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Amtrak suspects suicide attempt in train incident

by Alex Madison

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

Amtrak police investigating the case of a gay man who was found critically injured adjacent to the train tracks near Truckee, California, said this week that they believe the young college student was "very distraught" while on the train and may have attempted suicide.

Aaron Salazar, 22, was 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 week. Salazar had suffered significant injures and was transported to a Reno hospital.

A family member told the Bay Area Reporter Wednesday that Salazar remains in a coma.

Austin Sailas, a cousin, said Salazar is doing better and is now breathing on his own, after relying on a respirator.

"He is getting closer to consciousness," Sailas told the B.A.R.

Amtrak is the lead on the investigation. At a news conference Tuesday, May 29, Amtrak Police Chief Neil Trugman said, "There is no physical evidence or witness statements to [suggest] a physical altercation occurring on the train."

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.

Salazar, a student at Portland State University, remains in the intensive care unit at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. He was reported to have multiple brain injuries, with an MRI showing damage to his brain stem, a broken pelvis, and severe burns near his groin and upper thighs.

Trugman also 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.

Family statement
Salazar's family, who disputes Amtrak's findings, released a statement Tuesday after the Amtrak news conference.

"As Aaron's father and mother, we are releasing our official first public statement on what has happened with our son. We have many problems with Amtrak's press conference today," the statement, first released to the Los Angeles Blade, read. "First and foremost, Amtrak is a for-profit company that is currently investigating its own case to prevent any liability.

"From the very start, they ruled this case an attempted suicide," the statement read. "Their investigators gave us misleading information, including telling us that they had a witness who saw Aaron jump out a window on the train.

"When we fact-checked their claim and confronted the detective, he simply backpedaled his statement. Amtrak's investigators only investigated the case as an attempt at suicide," the family said.

"Second, regarding the Amtrak chief of police's statement - his 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."

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 said the family strongly disagrees with the claim that Salazar jumped or fell from the train. The family cited the burns near his groin, blood under his fingernails, and other signs of self-defense as reason to believe it was an attack. Sailas said he believes the attack was motivated by Salazar's LGBT identity.

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 who was at the news conference, 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 APD 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.

The investigation remains open.

To donate to Salazar's medical costs, visit http://www.gofundme.com/bv5cn-justice-for-aaron. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Amtrak Police Department at (800) 331-0008.

Contact the reporter at a.madison@ebar.com.

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