Ericksen renews call for hearing on Custer derailment after two convicted in rail-sabotage case

• Rail sabotage rampant in Bellingham area as left-wing activists abandon peaceful protest
• Two women convicted of installing “shunt” to prevent operation of rail-crossing arms
• Sabotage also suspected in Custer decoupling, derailment

OLYMPIA – Sen. Doug Ericksen is renewing his call for legislative hearings into possible sabotage in a December Custer, Wash. derailment, following the conviction of two Bellingham women for violence against a railroad carrier.

Ellen Brennan Reiche, 28, was convicted Sept. 9 in U.S. District Court in Seattle of placing a “shunt” on BNSF tracks near Bellingham, a wired connection between rails designed to send a false signal and disable railroad-crossing gates. Her co-defendant in the case, Samantha Frances Brooks, 24, pleaded guilty in July.

The shunt was one of more than 40 discovered on Bellingham-area trackage last fall and winter, as protests heated up against the Coastal GasLink pipeline in Canada. At least 10 rail-crossing gates were disabled. Communiques on one anarchist website described the effort to disrupt Whatcom County rail traffic as an effort to demonstrate solidarity with Canadian protesters.

Ericksen said the conviction calls attention to a growing problem of sabotage as leftist protesters abandon peaceful protest. In the Dec. 22 Custer derailment, the most serious incident of suspected sabotage, investigators say a train coupling was disconnected and air brakes disabled while a train was left parked on the tracks. The decoupling sent seven fully loaded oil tankers careening down a grade and off the rails, where three of the tank cars exploded. A witness reported seeing two young men leaving the scene shortly before the accident took place. A Federal Railroad Administration report last week concluded “possible vandalism” was a primary cause.

“Legislators need to be aware this is happening, and that the threat is real,” Ericksen said. “Activism that turns to sabotage invites tragedy. This new trend in left-wing protest warrants the strongest condemnation from elected officials and responsible environmental organizations. If this keeps up, it is only a matter of time before someone is hurt or killed.”

Ericksen sponsored legislation during the 2017 legislative session that would have provided longer sentences for those convicted of illegal protests that aim to create economic disruption. Ericksen’s legislation also would have enabled prosecution of those who sponsor or fund illegal actions, and would have allowed prosecutors to seek treble damages. Hearings on the Whatcom County rail sabotage would give law enforcement officials and rail workers an opportunity to outline the scope of the problem, he said.

“Some people scoffed when I proposed this legislation,” Ericksen said. “They like to believe all political activists are high-minded actors motivated by principle. Certainly we must respect the right to peaceful protest. But when protests cross the line and threaten injury, death and property damage, the Legislature needs to acknowledge we have a serious problem on our hands.”