Clark County end of line for Train gang ‘enforcer’

Texas murder suspect says killer tutored him

By Bob Albrecht, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 
photoMichael Adams

A man who called himself an “enforcer” with a once-prominent gang called the Freight Train Riders of America and who was wanted for murder in Texas was arrested last week in Clark County following a fight.

Michael Elijah Adams, 43, using the alias Michael Allen Thompson, was taken into custody at about 9:30 p.m. May 17 when Deputy Andrew Kennison of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office stopped him following what was reported as a “physical disturbance” in the 2300 block of Northeast 134th Street. A man was reportedly beating another man in the northeast corner of a construction site.

When Kennison ran the information provided by the man who identified himself as Michael Thompson through the FBI’s National Criminal Information Center, back came a “very close hit on a warrant” for Adams, according to the police report. And Adams, Kennison learned, was wanted by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office for the murder of a 51-year-old homeless woman March 15.

Adams was lodged in the Clark County Jail and extradited Friday to Eugene, Ore., where he was wanted on an outstanding warrant relating to charges he sold heroin. Attorneys in Lane County, Ore., and El Paso will work out in what order Adams will be tried.

“He mentioned being in Texas as recently as last summer,” Kennison wrote in the report.

When he was arrested, Adams, who has railroad tracks tattooed on the side of his face, had a folding black pocket knife in one of his pockets. He wore a black bandana around his neck signaling his elite standing with the Freight Train Riders of America, a loosely connected gang of about 1,000 homeless men known in the 80s and 90s for riding BNSF’s 1,500-mile High Line between Seattle and Minneapolis, sleeping in box cars, switching yards and under bridges.

An enforcer, Adams told Kennison this was the third time he had been arrested for murder and he had “beaten the rap on the previous two charges.”

He said he learned to be an enforcer from “Dogman Tony,” who Kennison discovered was implicated in multiple murders and made several appearances on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, according to the report. “Dogman Tony” was featured in a 2003 documentary about six hobos who hop trains across America.

A famed member of the FTRA, Robert Silveria Jr., known as the “Boxcar Killer,” was arrested in California in 1996. He confessed to killing 28 fellow train riders and is currently serving a double life sentence in Wyoming.

The FTRA was the subject of a 1997 investigative report by the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper looked at the group’s role in the about 70 to 90 deaths that were occurring along rail lines each year. Few of the deaths involving foul play were solved.

“Sure, some are natural causes. Some are accidents. But some aren’t. And the problem is, the suspects and all the witnesses disappear,” then Spokane Detective Bob Grandinetti, an expert on the FTRA, was quoted in the article.

Gus Melonas of BNSF said the FTRA and associated act of riding and living on the rails have gone largely extinct. BNSF has commissioned police officers who cracked down on that sort of activity in the late 1980s.

Deaths that once numbered near 90 have dropped off precipitously.

“We have records on a lot of the rail riders,” Melonas said. “We know their background. If somebody’s getting on or off a train, we will make arrests for criminal trespassing.”

He said Vancouver and Portland were at one time hubs with large hobo camps. One prominent camp was between Fruit Valley Road and 39th Street, Melonas said.

In recent years, a group cropped up called the Sunshine Kids, mostly young adults who weren’t known to cause much trouble but took to traveling from town to town by rail, Melonas said.

“It’s as rare today to see a hobo on the trains as common as it was when I started in 1976,” Melonas said. “We just don’t see the FTRA folks out in the Northwest.”