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Actualité criminologie

    Railroad serial murders expand into myth
    Etats-Unis > serial killer
    Article posté par Stéphane Bourgoin le Samedi 1er janvier 2005

    " The last time Bill Palmini walked this stretch of railroad track, it was lined with dense foliage and trees -- camouflage for a homeless camp.
   
    Today, the brush is largely gone. A tuft of pampas grass remains; behind it, the parking lot of a recently opened Target store. Nothing to muffle the drone of nearby Interstate 80.
   
    On the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way in Albany, about 1,000 feet south of the Buchanan Street overpass, Palmini recognizes a white PVC tube sticking out of the ground near where Village Creek emerges from a culvert under the tracks.
   
    "He had a platform here, a wooden walkway, that he had built," said Palmini, retired as detective lieutenant after 26 years with the Albany Police Department. "An outer hooch, where he kept his bicycle."
   
    Palmini separated the grass. We stepped forward into "Cops and Serial Killers," the first chapter of his book "Murder on the Rails," about a multistate series of murders, written with freelance journalist and publicist Tanya Chalupa.
   
    "There was the inner hooch -- his living quarters," Palmini continued. It was there July 25, 1995, that Albany police found James "J.C." McLean -- J.C. stood for Jesus Christ -- stabbed to death, beaten about the head with a "goon stick," his boots and wallet gone.
   
    "The isolated killing of a bitter, homeless Vietnam veteran did not create a public outcry," Palmini wrote.
   
    What he didn't know at the time was that McLean's death was not isolated. It was part of a strange, violent, parallel world that ran right through Albany and other small towns along America's rail lines, the brotherhood of the Freight Train Riders of America.
   
    The violent group, which railroad officials say is an urban myth, is peopled with men like Dogman Tony, Desert Rat, Arkansas Bobcat, and Sidetrack, real name Robert Joseph Silveria Jr.
   
    Palmini interviewed Silveria, known as the Boxcar Serial Killer, who has confessed to murders in dozens of states and was convicted in three.
   
    The book provides an insider's view of the investigator's trade and the workings of small-town police agencies.
   
    "Murder on the Rails" is also a personal story about a cop, a serial killer, their shared reverence for the Bible and affinity for Elvis Presley; and the strange circumstances that brought them together.
   
    Along the way, Palmini makes observations more typical of a social worker than a police officer. Then again, he says, he has always been a cop who thinks "out of the box."
   
    Palmini was the "Elvis" in "Elvis and the Lawmen," an act he devised as a sergeant, singing about traffic safety as an Elvis Presley imitator to high school audiences all over California and several other states.
   
    Silveria's criminality is rooted in a violent childhood, drug and alcohol use and a pivotal incident at a Vancouver, Wash., mental health agency when an attendant told a desperate Silveria, "Everyone has problems," and to take a number and sit down, Palmini said.
   
    To conjure the rage necessary to bludgeon and stab his victims, Silveria would summon the memory of the incident by repeating the words "take a number" over and over, Palmini said.
   
    The FTRA functions much as a gang, Palmini said. Silveria, now 45 and serving a double life sentence in Oregon State Prison, was part of a "death squad" that would collect debts and avenge perceived offenses, Palmini said.
   
    The group ran drugs in railroad towns across the West, using multiple identifications, sometimes stolen from their murder victims, to collect food stamps, welfare and Supplemental Security Income at different locations. They lived in "jungles," homeless camps along the tracks, including the one in Albany, Palmini said.
   
    He and other law enforcement officials say group members, primarily Silveria, are responsible for as many as 100 murders along the railroad tracks, including hobos thrown off trains or "executed ... with a machete, ax or sharp buck knife" and left on tracks at night to be run over by oncoming trains.
   
    Many of the killings were classified as suicides or accidents. Few ever were registered outside the jurisdictions where they occurred.
   
    So Palmini was unaware that in August 1994 a rail rider named Michael Garfinkle was found with his skull bashed in along the railroad tracks in Emeryville.
   
    "All the cops that worked these homicides had no idea the FTRA existed," Palmini said.
   
    Railroad police knew of the FTRA but did not share information with municipal departments, Palmini said.
   
    Palmini says the tens of thousands of miles of unprotected railroad tracks crisscrossing the country raise a homeland security issue.
   
    "In spite of tightened security after 9/11, seasoned rail riders like Robert Silveria still have the know-how to circumvent the authorities and move around freely," Palmini writes. "They also know how to derail trains."
   
    He believes someone in the FTRA is responsible for a 1995 Amtrak derailment in Arizona that resulted in a death.
   
    Additionally, there are buried pipelines and cables running along rights-of-way. Next to the Union Pacific tracks in Albany are Kinder Morgan and Santa Fe Pacific petroleum pipelines and MCI and Qwest fiber optic cables.
   
    John Bromley, a Union Pacific spokesman in Nebraska, agreed many miles of tracks are "pretty accessible."
   
    However, Bromley said, "Nobody's going to hijack a train and run it into a building. The potential for terrorism on railroads is pretty small."
   
    "Since 9/11, we've instructed our employees to be our eyes and ears," Bromley continued. "They are directed to report anything suspicious, and they've been doing a pretty thorough job of it."
   
    Bromley said there is no such thing as an organized group of railroad killers.
   
    "We have been over the years approached by the news media and some retired police officers about the so-called FTRA and a series of murders," Bromley said. "It's pretty much an urban myth."
   
    Myth or not, Silveria told Palmini he committed at least one murder in each of 38 states. He confessed to six in California, including McLean's and Garfinkle's, and six in Oregon. He was convicted of murder in Oregon, Kansas and Florida but has never gone to trial in California, Palmini said.
   
    Silveria was arrested without incident March 2, 1996, by a Roseville railroad police officer. Silveria, who was carrying a gun he had stolen from a victim, briefly thought of killing the officer, but something stopped him, Palmini writes. "'It was God,' Silveria would later tell me."
   
    Palmini interviewed him at the Placer County jail in Auburn, where he readily confessed in great detail to killing McLean.
   
    The two found a common bond when Silveria, noting Palmini's long sideburns, asked, "Are you that Elvis cop?"
   
    The next day, Silveria could not stop talking.
   
    "He wanted to clear the slate with God for the old Robert Silveria," Palmini says. "He wanted to make peace with God and peace with himself."
   
    An article by Tom Lochner.

Source : CONTRA COSTA TIMES (December 31st, 2005)

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