By David Rasbach / The Bellingham Herald
Two Bellingham women were charged with a terrorist attack and violence against the BNSF Railway Company after they allegedly interfered with the railroad’s safety features last weekend by placing a shunt on the tracks near Bellingham.
Samantha Frances Brooks, 27, and Ellen Brennan Reiche, 23, were booked into the Whatcom County Jail on Sunday, Nov. 29, each on suspicion of malicious injury to railroad property and second-degree criminal trespassing. Jail records show both were transferred into federal custody on Monday, Nov. 30.
Brooks and Reiche appeared in federal court in Seattle on Monday, when they were charged with terrorist attack and other violence against a railroad carrier, according to a U.S. Department of Justice release.
A shunt is an object that disrupts the low-level electrical current on railroad tracks and disables various safety features and can cause derailment, decoupling or failure of gates at crossings, endangering the public, according to the release. Shunts are comprised of wire and magnets stretched between the track so that they can disrupt systems that normally would show when a train is on the tracks.
“Since January there have been 41 incidents of shunts placed on the BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties — causing crossing guards to malfunction, interfering with automatic breaking (sic) systems, and, in one case, causing the near-derailment of tanks of hazardous chemicals,” U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran said in the release. “These crimes endanger our community.”
Ten times, shunts disrupted crossing gates at vehicle crossings, according to the release, making it so cars may have crossed tracks unaware that trains were approaching.
On Oct. 11, multiple shunts were placed in three locations in Whatcom and Skagit counties and triggered an automatic braking system on a train transporting hazardous, combustible material, the release states. The emergency braking caused a portion of the train to decouple from the engine, causing a potential derailment of tanker cars carrying flammable gas in a residential area.
“I commend the agents from Customs and Border Protection, FBI, BNSF Police, and state and local partners who prioritized stopping this criminal conduct,” Moran said.
The FBI’s Terrorism Task Force had been investigating shunts being placed on BNSF tracks in the area since Jan. 19, 2020, according to the criminal complaint.
Shortly after the first shunts were discovered in January, the release said that a claim of responsibility was published on an anarchist website.
On Saturday, Nov. 28, BNSF police viewed video surveillance of two people kneeling on tracks near a Bellingham crossing, according to the release. Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies responded and arrested Brooks and Reiche for trespassing.
Brooks and Reiche had a paper bag containing wire, a drill with a brush head and rubber gloves, according to the release, and the wire was similar to that used in other shunts that had been left.
The shunt that Brooks and Reiche placed on the tracks could have interfered with the railroad crossing signal at Cliffside Drive, south of Bellingham International Airport, the release states.
Convictions for terrorist attacks on railroad facilities could carry up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 file, according to the release.
Opponents say the 416-mile Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project would worsen environmental damage and infringe on the rights of First Nations people in British Columbia. The message claiming responsibility for the shunts said the goal was to keep supplies from reaching the U.S.-Canada border.
“This tactic is fast and discreet,” the message said. “On a single rail track with a Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) system, this simple action can generate enough confusion in the system to cause big slow downs and bureaucratic delays.”
TC Energy, the Alberta company behind the pipeline proposal, has said it is committed to partnering with the 20 First Nations that have executed agreements related to the project and has provided them an opportunity to invest in it.
Associated Press reporter Gene Johnson contributed to this story.