BELLINGHAM — A woman convicted of sabotaging railroad tracks near the U.S.-Canada border in Washington state just before a train carrying crude oil was due to pass through has been sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison.
Ellen Brennan Reiche, 28, of Bellingham was sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle for committing an act of violence against a railroad carrier. In addition to prison time, she must also complete 100 hours of community service while on federal supervision.
She was convicted in September for placing a device that interferes with train signals on the tracks apparently as part of a campaign to protest construction of a pipeline across British Columbia. Her co-defendant, Samantha Brooks, 24, pleaded guilty in July to a terrorist attack and violence against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway as part of a plea agreement.
The duo was spotted on video surveillance on BNSF tracks near Bellingham late on Nov. 28, 2020. When Whatcom County sheriff’s deputies detained them, Reiche was carrying a paper bag with wire, a drill and magnetic adhesive inside.
Deputies found a shunt buried nearby under rocks on the tracks. Shunts are comprised of wire that is stretched between the rails and frequently fastened with magnets, disrupting the systems that indicate a train is on the tracks.
It was one of dozens of shunts placed on the tracks last year, apparently to slow the delivery of oil and supplies in protest of a natural gas pipeline through Indigenous land in British Columbia. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force worked with BNSF police to investigate the placement of 41 shunts on the BNSF tracks since 2020.
On Oct. 11, 2020, multiple shunts were placed in three locations in Whatcom and Skagit counties. They triggered an automatic braking system on a train that was transporting hazardous material, causing part of the train to decouple from the engine — risking a derailment of tanker cars of flammable gas in a residential area, prosecutors said.
On Dec. 22, 2020, a train carrying Bakken crude oil to the Phillips 66 refinery at Cherry Point did derail, with five tanks catching fire, north of Bellingham. No injuries were reported, but the fire sent a large plume of black smoke into the sky and 120 people were evacuated. No cause has been publicly identified.
“Placing a shunt on active railroad tracks puts lives in danger – to drivers preparing to cross the tracks who may not get any warning lights of an approaching train, and to the homeowners in the area who could be endangered by a train derailment,” U.S. Attorney Nick Brown said in a statement Friday. “In this case … the device was discovered and removed before it could cause a tragedy.”