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Probe of Desert Derailment Focuses on Unknown ‘Sons of Gestapo’

October 10, 1995

HYDER, Ariz. (AP) _ FBI agents hunting the saboteur who derailed an Amtrak train worked Tuesday to determine whether the ``Sons of Gestapo″ is really an anti-government terrorist group or just someone with a grudge against the railroad.

The FBI expanded its painstaking search for evidence to a mile-square area surrounding the gulch where the Sunset Limited lurched off a damaged track and asked the public for help finding the culprit.

The train jumped the tracks at the damaged section early Monday, toppling 30 feet from a bridge, killing a crew member and injuring at least 78 people.

A letter found at the scene mentioned federal raids on right-wing extremists at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. It was signed ``Sons of Gestapo,″ raising fears the sabotage was the work of anti-government extremists.

FBI officials held a brief news conference six miles from the scene Tuesday, but offered little insight into the investigation called Operation Splitrail, refusing to comment about the letter.

With about 90 agents on the scene, Larry McCormick, acting special agent in charge of the Phoenix office, said he believed it was the bureau’s second-biggest crime scene investigation after the Oklahoma City bombing.

``We are going to pursue every bit of evidence and every lead very thoroughly ... until we find the person or persons who committed this crime,″ said U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano.

Acting on a tip to Phoenix police, FBI agents on Tuesday found a device capable of derailing a train on a set of railroad tracks near Union Station in downtown Phoenix. Special Agent Al Davidson said the bureau knew nothing to connect the discovery with the derailment.

The device _ two heavy pieces of metal with a hinge between _ was placed over a track in a way that could have derailed a train if one had come by, said Mike Furtney, spokesman for Southern Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks.

The so-called derailer is used to get trains back on tracks, but can do the opposite, said Furtney from the railroad’s San Francisco headquarters.

``It wouldn’t absolutely derail a train, but I’m glad we found it before we found out if it would have worked,″ Furtney said.

The Amtrak case was put under the supervision of Assistant FBI Director Robert Bryant, who runs the bureau’s national security division, according to a senior Justice Department official who spoke to The Associated Press in Washington on condition of anonymity. The division handles terrorism cases.

``Bryant’s national security division has the case because it has the potential to become a terrorism case, but we have not reached any conclusions yet whether terrorism is the motive or not,″ the source said.

No group called Sons of Gestapo is known to experts at Klanwatch, which tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. And an extensive search of news archives turned up no reference to the group.

Klaus Haase, a German historian specializing in the Gestapo, said he knows of no German or foreign groups using the name Gestapo.

Federal officials in Washington speculated that the note could have been concocted by a disgruntled Amtrak employee or someone simply bent on mischief.

At a news conference Monday, Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs said, ``I don’t know if this is a disgruntled employee of ours or another railroad, or someone else. Someone did know enough about the railroad to wire this.″

Downs said the saboteurs removed a 3-foot, 18-pound steel bar that holds sections of rail together, and bridged the gap with a wire to disable an electrical system that gives a red light to warn trains of breaks in the track.

Twenty-nine of the spikes that hold the rail to the wooden crossties on a 19-foot section of track had been removed, according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The train, carrying 248 passengers and 20 crew members from Miami to Los Angeles, derailed about 1:20 a.m. Monday along an isolated stretch of track 55 miles southwest of Phoenix. Four cars were thrown into a gulch.

The White House stressed that it was too early to be sure terrorism was involved, but President Clinton expressed outrage.

``We will do everything we can within the federal government to catch whoever is responsible,″ he said. ``I am determined that we will make sure in the United States that we will have the tools, the means we need to keep the American people safe.″

The investigation _ carried out by the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board and other state and federal agencies _ was run from a staging area six miles from the crash site and accessible only by dirt road.

Construction crews began widening and grading a road to the bridge from the staging area. Four cranes stood by to remove the damaged cars.

``Once everyone is satisfied with the information they have, we’ll start clearing away the wreckage,″ said NTSB investigator Mike Martino.

Amtrak has stepped up its own security and asked freight railroads whose tracks it uses to do the same, said spokesman Stephen Taubenkibel in Washington. The line also is working with commuter railroads, he said.

``We’re asking that everyone be more security conscious,″ he said.

Gov. Fife Symington said he has read the Sons of Gestapo letter. He wouldn’t talk about what it said, except to say he was told there were multiple versions that were ``comparable in terms of content.″

Symington offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction and said the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors matched his offer, making the total $20,000.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating sent a letter of condolence to Symington that drew parallels with the April 19 bombing of the federal building there, allegedly by anti-government extremists.

``The people of Oklahoma understand your shock and outrage as few others could,″ Keating wrote. ``May those who are hurting be healed, and may the despicable authors of this act be brought swiftly to justice.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Associated Press Writer Michael J. Sniffen in Washington contributed to this report.

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