By Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times
SPOKANE, Wash. F-Trooper died as he had lived, with a cigarette in one hand and a can of Schmidt's Ice beer in the other. They found him when the Montana Rail Link pulled into the repair shop. F-Trooper was sitting there in one of the boxcars as he so often had before except this time he had five bullets in his head.
Police had little to go on: A blood-spattered cardboard 12-pack between Tracks 3 and 4. Bloody footprints in the boxcar. Some spent shell casings. A tattoo on F-Trooper that said "F.T.R.A."
It is a symbol that has become an unnerving part of the railroad landscape across the West, where the mysterious brotherhood known as the Freight Train Riders of America has gained a foothold in the world of switching yards, bridge underpasses and boxcars the realm of the American hobo for more than a century.
Concentrated in the Northwest along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe's 1,500-mile High Line between Seattle and Minneapolis, the FTRA claims at least 1,000 itinerant train riders who police believe could be responsible for hundreds of deaths, assaults and thefts along American rail lines over the past two decades.
Police say F-Trooper, a rail-riding nickname for 30-year-old hobo Joseph Perrigo, died when a fellow FTRA member exacted revenge for an earlier confrontation. The list of potential witnesses for the upcoming trial reads like a Who's Who of the modern American rails: Moose. Hotshot. Desert Rat. Muskrat. Pennsylvania Pollack.
The fact that there's going to be a trial at all in the May 1996 slaying represents something of an exception in law enforcement's long-running battle with the gang, whose exploits usually produce witnesses who disappear on the next train, a crime scene that travels from Spokane to Klamath Falls, a victim found dead in the middle of the prairie next to a set of railroad tracks, leaving no known address and an age-old question: Did he jump or was he pushed?
"They're a criminal element that can do just about anything," said Spokane Police Detective Bob Grandinetti, who has compiled an exhaustive data base on the FTRA. "You get two or three of them together, they'll roll a guy over and push him off the train. You're moving at 50 or 60 miles an hour, what do you think your chances are? We're finding bodies like that all over the country."
Law enforcement officials say the group, launched by a cadre of Vietnam War veterans in a Montana bar in the 1980s, is composed primarily of white men, many with racist sympathies symbolized in the swastikas and lightning bolts that often accompany FTRA graffiti. The group, authorities say, has terrorized other train tramps, set up rail lines out of Texas as drug-running corridors and run a massive food stamp scam by filing thousands of fraudulent welfare applications at cities along virtually every train stop in the nation.
"There are 70 to 90 deaths a year (along the rail lines) all over the country," Grandinetti says. "Sure, some are natural causes. Some are accidents. But some aren't. And the problem is, the suspects and all the witnesses disappear."
"Everybody in the country's in the same spot," said Saginaw, Texas, police detective James Neale. He has unsuccessfully pursued a suspected FTRA member who he believes tortured and murdered a transient at knifepoint, stuffing the body on a train.
"These people, they fall through the cracks. They don't live in houses like we do, they don't have cars. ... Our system is not designed for these kinds of people, so they can just ride the rails, they can commit murder and mayhem almost at will."
The fact that a growing number of college students and young professionals are riding the rails for sport has heightened concern about potential conflict with a network of loners some FTRA, some simply train tramps who count their possessions as an extra shirt, a sleeping roll and a dog. What, police ask, will happen as weekend "hoppers" pick their way through lonely switching yards into an underground network of the deliberately dispossessed?
"I can see where more Joe Blow Citizen people are going to get injured and hurt," said Salem, Ore., police detective Mike Quakenbush. "Because this riding the trains thing is increasing in popularity, and it's pissing these guys off. They don't like you, they don't like you riding their trains, and if you're not willing to make that whole transition over, then get the hell out."
Their calling cards can be found at almost any railway bridge or overpass in the West, the trademark scrawl of "F.T.R.A.," often accompanied by swastikas or lightning bolts and other common slogans: "STP" for "start the party," "FTW" for "---- the world."
Grandinetti, who started documenting the emergence of the FTRA in the 1980s, said it began with the railroads reporting bodies along the High Line between Spokane and Sandpoint, Idaho, and as far west as Cheney, Wash.
The bodies had their shirts and jackets pulled up around their heads, and their pants pulled down, he recalls. "The first one or two, the railroad was saying, well, he fell off a train and cut his leg and he bled to death," Grandinetti said. "I could buy off on one or two of them. But after the sixth, I said, my God, wait a minute."
About the same time, he said, a freight train derailed west of Spokane after the air line to the rear cars' brakes was cut off. The suspect, who was killed in the crash, was wearing a black bandanna around his neck fastened with a silver ring.
Later, the bandanna would become the trademark of the FTRA a black one for the original High Line riders, red for the southern corridor, blue for the central United States.
Suddenly, bandannas began figuring in a series of stabbings and beatings.
Railroad officials tend to play down the impact of the FTRA, saying it has not had a major role in official incident reports along rail lines.
"We are aware that this organization exists. We have had minimal encounters with anybody who claims to be a part of this group. We've probably heard more about them than we've actually heard from them," said Jim Sabourin, spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
"Some of these people (arrested as transients) sometimes identify themselves as members of this organization, but they don't do anything different than anybody else that takes chances and gets on trains," said Edward Trandahl of Union Pacific.
In a camp near the old rendering plant in Spokane, a thin, weathered man wearing a black bandanna shrugs. "It's just a bunch of guys who ride trains," says the man, who identifies himself as "Sideline."
"It started out as a family thing. It was a brotherhood. They call us racist, but I get on white people same as I do anyone else." The bandanna, he says, is a symbol. "It just means I earned my place. I proved myself. I wasn't a user. I wasn't a taker. I gave. I was a brother.
"Me," he said, "I just don't like people. I prefer to be off by myself. It's hard for me to deal with a job, because I don't take orders well. I don't got a job, but I got what I need. I got a tent, a sleeping bag, a dog. I'm good to go. What do I need with a house, a mortgage, 12 kids running around? I'm not bothering anybody. My camp's clean."
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