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Salazar may be moved from ICU

by Alex Madison

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

Aaron Salazar, the young, gay Latino man who was found critically injured adjacent to the train tracks near Truckee, California may soon be transferred from the intensive care unit to another facility at the Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada, according to his family.

Salazar, 22, was a passenger on an Amtrak train found lying near the railroad tracks at the far east end of Truckee May 15, Truckee Police Chief Rob Leftwich said in a statement last month. Salazar had suffered major injuries and was transported to the hospital in Reno.

The Salazar family has been continually critical of the Amtrak Police Department's investigation, which is still ongoing. At a May 29 news conference, Amtrak Police Chief Neil Trugman said that Amtrak believes the young college student was "very distraught" while on the train and may have attempted suicide. The family strongly disagrees with this narrative and believes Salazar was attacked and is calling it a hate crime. Amtrak is the lead on the investigation.

Family members want the FBI to take over the investigation and have started an online petition to garner support for that. So far, nearly 300 people have signed the petition.

A new statement released June 7 to the Bay Area Reporter by Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said that the agency has brought on two additional lead investigators to work on the case and that investigators have accessed Salazar's cellphone.

"The contents [of the cellphone] continue to support that Mr. Salazar had life concerns and challenges, and he had shared that with friends and family," Leeds said.

The family held a fundraiser for Salazar Saturday, June 9, at the University of Nevada, Reno and has raised more than $60,000 through a GoFundMe campaign set up for Salazar's medical expenses.

On Facebook, the family's spokesman, Austin Sailas, a cousin of Salazar's, posted a letter he received from Brody Levesque, chief political correspondent for the New Civil Rights Movement, a New York City-based online magazine.

The letter gives support to the family and condemns Amtrak's investigation and its preliminary finding that Salazar attempted suicide. It was sent on behalf of "several journalists and editors" following the case. [The B.A.R. is not a signatory to the letter.]

The letter also references the 2012 case of Robin Andrew Putnam, 25, who 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 also critical of the way Amtrak conducted the investigation, including withholding information.

"One of the factors that has struck this working group has been Amtrak's continuing claim that these young men were somehow directly responsible for the circumstances that led up to their horrific injuries, and in the case of Robin, his death," Levesque wrote.

"In our opinion, the evidence and facts that we've gathered over the course of our investigation into both young men's cases belies these specious claims by Amtrak investigators, and the public pronouncements of the company's current police chief, Neil Trugman," the letter stated.

The letter also urged the Salazar family to have their supporters reach out to state and local representatives for help on the case. Sailas' Facebook post on June 3 read, "Here is a list of your local representatives, contact them. Let them know that their constituents want Amtrak to open their investigation. For Robin, for Aaron, and the many other victims swept under the rug."

A member of the Putnam family, Cindy Putnam, also asked followers to contact representatives "to demand that Amtrak be investigated by the FBI for their handling" of the cases in a June 2 Facebook post.

Significant injuries
Salazar suffered significant injuries. He was reported to have multiple head injuries, with an MRI showing damage to his brain stem, a broken pelvis, and severe burns near his groin and upper thighs.

The May 29 news conference held by Amtrak and the Truckee Police Department, which initially responded to the call of Salazar being found, revealed more details on the case and some reasoning as to why authorities see it as an attempted suicide.

"There is no physical evidence or witness statements to [suggest] a physical altercation occurring on the train," Trugman said at the news conference.

He said investigators spoke with 300 customers, crewmembers, and Salazar's friends, and said that "individuals who noted interactions with Mr. Salazar shared that he expressed to them a number of life concerns and challenges he was having."

Trugman said Salazar was "very distraught" and that the incident "appears to be an attempted suicide."

Trugman said at 9:27 a.m. May 15, "a Union Pacific Railroad foreman adjacent to the tracks saw the Amtrak train go by with an open window on one of its coaches, but did not notify Amtrak at that time."

Trugman confirmed Salazar was found at 11:10 a.m. by Union Pacific workers between Reno and Truckee.

Trugman said that the open window was not a passenger window, but a window used by conductors and train employees, although it is accessible to passengers. The window was attached to one of the exit doors. He also said that a similar incident had occurred in which a passenger jumped from an exit door window while the train was moving.

Salazar's family claims the evidence of the incident being a hate crime includes what they believe to be signs of self-defense, including blood under Salazar's fingernails and scrapes and bruises on his knuckles and hands. The family claims Amtrak did not take any forensic evidence.

There were burns near Salazar's groin, something the family said is not concurrent with injuries that could result from jumping off of a train.

"[Trugman's] claims about Aaron's injuries falling from a train are not consistent with what anyone who has seen Aaron can attest to. For one, those burns that were supposedly from jumping out of a train are not consistent with the facts because Aaron's jeans were not damaged and his injuries themselves do not match jumping out of a train," read a statement from Salazar's parents that was first released to the Los Angeles Blade.

When Trugman was asked by reporters at the news conference about the burns near Salazar's groin, he explained that they "have a good explanation for that." Though he would not disclose the explanation, he did say, "When you fall out of a moving car down the highway you're going to have friction, you're going to have scrapes, and you're going to have burns. Just imagine falling on hard surface from a train. We are comfortable with the explanations we have."

He said the train was traveling at 40 miles per hour, and that there were no cameras in the area where the incident occurred.

Sailas and the family also cited a text message sent by Salazar a few hours before he was found as evidence of an attack. Salazar sent a text message to his great-grandmother that he found a new friend and was going to go exploring with them.

Sailas believes that Salazar got off the train in Truckee with this new friend and was attacked.

Leftwich, the Truckee police chief, said Salazar did not get off the train in Truckee.

"We do not believe at this time that there is anything to suggest that Aaron reached the Truckee Amtrak station," Leftwich said at the news conference. "It was not a situation where he arrived in Truckee and disembarked in a normal manner. It's not a well traveled area of the railroads, there are no pedestrian access points, no vehicle access points, and not easily walked to or driven to. You have to be there with purpose."

Trugman said the Amtrak Police Department spoke with the person Salazar was allegedly talking about in the text message and said they found nothing to believe the two had any physical altercation.

To donate to Salazar's medical costs, visit http://www.gofundme.com/bv5cn-justice-for-aaron. To sign the online petition, visit https://www.thepetitionsite.com/218/267/003/demand-justice-for-aaron/. Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact the Amtrak Police Department at (800) 331-0008.

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