florida, for the murder of Willie Clark, 52, who was found clubbed to death with a metal pole that had concrete clumped at one end. He is now serving a life sentence in Oregon, unlikely ever to get out.
Journey’s end was not the Pacific but the rail yard in Salem where William Pettit Jr was killed by Robert Silveria. On a windy Sunday morning, Mike Quakenbush pointed to the stream where Silveria washed blood from his hurting hands. Nearby lay a pile of wooden sleepers under which Silveria stashed some of Pettit’s belongings. As he crossed rusting tracks, Quakenbush appeared to shudder for a split second in the shadow cast by a graffiti-strewn box-car. What had he learned, I asked, in following Silveria’s tracks of death? “It’s easy when you look at the homeless to think that they’re just low life,” sighed Quakenbush. “But they’re real people, just like Pettit, who’ve often simply fallen on hard times. They have family. They always have someone who cares about them somewhere.”