20 Years Later, Sabotage Of Amtrak's Sunset Limited Still A Mystery

Originally published on July 25, 2015 9:52 pm

The mystery goes back 20 years.

It was an ordinary, cross-country train trip back in 1995: Amtrak's Sunset Limited passenger train, bound for Los Angeles from Miami.

The train never reached its destination: It was sabotaged, derailed in the Arizona desert.

The investigation continues to this day: On Friday, at the FBI field office in Phoenix, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Mark Cwynar announced a $310,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those who derailed the Sunset Limited.

"We want to send a message to those responsible to this senseless act of sabotage. And that message is simple," Cwynar said. "We are very close, we are watching — and we will bring you to justice."

Out In The Middle Of The Desert

The story begins on the night of October 9, 1995, sometime around 1:30 a.m.

Passenger Neal Hallford was jolted awake by a horrific sound: the train's brakes screaming up ahead.

"Just [an] incredible shriek, then a really large impact, and of course it slams me into the seat in front of me," Hallford remembers. "Then all of the lights go off inside the train car."

The Sunset Limited derailed in the middle of the Arizona desert, well over 50 miles from Phoenix — and a long way from the nearest road.

As the train passed over a trestle, some of the cars were knocked down into a gulch 30 feet below. Brian Hamblet and his wife were inside.

"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," Hamblet says. "And after that, it dropped pretty fast."

All around him were the sounds of other passengers screaming.

"Everyone was waking up and realizing what was going on as we were falling," he says. "I remember screaming to my wife and my wife screaming back, and as it turned out we were both fine."

They climbed up and into the other compartments to escape through the window and then went back to help the injured.

A Call Comes In: Passenger Train Derailed

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Buckeye, Ariz., Patricia Borree was the lone police dispatcher on duty, working an ordinary night.

"The graveyard shift is the quietest," Borree says. "Just a few traffic stops and maybe a beer run here or there, you know?"

She got the call that night: Passenger train derailed. So Borree got to work.

"All of our fire and ambulance personnel were all volunteers at that time so they all had pagers," she says. "So what I had to do was just page them all out. It was a mass rescue."

Rescue workers were driving off-road through dried-up riverbeds. So she called farmers and asked them to clear dirt roads. Borree even called local airfields to fuel helicopters.

"Then just getting lights set up out there for them to be able to do their work," she says. "It was a long night for everybody."

Nearly 100 passengers were injured and one man, 41-year-old Mitchell Bates, was killed. He was a sleeping-car attendant who spent 20 years working for the railroad.

Brian Hamblet remembers meeting him during the trip.

"He had brought us towels and blankets and some extra pillows for my wife," Hamblet says. "Really sweet guy, so we were quite shaken up to learn that he had not made it."

'Somebody Sabotaged This Train'

As Neal Hallford saw rescue workers approaching, he stepped outside his train car for some fresh air.

Under the light of a full moon, he says, something caught his eye: in the dirt, a piece of paper under a rock by the wreckage.

It was a typewritten, anti-government manifesto. The note, Hallford says, was signed, "Sons of Gestapo."

This was no accident.

"Holy ... whatever," Hallford says. "Somebody sabotaged this train."

Several more identical "Sons of Gestapo" notes were found along the crash site.

That's when Larry McCormick arrived on the scene. He was the acting special agent in charge for the FBI in Phoenix back then.

"In 30 years in the FBI, I worked a lot of high-level cases," he says. "The Jimmy Hoffa case, Oklahoma City bombing case — but this one was unique."

Along with the notes, railroad spikes had been removed and left by the track. Whoever did this overrode the railroad's safety system so the train conductor had no idea what was coming.

"They had tampered with the tracks," McCormick says. "And it was done in such a way that someone knew how to derail a train."

Prior to this investigation, no one had ever heard of the Sons of Gestapo. And no one has heard of them since.

Mark Potok covered the aftermath of the derailment for USA Today. Now, he's at the Southern Poverty Law Center where he monitors extremist groups.

"It's been a continuing mystery," he says. "And in particular, a continuing question about whether this was a political attack on the government or whether in fact it was just some disgruntled, angry or psychotic person out there."

Polly Hanson, the Amtrak chief of police, says she wants justice for Amtrak employee Mitchell Bates.

"I'm told that Mr. Bates no longer has living survivors, so I stand here representing his Amtrak family," Hanson said at the recent FBI announcement, "who then and now were stricken and outraged because of his senseless loss — the tragic loss of a life."

So Amtrak and the FBI continue to search for answers — for who was out in the middle of that remote desert to derail the Sunset Limited.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now, we have a mystery story that goes back 20 years. It's 1995. An ordinary cross-country train on Amtrak Sunset Limited is bound for Los Angeles from Miami. But the train never reaches the destination. It derails in the Arizona desert. Someone has sabotaged it, and the investigation continues.

MARK CWYNAR: We want to send a message to those responsible to this senseless act of sabotage. And that message is simple.

RATH: Friday, at the FBI Field Office in Phoenix, Special Agent Mark Cwynar announced a $310,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those who derailed the Sunset Limited.

CWYNAR: We're very close. We are watching, and we will bring you to justice.

RATH: NPR's Daniel Hajek reports.

DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: The story begins on the night of October 9, 1995, sometime around 1:30 a.m. Passenger Neal Hallford is jolted awake by a horrific sound, the train's brakes screaming up ahead.

NEAL HALLFORD: Just incredible shriek, then just 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.

HAJEK: The Sunset Limited derails in the middle of an Arizona desert, well over 50 miles from Phoenix and a long way from the nearest road. As the train passes over a trestle, some of the cars are knocked down into a gulch 30 feet below. Brian Hamblet and his wife are inside.

BRIAN HAMBLET: You could hear the train clacking along the tracks - ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk (ph) - 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.

HAJEK: All around him are the sounds of the other passengers screaming.

HAMBLET: 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, I mean, which was pretty lucky.

HAJEK: They climb up and into the other compartments to escape through the window, then go back to help the injured. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Buckeye, Ariz., Patricia Borree is the lone police dispatcher on duty working an ordinary night.

PATRICIA BORREE: The graveyard shift is the quietest, just a few traffic stops and maybe a beer run here or there, you know?

HAJEK: She gets the call; passenger train derailed. So Borree gets to work.

BORREE: All of our fire and ambulance personnel were all volunteers at that time, and so what I had to do was just page them all out. It was a mass rescue.

HAJEK: Rescue workers are driving off-road through dried-up river beds. So she calls farmers, asking them to clear dirt roads, and she puts calls into local airfields to fuel helicopters.

BORREE: Then just getting lights set up out there for them to be able to do their work - it was a long night for everybody.

HAJEK: Nearly 100 passengers are injured, and one man, 41-year-old Mitchell Bates, is killed. He was a sleeping car attendant who spent 20 years working for the railroad. Passenger Brian Hamblet remembers meeting him during the trip.

HAMBLET: He had brought us towels and blankets and some extra pillows for my wife. And really sweet guy - so we were quite shaken up to learn that he had not made it.

HAJEK: This was no accident. Passenger Neal Hallford finds that out quickly. Outside, under the light of a full moon, something catches his eye - in the dirt, a piece of paper under a rock by the wreckage. It's a typewritten anti-government manifesto. The note, Hallford says, was signed Sons of Gestapo.

HALLFORD: Holy whatever, somebody sabotaged this train.

HAJEK: Several more identical Sons of Gestapo notes were found along the crash site. That's when Larry McCormick arrives on the scene. He was the acting special agent in charge for the FBI in Phoenix back then.

LARRY MCCORMICK: 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.

HAJEK: Along with the notes, railroad spikes had been removed and just left by the track. Whoever did this overrode the railroad's safety system so the train conductor had no idea what was coming.

MCCORMICK: They had tampered with the tracks. And it was done in such a way as that someone knew how to derail the train.

HAJEK: But here's the thing; prior to this investigation, no one had ever heard of the Sons of Gestapo. And no one has heard of them since. Mark Potok covered the aftermath of the derailment for USA Today. And now, he's at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he monitors extremist groups.

MARK POTOK: It's been a continuing mystery, and in particular, a continuing question about whether this was a political attack on the government or whether in fact it was just some disgruntled, angry or psychotic person out there.

HAJEK: A continuing mystery nearly 20 years later. Amtrak chief of police Polly Hanson says she wants justice for Amtrak employee Mitchell Bates.

POLLY HANSON: 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 a life.

HAJEK: Searching for answers - who was out there out in the middle of that remote desert planning to derail the Sunset Limited? Daniel Hajek, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.