Sunset Limited Derailment
In the early morning hours of October 9th, 1995, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited derailed in the middle of the Arizona desert. A full-scale federal investigation would discover that not only had the incident been planned, but that the derailment had been orchestrated by a group calling themselves the “Sons of the Gestapo.”
The Sunset Limited is one of the oldest named trains in the United States, earning its moniker in November of 1894. That was when it began traveling along the second transcontinental route between New Orleans, Louisiana and San Francisco, California.
Operated by Southern Pacific Railroad, the Sunset Limited has been upgraded and updated over its many years of operation.
Southern Pacific Railroad, the company that originally operated the Sunset Limited, began to divest from the railroad industry throughout the 1960's and 1970's. That was when it began to focus on more emerging markets, such as long-range communication - eventually re-branding itself under the name Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Technology. More commonly known as a modern-day cell phone provider: Sprint.
Amtrak took over control of the Sunset Limited in 1971, eventually merging its traditional New Orleans to San Francisco route with its eastern tracks - which stretched out to the Florida peninsula - in addition to a small extension in the west, branching out from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This expansion made it a truly nation-wide trip, which repeatedly traveled from coast-to-coast, and then back again.
In the early morning hours of September 22nd, 1993, the Sunset Limited was making its regular trip from Los Angeles to Miami, Florida. 220 riders were aboard: both passengers and crew. The trip had been briefly delayed in New Orleans, due to a faulty air conditioner and a broken toilet fixture, putting the trip approximately 30 minutes behind-schedule.
A short time later, at approximately 2:45 AM, a small barge was being pushed by a towboat along the Bayou - near Mobile, Alabama. Eventually, this pairing ships came upon a low-hanging bridge called the Big Bayou Canot, which surprised the ship's pilot - a young man named Willie Odom, who had become disoriented in the early morning fog. To make matters worse, he had not been properly trained, and didn't even realize the bridge was a bridge until he was practically underneath it.
The barge, being pushed by the tug, end up hitting the unfinished swing bridge. Unbeknownst to the pilot and the crew, this had ended up putting a kink in the railroad tracks above. Most shocking of all was the fact that this did not trigger the track circuit - the early warning system in the track itself, which would alert any changes to the area's engineers.
As the Sunset Limited approached, all seemed to be well.
At approximately 2:53 AM - less than ten minutes after the barge had tapped the bridge - the Sunset Limited approached the Big Bayou Canot bridge, traveling at approximately 70 miles-per-hour. When the train hit the displaced set of tracks, it immediately went off-course, causing a section of the bridge to collapse.
The lead locomotive of the Sunset Limited hit the canal bank head-first, followed closely by the next two locomotives, as well as the baggage car, dormitory car, and two out of the six passenger cars. Those were all at least partially submerged in the water below, while the others hung precariously.
As if that wasn't nightmarish enough, the fuel tanks within the locomotives had ruptured upon impact, pouring thousands of gallons of diesel fuel into the water. The following oil spill was massive, and began fueling a fire that turned the submerged train cars into hellscapes of survival and desperation.
In the end, it was determined that 47 had perished that night, due to a simple mistake between a barge and a bridge. 42 of those 47 were passengers. Approximately 103 were injured, and would have to recover from not only the wounds suffered during the wreck, but from the trauma left by the worst rail disaster in the United States since 1958.
The pilot of the tug boat, Willie Odom, was not found criminally liable for the lives lost that September morning. This had simply been an accident, where all that could go wrong went wrong.
As survivors attempted to mourn and recover, the companies involved had to take an extensive look at what had gone wrong. How had the train circuit not alerted engineers and conductors of the issue, which sent the Sunset Limited careening into the waters of the Bayou? On its face, this seemed to be a glaring issue with the rail system; an issue that could be easily exploited in the future, if not corrected immediately.
However, despite this serving as a wake-up call for America's rail industry, this would not be the only rail disaster in the 1990's. Another incident would follow this one, just a couple of years later, which seemed to be deliberately-planned and executed to perfection.
That incident, much like the first, would highlight to the world had exposed the US railroad system was... and how one small tweak could impact hundreds of lives.
This is the story of the Sunset Limited Derailment.
In February of 1993, a religious faction in central Texas gained international notoriety.
A faction of Branch Davidian worshippers, led by a bizarre and charismatic young man named David Koresh, came under scrutiny. It was alleged that there was rampant child abuse throughout this community - which was located in Waco, Texas - in addition to Koresh having sex with girls as young as twelve and thirteen. That's, of course, without mentioning the suspicions regarding the Branch Davidians stockpiling weapons and ammunition - which were later proven true when the ATF and the FBI began besieging the compound later that month.
Between February and April of 1993, this siege persisted - with multiple violent encounters between the Branch Davidians and federal authorities. Eventually, the federal government began employing a number of psychological tactics to lure Koresh and his followers out of the compound.
All the while, federal negotiators attempted to bridge the gap, and bring about a peaceful resolution. These negotiators managed to save 35 during their several weeks of discussions, but... it wasn't enough.
On April 19th, 1993, a final siege was okayed by President Bill Clinton. As federal agencies prepared for a final attack on the Branch Davidian facility, three simultaneous fires broke out - fires whose true origin has never been discovered.
The proceeding fire burned the compound to the ground. Inside, investigators would find the charred remains of 76 Branch Davidians - David Koresh included. Only 9 had managed to escape the building during the inferno, with many of the group's children perishing inside.
This entire scenario led to a large outcry from not only the rest of the nation, but the rest of the world, where it was debated whether or not the American government - the "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave" - had exceeded its authority. Some believed that the Branch Davidians had been summarily executed.
The Waco Siege was a disaster from almost every perspective... but its longest-lasting effect was providing fuel for fires that had already been started all over the nation. Extremist fringe groups, which had already been galvanized following the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident, now felt emboldened to lash out. Ultimately, the Waco Siege served as an inspiration for activists like Timothy McVeigh - the main perpetrator of the Oklahoma City Bombing - who killed 168 people and injured more than 600 others on the two-year anniversary of the final Waco Siege: April 19th, 1995.
This hostile sentiment was spreading all over the country, to those that had anti-government or anti-authority views. In the week after the Oklahoma City Bombing, Congress was looking to craft legislation that would provide law enforcement additional liberties to combat these threats, but that would take months.
In the meantime, a mysterious party waited for the perfect opportunity to arise.
Following the 1993 crash in southwestern Alabama, the Sunset Limited's route was temporarily changed by Amtrak.
The damage to the swing bridge outside of Mobile left the route between New Orleans and Florida "temporarily suspended," so the train had a shorter featured trip for several months. Even following the reconstruction of the damage, that route would remain suspended for some time - due to either the ongoing civil litigation from the survivors, or even just superstition from Amtrak itself.
Despite the catastrophic 1993 wreck in the Bayou, the Sunset Limited would not be out-of-commission for long. The train would continue traveling between Los Angeles and New Orleans, and began upgrading to fit a comprehensive list of recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board. One of these recommendations was the idea to begin recording passengers electronically, which would make rescue operations more successful.
However, because of the extent of the United States rail system - stretching over thousands of miles, through some truly treacherous territory - it would take years for many of the upgrades to actually happen. And in some of the most desolate regions, where the rail companies were debating cutting back usage entirely, renovations wouldn't even be considered.
This leads us into the Fall of 1995.
Neal Hallford is a creative personality, who - in October of 1995 - was most well-known for his work on a couple of fantasy role-playing games. He had helped design "Planet's Edge: The Point of No Return" in 1992, and then "Betrayal at Krondor" in 1993.
In addition, he had also worked on a few radio dramas for Oklahoma-based KTOW, his credits including: "Shadow of the Bulldog Man", "Calls Waiting", and "The October Harvest."
On October 7th, Hallford boarded the Sunset Limited in San Antonio, Texas. He was heading out to the west coast, towards San Diego, where his girlfriend at the time lived. Neal knew that flying would have been easier, but stated:
"At the time I was having a real problem with plane phobia."
The first day or so of the trip was described as being very boring by Neal, who stated that the most infuriating aspect of the multi-day train trip was a baby in the neighboring compartment, whose cries made it hard to fall asleep.
At around midnight - as October 8th passed into October 9th - Neal finally began to drift off to sleep. The train car was quiet, finally, and more than two hundred passengers eagerly awaited waking up to their destination.
In the early morning hours of October 9th, 1995, the Sunset Limited passed through Phoenix, Arizona, heading to a desolate stretch of desert between Palo Verde and Hyder.
Palo Verde, a small town in Maricopa County, is roughly 40 miles west of Phoenix. Estimated to have less than 100 residents, this town seems to represent most of this area, which was originally built along the railway, but has become more of a sparsely-populated farming region in the century since.
Passing through Palo Verde, the Sunset Limited that drifted by Harqua - a ghost town with a crumbling foundation, which had been abandoned long ago. As it made its way towards Hyder, a small farming community, the Sunset Limited sprinted further and further away from civilization... into the middle of nowhere, really, more than 60 miles away from Phoenix, and several miles away from any sign of civilization.
At around 1:30 AM, the train lurched... and the 268 people on-board - 248 passengers and 20 crew members - were violently ripped back-to-consciousness.
Passenger Neal Hallford recalled the moment-of-impact as:
"Just [an] incredible shriek, then a really large impact, and of course it slams me into the seat in front of me. Then all of the lights go off inside the train car."
Neal was thrown into the seat in front of him, and his dinner tray table jammed into his ribs as the train screeched to a halt. What followed was a long period of silence, as the passengers sat in the dark for several minutes, trying to regain their bearings and figure out if they were in any danger.
Brian Hamblet, another passenger, was inside one of the front passenger cars, which had not only left the tracks, but fell into a gulch roughly 30 feet below. He described the moment it happened:
"You could hear the train clacking along the tracks... and I felt the train lift a little bit and then it started to tilt sideways very slowly. And after that, it dropped pretty fast.
"Everyone was waking up and realizing what was going on as we were falling. I remember screaming to my wife and my wife screaming back, and as it turned out we were both fine."
Neal Hallford, who was a car or two behind Brian, said that after a few minutes, an Amtrak representative began moving through the train, informing them that the train had derailed. However, despite urging everyone to begin moving injured passengers to the back of the train - where they were setting up a trauma center - everyone needed to remain indoors. After all, they were in the middle of a desolate desert, where rattlesnakes and scorpions were common, so they were cautioned to remain seated.
As officials tried to figure out what had happened, it was learned that two of the locomotives for the Sunset Limited had derailed, as well as twelve passenger cars. Due to the circumstances, the train had jackknifed in the middle, and eight of the train cars left the tracks... four of which fell roughly thirty feet off of a trestle bridge into a dry river bed below.
In the panic and confusion of the immediate aftermath, it was unclear how many were injured... and whether or not anyone had been killed in this disaster.
Pat Borree lived in Buckeye, Arizona - a small suburb a short distance away from Phoenix, Arizona. As it happened, Buckeye was one of the closest cities to the crash site, early on this Monday morning.
Pat Borree was the town dispatcher for Buckeye, who found herself working the graveyard shift. She had worked in her position for more than a decade now, and described this post - the overnight shift - as being very boring and uneventful.
"The graveyard shift is the quietest. Just a few traffic stops and maybe a beer run here or there, you know?"
On the night in-question, Pat had actually been training a new dispatcher. Just a short time after 1:30 AM, she received a call from a Maricopa County Sheriff's Deputy, who informed her that there had been a train derailment. However, at the time, the location was unclear.
Pat began paging all of the local area fire departments, while dispatching her trainee to begin informing local hospitals of the situation... and that this might be a mass-casualty incident, so they should prepare for an influx of patients.
It was Pat Borree that began marshaling forces to held conduct the response to this incident... an incident she knew very few details about.
"It was just calling on farmers [and] other agencies. We contacted every ambulance company in the Phoenix metropolitan area because at that point we still didn't know how many people would need to be transported."
In the hour after the crash, the passengers remained indoors, restlessly sitting in the dark. They were waiting for any word on their current situation - whether they were still in-danger, or if several of their fellow passengers had been killed or maimed.
It was the type of mental suffering made worse by not only the physical injuries many had suffered, but by the conditions that continued to deteriorate. Because of the wreck, the lights and the air conditioning on the train had gone out, and the hot desert air began seeping in. In addition, the toilets weren't flushing, and the interior of the train cars were quickly becoming miserable.
Neal Hallford, who had survived with only some minor bumps and bruises, decided to step outside to get some fresh air; the risk of a snake bite or a scorpion sting be damned. As he stepped outside of the train and began to walk around in the warm night air, he noticed a piece of paper which had been placed underneath a rock nearby the site of the crash. The paper was illuminated by the bright moon above, and unlike everything else involved in the crash, this document seemed undisturbed.
As Neal later stated:
"I wasn't thinking anything sinister at the time. I was just thinking, this is a little odd... for this piece of paper to be laying out there in the middle of nowhere.
"I read the first two or three lines of what's in this note, and I go, 'Oh. My God.' I'm holding a note from people who intentionally just tried to kill everybody on this train."
The note, which Neal later described as a "manifesto," was just one of two that he would find in the vicinity of the crash. Both were identical, having been written by the same author, who claimed credit for the derailment.
The note had been signed by a mysterious organization calling themselves "SOG" or "Sons of the Gestapo."
It took some time for emergency services to arrive at the scene of the crash, as it was essentially in the middle of the desert. Surrounded by nothing more than miles of sand, there were no actual roads leading to the bridge where the Sunset Limited had derailed.
Because of the desolate location, firefighters had to stand vigil at checkpoints, directing ambulances and other emergency vehicles to the wreckage. Responders were using radios and directions to guide themselves to the derailment, and - because of the sandy conditions - had to set up a staging area roughly six miles away from the train wreck. From there, only four-wheel-drive vehicles were able to access the scene.
At the scene, it was discovered that 78 people in total were wounded; 12 of which were seriously injured, requiring urgent medical attention. A handful of those twelve would spend time in critical condition, after being ferried away by ambulances or helicopters to nearby hospitals. Some were even medevaced away to Phoenix-area hospitals for immediate surgeries.
Tragically - yet somewhat miraculously - there was only one casualty in the wreckage.
Mitchell Bates was a 41-year old Amtrak car attendant, who had worked for the company for over 20 years, having been hired in 1975. He had been sleeping at the time of the crash, and his body was discovered by passengers as they searched his train car for any wounded.
Brian Hamblet, the passenger that survived the crash alongside his wife, remembered Bates as one of the attendants that had helped them in the preceding days:
"He had brought us towels and blankets and some extra pillows for my wife. Really sweet guy, so we were quite shaken up to learn that he had not made it."
In addition to local law enforcement, Amtrak officials and federal investigators were beckoned to the scene, as it had no only resulted in a death, dozens of injures, and millions of dollars in damages, but seemed to have been deliberately-planned.
Whoever had sabotaged this train had set out to cause a mass casualty incident. Investigators began looking into the specifics of how the train had derailed, but also began looking into the mysterious notes that had been left at the scene.
The letters found at the scene:
“Indictment of the ATF and the FBI
"Before dawn the women awoke to say their morning prayers. The women slept upstairs. They lit their kerosene lamps because the electricity had been turned off by the FBI. After observing lights in all the upstairs windows, the FBI order the teargas bombardment. Afterwards, only two upstairs windows were lit. The location of each was recorded. Over the next few hours ventilation holes were poked in the walls. These holes made the fire burn very much faster. Otherwise the fire department would have had time to put out the fire before the women and children died in the flames. At noon, the light from the two kerosene lamps was obscured by bright sunlight. Everyone had forgotten about them except the man who carried their locations written on a scrap of paper in his pocket. He ordered the tank drivers where to crash through. Guess under which two windows. He ordered them to raise their guns, as they backed out, the guns were lowered. The video tape shows clearly the floor being raised by the (word unintelligible) a foot and a half. Guess what happened to the kerosene lamps in (word intelligible) rooms above the tanks. A minute afterwards, black smoke started to pour out of the windows where the lamps had burned. This is the normal time needed for a kerosene fire to build up.
"Who is policing the ATF, FBI state troopers, county sheriffs and local police? What federal law enforcement agency investigates each and every choke hold killing committed by a police officer? Each and every beating of a drunk wether (sic) or not a passerby videotapes it? Each and every shooting of a police officer's wife who knows too much about drug kickbacks? Each and every killing at Ruby Ridge? The Gestapo accounts to no one. This is not Nazi Germany. All these people had rights. It is time for an independent federal agency to police the law enforcement agencies and other government employees. Sons of the Gestapo SOG"
What you just read is the exact wording of the notes left behind at the scene; two of which had been discovered by passenger Neal Hallford a short time after the train derailed.
Titled "Indictment of the ATF and the FBI," the notes had been written by an individual or a group calling themselves the "Sons of the Gestapo." The notes were typed, not written, and - in addition to seemingly claiming credit for the sabotage - the manifesto's deranged verbiage alluded to not only the Waco Siege from two-and-a-half years prior, but the Ruby Ridge incident from 1992.
The letter also critiqued local law enforcement, making reference to the shooting of a police officer's wife who "knew too much about drug kickbacks." Investigators believed that line might point to the identity of the author.
John Swofford, a passenger that got a look at the note before it was taken by authorities as evidence, said that it contained a "sick poem" which railed against the FBI, ATF, and other law enforcement agencies. In his opinion:
"The way I took it, it definitely was leaning toward the Waco thing."
Michelle Cruz, another passenger that got a look at the note, read it to herself in the darkness, using a small flashlight she carried around with her. She described the manifesto as a "poem to martyrs," as well as sounding "sarcastically poetic."
"It went on with a lot of victimization stuff, something about as the light goes down, a mother and her daughter say their prayers. Stuff like that. It was like a poem, but there definitely were martyrs in it."
In addition to the two copies of the rambling letter found by Neal Hallford, two other copies were found in the vicinity of the crash, bringing the total up to four. Four copies of the same manifesto left around the crash site, signed by the mysterious "Sons of the Gestapo," which railed against the federal government.
Whatever doubts there had been that this was an accident were almost immediately snuffed out after the discovery of these letters, which were strategically placed around the scene of the wreckage. It pointed to this unknown extremist group - the SOG, as they called themselves - but an examination of HOW the train had derailed ended up creating more questions than answers.
In the wake of the wreckage, it was discovered that the previous train had passed over the same set of tracks roughly eighteen hours beforehand, giving the person - or persons - responsible nearly an entire day at the scene of the crime.
However, investigators would note that the damage done could have taken as little as ten minutes... from someone who had experience when it came to railroad construction or maintenance.
Investigators quickly found that the track had been purposefully shifted out-of-position.
So, picture in your mind what a railroad looks like: you have the two tracks, set a standardized distance apart, which directs the train. Someone had pulled up 29 spikes from one side, and then shifted it a few inches inside. So now, instead of the rails being parallel to one another, one had been pulled aside, and then a metal plate was installed by the saboteur to prevent the tracks from reconnecting.
That's the easy part of the sabotage. The complicated part involved the wiring that created the rail's track circuit system, which had been bypassed by the responsible party.
Whoever the saboteur was, they had enough working knowledge of railroads to use jumper wire to bypass the early warning system installed in the rails. I touched on this briefly in the introduction of the episode, but - basically - there is a system of wires connected to rails which informs engineers and conductors of any changes. That way, if a disaster or freak accident happens, they get an early warning and can either slow down or stop the train.
Whoever orchestrated this wreck knew about these wires, and had installed wires of their own which closed the circuit; thus, giving the crew aboard the Sunset Limited no idea that disaster loomed.
In so many words, the person or persons calling themselves the "Sons of the Gestapo" had fooled the early warning system in the execution of their scheme.
Investigators believed that the location of the wreck - which happened in the middle of the desert, overlooking a thirty-foot drop - had been specifically chosen. They believed that a mass casualty incident had been intended by those that carried out this plan.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio - yes, THAT Joe Arpaio - told the media the day after the wreck:
"It's an act of God that more people weren't killed."
It had become clear to investigators that not only had the location and the process of the derailment been deliberately-planned, but there was at least one person involved that had a familiarity with the systems used by the railroad; in particular, with the Sunset Limited. The saboteurs would have needed working knowledge of the specifics systems used to circumvent the early warning systems, which were put in-place to prevent crashes like this.
Coming less than six months after the Oklahoma City Bombing, word of the train's derailment reached President Bill Clinton, who professed that he was "profoundly outraged" by the news. He had already been supportive of legislation aimed at combating terrorism, the subtly-named "Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act," which had been circling around Congress since the Timothy McVeigh-led terror plot.
The Act would eventually pass, in April of 1996, and many believe that it preceded the more-well known and draconian piece of legislation known as the Patriot Act.
However, before that would come to pass, President Clinton encouraged an aggressive investigation from federal investigators, hoping to deter any more domestic terror plots from unfolding.
"We will punish those who are responsible. We will not tolerate acts like this in the United States, regardless of the motive."
The investigation to find out what had happened, and who was responsible, was called Operation Splitrail - which I'm sure some FBI official had been eager to use for some time.
The effort was led by FBI Special Agent Larry McCormick, a 30-year veteran of the Bureau that described this case as being remarkably different from the rest:
"In 30 years in the FBI, I worked a lot of high-level cases. The Jimmy Hoffa case, Oklahoma City Bombing case - but this one was unique."
More than 90 federal agents descended upon the wreckage of the Sunset Limited, spreading out and attempting to cover every square inch of terrain. It was described as being the second-largest crime scene in the Bureau's history (at the time), but they quite literally started in one spot, and did their best to comb through every grain of sand, looking for a piece of evidence that could assist them: a footprint, a fingerprint, anything.
This included exploring the railroad tracks for several miles around the crime scene, looking for any similar obstructions.
The day after the attack - Tuesday, October 10th, 1995 - was marked by an explosive discovery in downtown Phoenix. There, on a railroad track near Union Station, FBI agents discovered a device known as a "derailer." This is an item that is usually used to get trains on-tracks, but had been placed in a way that it would have knocked a train off-course if approached. It was unknown whether this was an intentional act, or if it had simply been left behind in preceding weeks or months, as the track wasn't often used.
That same day - October 10th - it was reported that two men had been detained after the wreck by Maricopa County deputies. These two men were known only to be in their 20's, and had been drinking the night of the train crash. It was stated by police that they had been detained, but it was determined that they were just a couple of bored drunks that followed the police response for some excitement in the early morning hours.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio stated:
"We do not believe they are connected to the crash. They were curious as to what was going on."
Both Maricopa County and the FBI would state that these men were cleared of any potential involvement, having simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The primary lead investigated by federal authorities was the mysterious group or individual calling themselves SOG - the "Sons of the Gestapo."
The letters written by this unknown saboteur were sent off to the FBI crime lab for analysis, but no results were ever released to the public. It is unknown what the Bureau's experts were able to glean from the rambling manifesto.
The content of the letters seemed to blame both the Waco Siege and Ruby Ridge - in additional to local law enforcement - for the act of sabotage. This gave federal agents the immediate belief that this was a radical anti-government, perhaps even right-wing, terrorist organization. However, law enforcement had no knowledge of a group calling themselves the "Sons of the Gestapo" - and neither did other domestic terror experts.
The name "Sons of Gestapo" or "Sons of the Gestapo" had never been used before; not in any prior acts of domestic terrorism or anti-authority demonstration. By all indications, this train derailment was the group's grand debut, but... outside of these four printed letters, there seemed to be no trace of the group actually existing.
Daniel B. Wood, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, did some reporting in the aftermath of the disaster, and claimed to have met local residents that knew members involved with this mysterious group. However, despite finding several firsthand accounts of racial tension - mainly perpetrated by skinheads and like-minded racists - he never met anyone claiming to be a member of the so-called "S.O.G."
Later in October of 1995 - just weeks after the derailment of the Sunset Limited - a letter signed by the so-called "Sons of Gestapo" was sent to an elementary school in Hyder, Arizona. Hyder is the nearest town to where the train had derailed, a very small farming town. The letter had been addressed to the "Hyder Public Library," but - because of the town's incredibly small population - it was instead forwarded to a nearby school: Dateland Elementary School, which was roughly fifteen miles away from Hyder, and approximately twenty-five miles away from the scene of the wreck.
There, the letter ended up in the hands of Superintendent Pat Koury, who stated:
"The main message really was anti-Semitic - totally blaming the Jews for everything that ever happened. It seemed very anti-government, anti-police, anti-everything."
Then, at the tail end of the letter, it was signed "SOG - Phoenix" - hinting at a Phoenix chapter for the Sons of the Gestapo.
It is unknown whether this letter was ever linked to the derailment, or if it was later proven to be a hoax. However, since I found this news story buried in the internet archives of 1995, I would assume that it was little more than a fake from a local looking to scare someone.
As the leads into this unknown "Sons of the Gestapo" organization began to reach a dead-end, investigators began looking into local extremist groups that were known to them. One in particular, named the Viper Militia, came into the spotlight, due to several members running afoul of the law.
Several members of the Viper Militia would be arrested and charged with a variety of crimes over the next couple of years; charges that included conspiracy, plotting anti-government acts, stockpiling weapons and ammunition, and accumulating explosive materials. A raid by FBI officials was able to discover plans by this Viper Militia to target "unguarded rail lines," but no official links could ever be made between them and the Sunset Limited Derailment.
Joe Roy, the director of Klanwatch - an organization that tracks hate groups throughout North America - stated his belief that the "Sons of the Gestapo" could be some unknown local group. Or, as he put it:
"... this could be Fred the farmer who's mad at Amtrak for cutting across his land... It very well could be some disgruntled individual who's trying to blame it on the militias."
This belief - that the SOG was nothing more than a local or two hoping to get back at a railroad company - began to be favored by the FBI, as their investigation pivoted. The Bureau would later state that they believed the "Sons of the Gestapo" - this supposed hate group they had dedicated hundreds of man hours into investigating - was a fictional group created to obfuscate the investigation.
The motive claimed by the rambling manifestos was aimed towards the government's actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge... but attacking a privately-run Amtrak train did very little to affect any type of change. It was believed that this motive - retaliation for the government's actions - was intended to put investigators on the wrong track... pun intended.
The real motive, investigators proposed, was rooted in something else entirely. Perhaps the derailment was meant to precede the robbing of a train car, or something like that. However, because there was no evidence pointing towards any kind of robbery, investigators ended up back at the "revenge" motive.
However, in this case, it wasn't an extremist group hoping to get back at the government. It fit in with the evidence police had already gathered: that the saboteur was something with inside knowledge of train operations, who had perhaps become disillusioned during their dealings with the rail companies. In this scenario, the person responsible was a disgruntled rail worker, who wanted to get back at Amtrak or Southern Pacific Railroads, and knew that by writing an anti-government manifesto, they could inundate the investigation with all kinds of distractions and innuendo.
John Ernest Olin was a 32-year old man living in Val Verde, California - a rural area northwest of Los Angeles - who quickly became one of federal investigators' prime suspects.
Following the increased scope of the investigation, which was looking for anyone that may have a grudge against Amtrak or Southern Pacific Railroad, Olin had been questioned. Olin, who owned a company called Environmental Care and Cleanup Project, Inc., had been contracted by companies to provide cleanup along railways. However, he had a long list of grievances against several of these companies, due to a number of other business ventures that had been canned.
In particular, police focused in on the months preceding the derailment. It was found that Olin had been forced to shutter a scrap metal company of his, due to a dispute with one of the rail companies. It was also believed that he had traveled from California to Arizona at around the time of the derailment, so... investigators continued to examine John Olin's background.
Between October and December of 1995, a six-week span, Olin was questioned numerous times. Each time, he denied having any knowledge or involvement in the derailment.
On December 13th, 1995, John Ernest Olin's home was raided by FBI agents. The search warrant listed the following for seizure: railroad tools, any kind of plans involving trains or train wrecks, shoes, and vehicles. The latter two would be tested for any prints, to see if they matched those found at the scene of the wreckage. Federal agents were photographed leaving Olin's home with bags full of evidence, including tools, computer records, and more.
Olin himself was detained during the search, but later released. His lawyer, Allan Sarkin - in an attempt to downplay his potential involvement - told the media:
"He's a suspect, as is anybody who worked on the railroads."
Following this raid, national publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post began trying to learn more about who, exactly, John Olin was. As such, they began exploring his backstory, and found a very checkered past.
Olin had been arrested and/or charged in multiple violent crimes, starting in 1986. That year, he had been jailed for six months on a home burglary bid, which was immediately followed up with another robbery charge in 1988, which was dismissed. Then, in 1990, he had been arrested and charged in relation to a murder, but during a preliminary hearing, those charges had also been dismissed. However, later that year, he was arrested again for burglary, and then given a four-year prison sentence... of which, he would only serve three out of the four years.
Since his release, just a couple of years prior to this, he had worked to establish a number of small companies. His primary business was his Environmental Care and Cleanup Project, Inc., but he had a number of business ventures at any given moment - many of which involved railroad contracting.
It was discovered that Olin had a bit of a temper; best explained by two of his former-employees obtaining restraining orders against him. Ken Lee, one of these two employees, described Olin as such:
"He was so threatening, and he'd say he'd whip everybody, and if they wanted to take him, they could step outside anytime."
Cindy VanHemert, an acquaintance of Olin that was familiar with him and his business dealings, stated:
"He was arrogant, one of those types you just don't like to deal with. I think he thought he was a big shot and he really wasn't.
"He was an awful person. He had that attitude like you're just a peon."
Cindy VanHemert then cited Olin's prior run-ins with the area around Hyden, Arizona - the town near the derailment - where Olin had lived for around a year. She described Olin having to shut down his scrap metal company because he had spent thousands of dollars on a concrete foundation near a railway without the company's permission. When the company learned about this, Olin was forced to tear it apart, losing the thousands of dollars it cost to build.
"They made him rip it up and didn't give him his contract, so he was slightly ticked off. The bad part of it is he would kind of jump to doing something before he had all the facts."
Another acquaintance of Olin - a government administrator named Jim Wyatt - was familiar with his plight. And, for what its worth, he was also not a fan of dealing with John Olin.
"He was very impatient, a very fast talker. He cussed at me a couple of times on the phone, saying he was being (cheated) by Santa Fe and the city wasn't cooperating."
The details of the overall investigation were kept guarded by investigators, who would not reveal the extent of their inquiry into John Olin. He would reveal to the media that had had been detained for a short period of time, and then subjected to fingerprint and footprint testing, as well as a polygraph.
However, we do know that he was released by the FBI, who seemingly cleared him of any wrongdoing. Following this, Olin claimed that the allegations made by federal agents and the media had destroyed his businesses; alleging that more than $7 million in contracts had been lost in the month after his house was raided.
It is unknown whether or not the FBI still considers Olin a suspect in the Sunset Limited Derailment, but I think it is worth noting that he has never been charged with any crimes pertaining to it.
Following the derailment of the Sunset Limited, it was discovered that a similar incident had happened nearly sixty years prior.
The date was August 12th, 1939, and the train named the City of San Francisco was making it's regular run from Oakland, California to Chicago, Illinois. Then, just outside of Harney, Nevada, it slipped off the tracks.
Many of the conditions were comparable to the Sunset Limited. This 1939 derailment also happened on a bridge overlooking a steep embankment. It was later determined to have been a deliberate sabotage, with a large section of railing having been removed. And, in a related series-of-events, the saboteurs had also connected wires to circumvent the track circuits. Engineers and conductors didn't know anything was wrong until the train was already derailing.
The derailment of the City of San Francisco killed 24 people and wounded more than a hundred others. The saboteurs were never caught or identified, and the case actually remains unsolved to this day - nearly eighty years later.
In an ironic twist, the 1939 derailment had been profiled in a train magazine, named S.P. Trainline, on the same week that the Sunset Limited derailed. The magazine, whose subtitle was "The Official Publication of the Southern Pacific Historical & Technical Society," had a very limited readership.
It was theorized that the article detailing the wreck of the City of San Francisco might have provided some inspiration for the attacker, but the article was published just days before the sabotage of the Sunset Limited. Several of its subscribers were interviewed and interrogated in the following weeks and months, but no connection would ever be made.
Nonetheless, the similarities between the two rail disasters remains a startling coincidence.
Following the 1995 derailment of the Sunset Limited - its second in as many years - the train continued operation. It continued making its trips between California and Louisiana just days later, with Amtrak eventually reviving the east coast trip in the following months.
The Sunset Limited became the nationwide trip it had once been, but was eventually deterred following Hurricane Katrina. Due to damages to many of the eastern railways, the area around Louisiana became impacted, and the trip out to Florida was permanently suspended following the storm. The San Antonio to New Orleans route was repaired quickly, however, and the train continues to run from west coast to Louisiana to this day.
The route that the Sunset Limited was taking on the day of its 1995 wreck - out in the scenic, desolate Arizona desert - is now mostly abandoned. That railway stopped being used for passenger trips shortly after the derailment, instead finding a use solely as a storage track. Today, that track barely sees any usage, and has led to the dwindling population of many of those small towns in Maricopa County.
This, however, brings us to one final lead... one last possible connection.
The area that the Sunset Limited derailed - out in the middle of nowhere - is very barren. Very dry and inhospitable. However, the spot that the train was derailed points to familiarity with the region... indicating that the saboteur, or one of the saboteurs, knew that that specific spot would provide trouble for officials. They had to have known that the response time would take upwards of an hour, and the isolated location would be a headache for investigators.
FBI Special Agent Michael Lum, speaking in 2015, said as much:
"It's one of those places that if you don't know how to get there, you'd get lost. It truly is. It's in the middle of nowhere, even today."
In addition, it is possible that the saboteur had some inside knowledge about that particular track; owned by Southern Pacific Railways, but operated by Amtrak. They had to have known that both companies were planning to quit operating in the region, and - as such - had not upgraded the railways with more up-to-date technology. This would have meant more advanced tracking systems, which were meant to deter accidents like the 1993 Big Bayou Derailment from happening again.
This indicates that not only was the location a perfect fit, but the culprit knew that this specific railway was exposed. This points to not only familiarity with the region, but a solid understanding of rail operations.
Following the derailment of the Sunset Limited, the people involved were ferried to nearby hospitals and hotels, where federal investigators hoped to learn as much about the disaster as they could. Some were questioned at the scene, while others were brought back to Phoenix, where a hotel had been taken over and acted as a crisis center.
Neal Hallford, the passenger that discovered two of the four notes written by the "Sons of the Gestapo," was forced to remain at the scene for several hours after the disaster. He spoke to investigators, and told them all of the information he knew; primarily, where he had found the two manifesto letters, and the circumstances surrounding their discovery. Later, he was driven to Phoenix, and then took a Greyhound Bus to his original destination: San Diego, California.
Hallford refused to speak publicly about the incident until 2001, when he spoke to a BBC documentary crew looking into the Sunset Limited. He had continued his work with role-playing games and other creative endeavors, eventually self-publishing a short account of his experience. Titled "The Derailment of the Sunset Limited," the twenty-or-so page book can be found on Amazon and other online retailers.
Pat Borree - the dispatcher from Buckeye, Arizona that helped organize rescue efforts - continued to hold on to her post for another seven years. She eventually retired in 2002, believing that the case had been solved long beforehand. In fact, when she was interviewed by reporters in 2015 - on the 20th anniversary of the derailment - she was shocked to learn that it was still an open case. She remembered explicit details of the night it happened, but had not given the incident much thought in the years since.
Meanwhile, Mitchell Bates - the lone casualty from the train's intentional derailment - left behind no surviving family. He had had close relationships with his co-workers and some friends, but - following his loss - there were very few accounts in the public realm. He was a quiet guy, known for being sweet and kind to those he dealt with, but who primarily kept to himself.
On the 20th anniversary of the Sunset Limited Derailment, Polly Hanson - the Amtrak Chief of Police - gave a public statement regarding Mitchell Bates:
"I'm told that Mr. Bates no longer has living survivors, so I stand here representing his Amtrak family, who then and now were stricken and outraged because of his senseless loss - the tragic loss of life."
Following two decades of no answers, it came as a surprise in 2015, when the FBI announced news regarding the Sunset Limited Derailment. Investigators did not announce by, after 20 years, they were bringing forth a hefty reward for information, but they did just that.
In April of 2015, it was announced that $310,000 was on the table for anyone that offered up information leading to an arrest and a conviction in this still-unsolved crime. While a random amount, the $310,000 reward made sense when you break it down into its multiple benefactors: $250,000 coming from the FBI; $50,000 from Amtrak; and $10,000 being contributed by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
Mark Cwynar, the FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge, said about this reward:
"We want to send a message to those responsible to this senseless act of sabotage. And that message is simple: we are very close, we are watching - and we will bring you to justice."
In addition, FBI Special Agent Michael Lum stated that the investigation was continuing to circle around a number of leads, and felt that resolution was close at-hand:
"As far as where it's come, we're making progress. People have been coming forward. We just need that little piece to get us over the edge.
"We're not going to quit. We're never going to go away. We're going to keep investigating this until it's solved. There was an individual killed... we'll investigate it until we get justice for Mitchell."
Any information about this case can be forwarded to the FBI, and the reward fund still stands today. If you have any information, please head to the FBI's tip website - tips.fbi.gov - or give their tip-line a call at 800-CALL-FBI. That's 800-225-5324.
Until an arrest is made, the case of the Sunset Limited Derailment remains unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on November 11th, 2018
Other original music created and composed by Ailsa Traves