Seattle jury convicts Bellingham woman of attempted train shunt attack

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A Seattle jury convicted a 28-year-old Bellingham woman charged with one count of violence against a railroad carrier for attempting to derail a train in north Bellingham almost a year ago.

Jurors in the U.S. District Court in Seattle found Ellen Brennan Reiche guilty of trying to place “shunts” on Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) tracks in November 2020.

Reiche’s two-day trial concluded September 9 after three hours of jury deliberation.

Reiche faces up to 20 years in prison for violence against a railroad carrier and is expected to be sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez on December 17.

On November 28, 2020, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Reiche and Samantha Frances Brooks, a 24-year-old Bellingham woman, after they were seen on surveillance video kneeling on BNSF tracks by Cliffside Drive just before midnight. Deputies discovered a shunt on the tracks, which prosecutors said could disable a railroad-crossing guard so vehicles wouldn’t be alerted of an approaching train. Shunts, made of wire and magnets, can trigger a train’s automatic brakes and cause it to derail.

Federal prosecutors alleged Reiche had a brown paper bag with wire similar to that used in the shunt, a drill with a brush head, a magnetic adhesive and gloves. Reiche’s attorneys tried to suppress evidence found in the bag because they argued the bag was searched without a warrant and tried to have statements Reiche allegedly made before she was warned of her Miranda rights thrown out.

A crude-oil train was scheduled through north Bellingham after officers arrested the women, according to the DOJ.

Before her trial, co-defendant Brooks pleaded guilty July 9 to one count of interfering with BNSF tracks and will be sentenced October 8. Brooks could serve up to 20 years in prison, but the government recommended a low end of the applicable sentencing range because of her plea agreement.

In the plea agreement, Brooks said she followed another person’s directive to halt trains moving through the area.

“[Reiche] disrupted the signal system designed to stop trains from crashing into each other or crashing into cars … A car driving through the intersection [near the shunt] would not have warning that a train was coming,” assistant U.S. attorney Sok Tea Jiang said in her closing argument, according to the DOJ release.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and BNSF police have investigated at least 41 incidents of shunts being placed on BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties since January 2020. Investigators believe the attempted attacks could be linked to environmental terrorism, after someone anonymously claimed responsibility on an anarchist website for shunts placed January 2020 in order to stop a natural gas pipeline being built on Indigenous land in B.C.

On October 11, 2020, shunts were found in three locations in Whatcom and Skagit counties, causing a train transporting hazardous material to decouple from the engine after the train’s automatic braking system activated. If the train had derailed, it would have been in a residential area, according to the DOJ.

The Custer train derailment that occurred December 22, 2020, on BNSF tracks near Portal Way is still under investigation. The train was carrying highly flammable crude oil to the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale when 10 cars left the tracks, requiring over 100 people to evacuate. No injuries were reported.

Reiche’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

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