By John Friend
Federal prosecutors in the Western District of Washington announced recently that terror charges have been lodged in Bellingham, Wash. against two women related to sabotage and violence against a railroad carrier after they were caught placing a “shunt” on railroad tracks operated by BNSF Railway. BNSF is one of the largest railroad carriers in the United States.
Samantha Brookes, 27, and Ellen Reiche, 23, both of Bellingham, were arrested on Nov. 28 after they were caught on surveillance video placing a shunt on the railroad tracks in a deliberate effort to disrupt and sabotage transportation on the rail line. A shunt is designed “to disrupt the low level electrical current on the tracks” and can also “disable various safety features,” according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Washington. Shunts like this can actually derail passenger and freight trains, causing mass human casualties and/or environmental damage.
The placing of shunts on railroad tracks has been an ongoing concern in the region, with federal law enforcement and sheriff’s deputies investigating multiple instances of sabotage and terrorism over the course of the past year.
“Since January, there have been 41 incidents of shunts placed on the BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties—causing crossing guards to malfunction, interfering with automatic braking systems, and, in one case, causing the near-derailment of tanks of hazardous chemicals,” U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran said in a statement. “These crimes endanger our community. I commend the agents from Customs and Border Protection, FBI, BNSF Police, and state and local partners who prioritized stopping this criminal [terrorist] conduct.”
According to an affidavit submitted to the U.S. District Court for Western Washington in Seattle sworn to by Levi Kauffman, a Customs and Border Protection officer assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, BNSF Railway Police Deputy Chief Tyler Nies received a motion alert from a camera focused on a section of the railroad track late in the evening on Nov. 28. After reviewing the camera footage, Nies noticed a trespasser standing on the tracks while a second one was kneeling, immediately raising his suspicions. Nies had been involved in multiple investigations into saboteurs placing shunting devices on BNSF operated tracks in prior months, and believed these individuals were likely engaged in this terrorist activity.
Nies then contacted the Whatcom County Sheriff’s office requesting deputies investigate and proceeded to monitor the BNSF train management and dispatch system program on his laptop. He soon observed a “track indication” appear and then quickly disappear, a signal that the track is obstructed, in the immediate vicinity where the trespassers had been seen.
When Whatcom County Sheriff deputies arrived on the scene, they encountered Brooks and Reiche on the tracks. The suspects initially attempted to flee but stopped when deputies warned them not to. The women told officers they were looking for Reiche’s car keys along the tracks, but neither of them had a flashlight or phone to use as lighting although it was dark. Reiche explained that she had left her phone in her car parked nearby. Deputies noticed a sticker on Reiche’s car which had a map of the U.S. with the text “indigenous land” overlaid, indicating the young woman’s left-wing sympathies.
A shunting device was then discovered in the area where Brooks and Reiche had been spotted, and they were detained for trespassing. Reiche was also in possession of a brown paper bag that contained rubber gloves, a piece of copper wire and a drill, devices that were used in previous shunting attacks on the tracks.
Brooks and Reiche appeared in federal court in early December, each facing a charge of committing a terrorist attack against a railroad facility, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The pair were released until their next court appearance, scheduled for Dec. 14.
Left-wing radicals affiliated with anarchist, pro-Indian, and environmental groups have taken credit for previous railway sabotage efforts and regularly engage in protests along the rail tracks connecting Washington and Canada in a show of solidarity with American Indian groups in the region, many of whom are opposed to pipeline and rail construction in the area.
Anarchists describe the white founders and current citizens of the United States and Canada as squatters who are exploiting the “stolen and occupied territories” of Indian groups in the region, and condemn the “legacy of colonialism” they say currently exists. Radical left-wing activists regularly organize blockades along the tracks in the region and have even openly called for sabotage, despite the grave threat it poses to human life and, in the case of trains carrying toxic waste, a danger to the environment, as well.
In early January, an internet post highlighting radical left-wing activism on the website ItsGoingDown. org noted that activists “organized mass marches, office occupations, student walk-outs, autonomous actions ranging from targeted vandalism to railroad sabotage, and full-scale blockades of highways, ports, and roads” in the region. Other posts openly admit that activists intentionally “disrupted the high-volume railway that moves resources from the active ports of Everett, Edmonds, Seattle, and further south to the Blaine border crossing into Canada” using a shunting device and encouraged others to engage in similar terror tactics designed to disrupt and sabotage transportation along the railways.
John Friend is a freelance writer based in California.