A racist gang of hobos may be responsible for as many as 300 transient murders across the nation in the last decade, including at least 10 in Spokane, Kootenai and Bonner counties, authorities say.
Police are identifying specific members of the Freight Train Riders of America, thought to number 2,000, in dozens of homicide investigations.
They are turning to Spokane police officer Bob Grandinetti, a nationally recognized FTRA expert, to help identify, track and jail the elusive drifters.
Transients suspected in the killings claim the gang is a hoax intended to intimidate and scare off casual boxcar riders.
To rail riders, the threat is very real. Mere mention of the train gang evokes unmistakable fear.
At a Spokane rail yard recently, Grandinetti approached a scraggly, middle-aged couple gobbling hot dogs and beer under the Freya Street bridge.
“Are you FTRA?” he demanded.
They yanked the necks of their shirts down to reveal skin where FTRA bandannas would hang. Stop messing with us, they screamed.
“Find the guys who are killing people!” the woman raged as she rose from the filth. “Find the guys who killed Horizontal John. I’m scared, man.”
Under the same bridge, the body of a fellow drifter 46-year-old Horizontal John turned up earlier this month. Natural causes, the coroner said. Transients think the gang claimed another victim. Grandinetti thinks they’re probably right.
On the average, three transients die each year along rail lines in Spokane; 70 to 90 died along tracks nationwide, according to police and the FBI. Few of the cases involving foul play are solved.
“Let’s face it, most people just don’t give a damn if a transient dies,” said Salem, Ore., police detective Mike Quakenbush, who recently was involved in the arrest of alleged serial killer and FTRA leader Robert Silveria.
The loose-knit gang has terrorized transients in freight trains, rail yards and hobo camps for years.
They run roughshod over Southern lines from Texas to California, Northern lines across the Midwest and so-called high lines from Minnesota to Northern California.
Rail riders usually don’t have permanent addresses. They don’t pay taxes and don’t work, making them nearly impossible to track. Investigations into suspicious transient deaths are difficult and time-consuming.
“You can kill a transient and (his body) may not surface for two weeks,” Quakenbush said. “The suspect, by that time, may be 20 states away.”
Long overlooked by law enforcement, transient murders now get more attention than ever as recent arrests shine the spotlight on the FTRA.
Spokane resident Hugh T. Ross, an alleged FTRA enforcer, was picked up July 20 by police in La Crosse, Wis., hours after he and the train gang were featured on “America’s Most Wanted.”
Days before, officers had released him from the LaCrosse County Jail on unrelated drug charges, not realizing that Ross, under different names, was wanted in connection with at least two transient killings.
“These guys are basically serial killers,” Grandinetti said.
Freight Train Riders of America reportedly traces its roots to a group of Vietnam Veterans who hung out in a Northwestern Montana bar.
There, 13 years ago, they forged a bizarre rail-riding brotherhood with neo-Nazi, “white power” overtones, authorities say.
A few summers later, members began to spread out, taking control of the country’s rail yards and freight trains, forcing their rituals and precepts on other hobos.
By the late 1980s, FTRA enforcers, such as the “Goonie Squad,” named for the sticks they reportedly used to beat people, filled boxcar-hopping transients with fear.
Many fled, but the gang’s ranks swelled.
While little is known about the FTRA, joining appears to be a private, violent process during which “prospects” are beaten, women associated with the gang are raped and loyalty is tested, Grandinetti said.
But tying a urine-soaked FTRA bandanna around a recruit’s neck and securing it with the honored clasp is a rowdy, public ritual, usually fueled by alcohol and methamphetamine.
“Sometimes they kill each other,” Quakenbush said. “It’s just the cost of doing business.”
It also can be the cost of interfering with a gang member.
Several years ago, a transient in Spokane tried to rescue a young girl, about 12 years old, from a predatory FTRA member and convicted sex offender known as “Joshua,” Grandinetti said.
The girl wandered by mistake into a hobo camp Joshua had set up in.
She escaped unharmed, but the next morning, friends found the intervening transient dead in his sleeping bag.
Ten murdered hobos were found along rail lines from Cheney to Rathdrum, Idaho - shirts pulled over their heads, pants twisted around their ankles.
The still-unsolved deaths, between 1990 and 1992, drew Grandinetti’s attention.
At the time, he was assigned to break up illegal transient camps in the city. The similarities in the deaths by the tracks sparked what would become his consuming passion: documenting the rise of the FTRA.
Each of the victims appeared to have fallen off a train. They all had an arm or leg severed. They all bled to death.
“One or two, I could have seen,” Grandinetti recalled. More than that “meant something was going on.”
But as the beat cop and liquor licensing officer asked more questions, the picture began to focus for Grandinetti.
Patterns of gang colors and graffiti surfaced. Riders revealed “handles,” or nicknames, that eventually led to the identities of convicted felons.
Grandinetti craved more information, handing out ultimatums and cash to get it.
Let Grandinetti take your picture, be forthcoming with valid information and, even with outstanding warrants, you’d stay out of jail.
No information, no leniency.
“It took me a little while to pick up on what was going on,” said Grandinetti, a 30-year veteran of the force. “I don’t trust any of these guys. I guess they respect me because they know I have a gun.”
At his office, stacks of records, warrants and tips overwhelm the officer’s desk. The information is constantly shared with FBI agents, district attorneys and detectives from around the country.
Since 1984, Grandinetti has developed 800 criminal profiles of suspected FTRA members, including pictures, criminal records and fingerprints.
“All of them are convicted felons,” he said. “If I have one without an FBI number, then I know it’s a false name.”
Eight months from retirement, Grandinetti takes a camera along during his morning raids of transient camps, documenting the lives of the drifters passing through town.
On the underside of Spokane’s bridges, he points to racist graffiti marking FTRA territory - swastikas and lightning bolts.
Transients can no longer buy booze around the railroad tracks in Spokane, thanks to Grandinetti’s daily work in liquor licensing. Fifty-seven Spokane bars and liquor stores voluntarily gave up hard liquor sales over the last five years.
“If they can’t drink their fortified alcohol,” Grandinetti said of the rail riders, “they won’t stop.”
The train gang gained national attention for the first time in March 1996 after FTRA member Robert “Sidetrack” Silveria was arrested in Roseville, Calif.
More than 20 law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were introduced to the gang during the Silveria investigation, said Detective Bill Summers of the Placer County Sheriff’s Department.
Silveria, suspected in as many as 20 murders along Western rail routes, was arrested in the Roseville yards last year. He remains in jail in Salem, awaiting trial on two counts of first-degree murder.
He allegedly identified other FTRA members in numerous killings, including Spokane resident Hugh “Dog Man Tony” Ross, who rode with Silveria for years.
In Spokane County, Ross was convicted in 1992 of first-degree armed robbery and sentenced to 41 months in prison.
Eighteen months later, Ross walked away from an Airway Heights Correctional Center work crew that was weeding a golf course at Liberty Lake.
After a few days on the lam, he was captured in Royal City, Wash. He was released from prison in 1995.
But it’s the unsolved crimes he’s suspected of that recently landed him back in jail.
On July 20, Ross was captured in La Crosse, Wis., by sheriff’s deputies who recognized him on “America’s Most Wanted.” It was Grandinetti’s three-minute segment on the TV show, featuring the FTRA, that clued them in that Ross was a hardened criminal.
Doing the dinner dishes on July 19, La Crosse County sheriff’s Deputy Steve Helgesen recognized Ross on the television. He is wanted for an October 1995 murder in Saginaw, Texas, and a February 1994 killing in Big Springs, Texas. Both victims are thought to be transients.
Ross is now being held in the La Crosse County Jail without bond. He adamantly denies existence of the FTRA, according to detectives.
“He’s lying,” Grandinetti said. “These murders, most of the time, are just written off. They are the hardest to investigate, the hardest to solve.
“The gang is there,” he said. “They’re not held accountable for it because they commit the crimes and are gone.
“There’s nothing they aren’t capable of doing.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
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