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Editorial: More answers needed from Amtrak

by BAR Editorial Board

Aaron Salazar. Photo: Courtesy Facebook
Aaron Salazar. Photo: Courtesy Facebook  

The Amtrak Police Department has not been forthcoming in the case of Aaron Salazar, the young gay college student who was found severely injured along the railroad tracks on the edge of Truckee, California last month. Salazar had been a passenger on an Amtrak train traveling from Denver to Portland when he was found by the side of the tracks. He was transported to a Reno hospital, where he remained in a coma for weeks. His family said this week they are hopeful he can soon be moved out of the intensive care unit.

Initially, it appeared that Salazar might be the victim of an anti-gay hate crime - and part of that was because media outlets received no real response from the rail line. But late last month, Amtrak Police Chief Neil Trugman said that Amtrak's investigation now shows that Salazar was "very distraught" while on the train and may have attempted suicide. Salazar's family believes it was an attack and is critical of Amtrak for a number of reasons. It would behoove Amtrak to be more proactive both with Salazar's family members, and the media.

Salazar's family has a point that, in fact, Amtrak is basically investigating itself, and that may pose a conflict of interest or the perception of one. It would be better if another law enforcement agency took the lead in the investigation, and Salazar's family has urged the FBI to become involved. Amtrak only recently obtained access to Salazar's cellphone, and a spokeswoman confirmed that its contents "continue to support that Mr. Salazar had life concerns and challenges, and he had shared that with friends and family." But more answers are needed.

From the beginning, Amtrak dragged its feet in talking to reporters about the incident, which occurred May 15. A full week later, in its first response, the rail agency offered very little information, saying, "The Amtrak Police Department, in coordination with local authorities, is conducting an ongoing investigation into this incident and we are in contact with the family to provide them updates. At this time, there is nothing to suggest criminal intent."

Then, it was left to Truckee Police Chief Rob Leftwich to issue a statement May 24 - after media outlets in California and Nevada picked up the story and began contacting him - in which he said that Salazar did not get off the train in Truckee. Salazar was found along the tracks before the Amtrak station, and never made it there, the chief said. The location where Salazar was found falls within the federal jurisdiction of Amtrak, relegating the Truckee police to a supporting role in the case.

Finally, on May 29, Trugman and Leftwich offered their most detailed comments to date, stating that a Union Pacific Railroad worker saw the Amtrak train pass by with an open window, but did not alert Amtrak. This was a mistake. Trugman also disclosed that investigators "have a good explanation" for why Salazar had burns near his groin, even though his jeans were apparently undamaged. Unfortunately, Trugman won't elaborate on that explanation, fueling mistrust among family members and speculation among the media.

Then there is Amtrak's tendency to classify missing passengers as suicide victims. As we report this week, in 2012, a young gay man, Robin Andrew Putnam, 25, was traveling on an Amtrak train from Emeryville, California to Colorado. At the time, Amtrak claimed Putman got off the train in Salt Lake City, leaving all of his possessions behind. Three years later Putman's remains were found near train tracks outside of Elko, Nevada, at which point Amtrak concluded it to be a suicide. The Putnam family was critical of the way Amtrak conducted the investigation, including withholding information. In that case, based on what we know, it seems Amtrak should have investigated further from the beginning. Not many people disembark a train and leave their possessions on it. That should have been a clear sign that something was wrong.

In this latest case, Amtrak should have held its news conference sooner than two weeks after Salazar was injured. And going forward, it should be more transparent with its findings and release more detailed information. Salazar's family claims that Amtrak investigators did not take DNA samples from under his fingernails, which could help establish or refute the attack theory. In the interest of a thorough investigation, that should have been done. Maybe it was, but if so, Amtrak has not acknowledged that important piece of information or the result. It should.

We hope Salazar gets the treatment he needs and recovers. In the meantime, railroad workers - Amtrak's and others - should be trained to immediately call in suspicious or unusual circumstances, like that open window the Union Pacific worker observed. That one action could have resulted in Salazar being discovered sooner, and evidence could have been collected earlier. Amtrak should also call in other federal, state, or local authorities to assist with this matter, and defer to an outside agency for control of the investigation.

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