25 years later, Sunset Limited mystery still unsolved - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

25 years later, Sunset Limited mystery still unsolved

September 24th, 2020 SanTan Sun News
25 years later, Sunset Limited mystery still unsolved


A little before midnight on Sunday, Oct. 8, 1995, an Amtrak passenger train called the Sunset Limited pulled out of Phoenix under a full desert moon, heading west.

Its two locomotives pulled 12 cars. There were 268 souls on board, of whom 20 were  Amtrak crew members. Earlier they had cruised through Mesa and Tempe, passing Sun Devil Stadium and crossing an arid riverbed that was still more than three years away from becoming Tempe Town Lake.

Before long the train was churning through the Maricopa County desert, bound for Los Angeles after originating in Miami.

The passengers who were still awake could glance out the silver cars’ panoramic windows and see a moonlit monotony of scrub brush, power poles and saguaros.

Out in the desert, someone had been busy.

He, or she, or they, found the spot where the tracks curve toward a concrete bridge that crosses Quail Spring Wash.

They pulled 29 spikes that bound the rails to the wooden ties. They shoved one of the rails out of alignment and propped it in place with a metal bar. And they bypassed the alarm wires that run along the tracks so the engineers on the train could not know what lay ahead.

The Sunset Limited, traveling about 50 mph, rolled into the sabotaged section of track sometime after 1 a.m. on Oct. 9.

Somehow the engines made it across the bridge. The passenger cars did not.

Four of them lurched off the tracks and into the wash 30 feet below. The lead car smashed into a 2-foot-thick abutment, gouging a huge hole into the concrete.

Mitchell Bates, a 41-year-old sleeping-car attendant, died. Another 78 people were injured, many of them critically.

After the engineers called in their SOS, it took 45 minutes for the first help to arrive in an area so remote that even the tiny outpost of Hyder was still 15 miles away.

The area was so isolated that news organizations had a hard time even putting a dateline on the story. Some said Hyder. Some said Palo Verde. But really, it was the middle of nowhere.

The wreck of the Sunset Limited remains one of Arizona’s enduring mysteries.

It has defied the concentrated efforts of one of the most sophisticated investigative agencies in the world, namely the FBI, and those of numerous other law officers as well.

It endures despite a $310,000 pot of reward money for information leading to the killers. And at this stage its solution – which may or may not lie in the convoluted and bloody politics of America in the mid-1990s – seems as elusive as in the benumbed immediate hours after the crash.

That is not to say the FBI has given up.

Jill McCabe, spokeswoman for the Phoenix FBI office, said the derailment is still being investigated by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force as an act of domestic terrorism.

That implies that the FBI believes there was an ideological motive behind the sabotage.

According to McCabe, the FBI defines domestic terrorism as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

But the terrorists here left only the most cryptic of clues.

A note in the moonlight

Emerging from one of the undamaged cars after the crash, a passenger named Neal Hallford saw a piece of paper protruding from under a rock. He picked it up.

The page told – or at least it purported to tell – of someone’s rage over the actions of federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.

At Ruby Ridge, in 1992, the government had engaged in an 11-day siege with a segregationist named Randy Weaver in which Weaver’s wife, son and a federal agent were killed.

Months later, in early 1993, nearly 80 people died in the fiery climax to the federal siege of a Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco.

To many Americans, those events betokened a government far too big for its britches – a government, in fact, at war with its own citizens.

Anti-government domestic terrorists already had taken bloody revenge on April 19, 1995, by bombing a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people in a scheme that had actually been hatched in Arizona.

And now, if the note in Hallford’s hands was to be believed, they had struck again.

Claiming that Ruby Ridge and Waco served as justification for the train attack, its author signed off with an ominous appellation: Sons of the Gestapo.

The problem was, no one had ever heard of any such outfit. Not the FBI. Not any of the civil-rights organizations that keep a close watch on home-grown American hate groups. Nobody.

“While the manifestos were signed by the Sons of Gestapo, to date, we have not been able to verify that they are an actual group,” McCabe told The Mesa Tribune.

Suspicion arose, and never went away, that “Sons of the Gestapo” was a red herring. And theories were all over the map.

Right after the derailment, a Los Angeles Times reporter quizzed people in small towns along and near Interstate 17 up toward Prescott, finding plenty of theories.

Maybe the derailment had been the work of leftists out to discredit the flourishing militia movement. Maybe it had been government agents trying to gin up support for an anti-terrorism bill languishing in Congress. Maybe it was white supremacists angry over the recent acquittal of O.J. Simpson in a spectacular Los Angeles murder trial.

In 1995 – just as in 2020 – just about any theory could find its promulgators and its adherents.

Eerie echo of the past

But if the Sons of the Gestapo note (actually, four of them were found at the derailment site) was indeed a red herring, there was a far more prosaic – and possibly more reasonable – theory.

“Whoever did this knew something about trains,” Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said at the scene as government authorities probed the wreckage.

His comment pointed to what emerged as the most commonly cited theory – that the derailment had been the work of a disgruntled, or perhaps psychotic, lone wolf, perhaps someone with ties to the railroad industry.

The FBI poured resources into the case, at one point enlisting 90 agents in what the bureau called its biggest-ever investigation to that point outside the Oklahoma City bombing.

The location of the crash suggested that the perpetrators were familiar with the area, maybe someone who lived nearby. Agents fanned out to knock on doors to no avail.

Oddly, a magazine for railroad buffs had recently published an article about a 1939 passenger train crash in the remote Nevada desert that had been attributed to similar methods of sabotage. That crash killed 24 people. No one was ever arrested.

After the Arizona derailment, agents interviewed people who subscribed to the train magazine, but that part of the investigation led nowhere.

In the quarter-century since the crash, no groups known as the “Sons of the Gestapo” have emerged, and no further crimes have been associated with that name.

Amtrak still runs the Sunset Limited, three days a week between New Orleans and Los Angeles with stops in Maricopa. The stretch from Miami to New Orleans, however, has been out of commission ever since Hurricane Katrina struck the South in 2005.

Immediately after the crash, U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano – her governorship of Arizona still then in the future – vowed justice.

“We are going to pursue every bit of evidence, every lead, very thoughtfully, without any preconception about what may be correct and what may not be correct,” she said. “It may take a day, it may take a week, it may take a month.”

Twenty-five years later, her words linger unfulfilled, as fading and untouchable and haunting as a train whistle in the night.