Woman pleads guilty to terror charge in train track incident

She and another are accused of putting a shunt on railroad tracks near Bellingham.

Associated Press

BELLINGHAM — A Bellingham woman has pleaded guilty in federal court to a terrorist attack and violence against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in northwestern Washington that investigators have suggested was motivated by opposition to the construction of a natural gas pipeline across British Columbia.

Samantha Frances Brooks and Ellen Brennan Reiche were each indicted with one count of terrorist attacks and other violence against a railroad carrier Dec. 9, 2020, in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle.

They’re accused of putting a shunt on tracks near Bellingham in late November. Such devices consist of a wire strung across the tracks, mimicking the electrical signal of a train. The devices can cause trains to automatically brake and can disable railroad crossing guards, investigators have said.

Brooks pleaded guilty July 9, and a federal judge accepted her plea last week, The Bellingham Herald reported. In her plea agreement, Brooks admitted to helping another person install a shunt on the railroad tracks and that they acted with “the intent to cause BNSF trains to delay operating,” according to federal court records.

She faces a maximum prison sentence of up to 20 years, a fine of $250,000 and up to three years probation, according to the court records. The government agreed to recommend a sentence at the low end of the sentencing range as part of her plea agreement, according to federal court records.

Reiche pleaded not guilty in December and is scheduled to go to trial later this month, according to federal court records.

In late November, BNSF police received a motion alert from a game camera just north of Bellingham and saw a person trespassing along the tracks. BNSF police contacted the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office to investigate.

Deputies found Brooks and Reiche in the area and they were detained for trespassing, according to court records. Deputies later found a wire shunt between the tracks. A bag Reiche allegedly was carrying was also found containing rubber gloves, a piece of insulated copper wire and a drill, according to court records.

Reiche has filed a motion to suppress evidence found in the bag, as well as statements she made before she was read her Miranda rights, according to federal court records.

Since Jan. 19, 2020, there have been at least 41 similar attacks along BNSF track in Whatcom and Skagit counties north of Seattle in which shunts have been placed, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The FBI’s Terrorism Task Force has been investigating the incidents.

Investigators believe some of the attacks were in protest of the construction of a natural gas pipeline across British Columbia through Indigenous land, and to keep supplies from reaching Canada.

Opponents say the 416-mile Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project will worsen environmental damage and infringe on the rights of First Nations people in British Columbia.

TC Energy, the Alberta company behind the pipeline proposal, has said it’s 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.

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