A 28-year-old Bellingham, Wash. woman was convicted in U.S. District Court in Seattle of violence against a railroad carrier, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman. Ellen Brennan Reiche was arrested on the BNSF Railway tracks near Bellingham at midnight on November 28, 2020. Reiche was convicted of placing a ‘shunt’ – a device that interferes with train signals – on the tracks.
According to records in the case and testimony at trial, on November 28, 2020, Reiche and co-defendant Samantha Frances Brooks, 24, were observed on video surveillance walking on the tracks near a crossing in Bellingham. Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene. The defendants were detained for trespassing, and a shunt was found on the tracks near where the deputies had first encountered them. Reiche carried a paper bag containing wire, a drill with a brush head, a magnetic adhesive and gloves. The wire was similar to the wire used in the shunting incidents. The shunt placed on the tracks could have interfered with the railroad crossing guard at Cliffside Drive in Bellingham. A train carrying crude oil, among other cargo, was scheduled to come through that area soon after this incident.
In her closing argument, Assistant United States Attorney Sok Jiang told the jury, 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.”
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force worked with BNSF police to investigate the placement of 41 shunts on the BNSF tracks since January 19, 2020. The shunt comprises a wire that is stretched between the rails and often fastened with magnets, disrupting the systems that indicate a train is on the tracks. On ten occasions, shunts were placed in areas that disrupt the crossing guards where the tracks cross streets, so vehicles could have tried to cross the tracks unaware of the oncoming train. On October 11, 2020, multiple shunts were placed in three different locations in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. The shunts triggered an automatic braking system on a train that was transporting hazardous and combustible material. The emergency braking then caused a portion of the train to decouple from the engine. Decoupling can cause a derailment—in this case—of tanker cars of flammable gas in a residential area.
Reiche faces up to 20 years in prison when sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez on December 17, 2021. Co-defendant Brooks pleaded guilty July 9, 2021, to interference with a railroad signaling system. Brooks faces up to 20 years in prison when sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge Martinez on October 8, 2021. Chief Judge Martinez will determine the appropriate sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The case was investigated by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in connection with the BNSF Railway Police. The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office is providing critical investigative assistance.