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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Man sabotaged brakes on WA train with hazardous load as it stopped along Columbia River

A BNSF locomotive, pushing from the tail end of a long train, travels over Thorpe Road and moves south out of Spokane on March 20.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

A Goldendale man has pleaded guilty to tampering with the brakes of railcars after the train left Pasco and stopped at Wishram, Wash., on the Columbia River en route to California.

Forrest Ethan Wanous, 58, says he was drunk at the time and has no memory of his action, according to court documents.

He is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court for the crime of violence against railroad carriers May 28 in the Yakima U.S. Courthouse.

The train, which included about eight railcars carrying hazardous materials, had seven brake checks after it left Pasco on Feb. 5, 2023, all showing no problems.

A brake check when it stopped at Wishram for 45 minutes about 115 miles southwest of Pasco also showed no issues.

But after it left the Wishram train station, an alert indicated a fault in the braking system. BNSF workers found that the levers that shut off and turn on the valve allowing air flow to air brakes for three cars had been turned the wrong way.

One was still partially working and the other two were disabled, according to a federal court document.

“The brake angle cocks are designed in such a way that you have to deliberately lift and turn the mechanism to change the position of the valve,” according to a court document.

Camera footage showed that Wanous parked a Ford Taurus near the station’s maintenance building about 4:30 p.m. Parking in the area is common for rail fans who watch and photograph the trains.

Security camera footage showed Wanous approaching numerous railcars and walking between them, appearing to stop at five railcars, according to a court document.

Court documents did not indicate which cars in the train carried hazardous material or what the material was.

Additional security footage showed he had been at the Pastime Tavern in Wishram before driving to the station.

By the time Wanous was identified as a suspect and questioned, he was serving a 15 month sentence in the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Wash., for felony DUI in Dosewallips State Park.

He has at least eight convictions, six of them related to alcohol, according to a court document.

He has recently completed inpatient treatment for substance abuse and is living in Walla Walla with the help of the Veterans Administration, according to his attorney, Alex Hernandez III, in court documents.

Wanous served in the Army and has worked consistently since then in jobs such as lineman and electrical windmill technician, his attorney said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern Washington District has agreed to ask for five years probation rather than incarceration for Wanous.

It points out in court documents that that would place him under court supervision longer than he would serve in prison plus probation under federal guidelines.

“Federal probation, especially for such a lengthy term, is no easy undertaking,” said the prosecution in a court document.

It said Wanous’s actions were serious and that it was fortunate that no one was hurt and no property was damaged.

“That said, the defendant has taken responsibility for his actions by entering his guilty plea and has taken a serious step in beginning to address some of the circumstances that led to his contact … when he embarked on inpatient treatment,” said the prosecution in a court document.