By Bob Conrad and Christopher Kane
Follow complete coverage of this incident here.
It has been nearly three weeks since 22-year old gay university student Aaron Salazar mysteriously disappeared from his moving train en-route to Sacramento, California and ended up in extremely critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit of a Reno hospital.
Although Salazar has been upgraded to Guarded Condition, he is still unable to communicate with family members or Amtrak investigators, according to his family.
That fact is a serious problem since Amtrak police are still insisting that he jumped from the train, insinuating in interviews with Salazar’s close Portland State University friends that the young man, a junior, could have possibly been suicidal.
In two separate phone interviews with the Los Angeles Blade, PSU students Morgan Patterson and Andrea Valencia dispute Amtrak investigators’ allegations that Salazar was troubled or even suicidal.
“Someone who is suicidal does not constantly talk about their future. Aaron had big plans to graduate from Portland State with his degree in Economics and continue his education through graduate school in Denver,” Patterson said. “He always talked about wanting to be a politician and to be involved in the government. He wanted to be able to make decisions and change the world.
“Not once did Aaron display any type of behavior that makes me feel like he would want to take his own life. He has so much to live for and has such a close bond with his family and friends. We would know if Aaron needed help.”
According to Patterson, Amtrak investigators did not reach out to speak to her. However, an investigator did contact Andrea Valencia by phone last week.
“The Amtrak investigator did reach out to me and our conversation lasted eight minutes over the telephone. He asked me about Aaron’s mental state, why he was in Colorado, and any problems he might be having.”
She continued: “He also asked me if I was in a relationship with Aaron, to which I responded that Aaron is gay and that we’re best friends. Additionally, he asked if he was a good student and if he had any stressors in his life. I told the investigator that Aaron is an extremely intelligent person and that all college students face the difficulties of school-life balance.
“He mentioned some encounter that occurred in a break room at his work where Aaron had a confrontation with one of his coworkers,” Valencia added. “I was unaware of this encounter and could not give any information. The investigator asked me if I knew a Brandon or Brendan and wouldn’t elaborate when I told him I did not know who he was talking about and why he was asking me.”
Valencia continued: “I don’t think he was suicidal, honestly, no. When I heard Amtrak was insinuating he committed suicide, that did not make sense to me because he’s just a dork and I don’t think he would do that to the people who love him.”
Valencia also told the LA Blade that what troubled her was the fact that she had been reading news reports that Amtrak police had been unable to access Salazar’s iPhone.
“According to all the articles, Amtrak hasn’t looked through his phone, right? What I don’t understand is how they got my number when they haven’t looked through his phone because they contacted me recently,” she said.
Asked if she had sent a text recently to Salazar’s phone, Valencia replied, “I did but the message didn’t go through. It didn’t say it was delivered and Aaron has an iPhone, so it would say whether or not the message was delivered. I texted him that day [Tues. 5/22] just telling him, like, I hope he gets better and this and that. On Wednesday, [5/23] the day afterwards, the investigator called me. So I don’t understand how they got my number when the message hadn’t even been delivered.
“I can’t remember their name, but we spoke for a bit,” she continued. “They asked me about my relationship with Aaron, his mental state before we left and if we had a falling out—because I had mentioned earlier that we haven’t seen each other in awhile because we’ve been so busy with school.”
Asked whether Amtrak investigators specifically mentioned suicide, Valencia answered: “I think they did and I said ‘no.’ A lot of their questions seemed like they were aiming for, like, whether or not he was stable. I honestly didn’t realize it until a friend pointed it out. I didn’t know about the incident till Tuesday. And then, Wednesday, [5/23] they called me at 1:09 [Pacific Time] but I couldn’t answer, so I called them back at 1:14 [PST] on the 24 of May.”
Family members are especially unhappy with the revelations that it appeared that Amtrak investigators had been able to access Salazar’s iPhone.
Sonia Trujillo, a cousin who has been acting as a family spokesperson, told the LA Blade that Amtrak investigators also contacted her on Wednesday May 23 and told family members that the iPhone was discharged and that they had not been able to gain access to it.
“This is flat wrong,” Trujillo stated.” They’re [police] telling us they can’t get into Aaron’s phone but they called her [Valencia] that very day?”
I couldn’t be more disturbed by this investigation into @Amtrak. Thank you @ThisIsReno for demanding answers for these families. Shocking to read about similar incidents to those of Aaron’s. We continue to pray for him while he clings to life in a Reno hospital.@AaronJusticefor https://t.co/FOv9kuMtha
— Hillary Schieve (@MayorSchieve) May 26, 2018
Amtrak maintains that Salazar was not assaulted or thrown from the train
In publicly released statements to media outlets this past Saturday, May 26, Amtrak said that it was “deeply saddened by the significant injuries to one of our customers. The Amtrak Police Department reached out to more than 300 customers, crew, and friends in support of this investigation. The individuals who noted interactions with Salazar shared that he had expressed to them a number of life concerns and challenges.”
The statements also noted: “We are unable to comment on Mr. Salazar’s medical condition, but note that a fall from a moving train would cause significant injury. There is no evidence of a physical altercation occurring while Salazar was traveling on Amtrak.
“We have been in contact with Mr. Salazar’s parents and provided them updates on the investigation,” the statements continued. “Out of respect for the family, we are declining to share any additional details of interviews with customers, crew, and friends and encourage everyone to avoid speculation.”
Amtrak’s history of obfuscation and denial stretches back decades
A joint LA Blade-ThisIsReno investigation into the circumstances of Salazar’s case discovered that there have been numerous documented cases of grievous injuries and deaths occurring on Amtrak trains, particularly aboard the California Express Route from Chicago to Oakland.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior FBI official with a working knowledge of Amtrak police operations, procedures, and policies noted to the LA Blade that Amtrak police have long had a reputation for being difficult and less than transparent with families regarding incidents with their loved ones. The source noted that he is not directly connected to the Salazar matter.
“Amtrak is about 30 years behind in technology and operational know-how procedural wise — especially forensically,” the FBI official said. “Another problem is Amtrak tends to keep investigations in-house, rarely asking for assistance from other agencies, including the Bureau, that could provide the answers those families are looking for.”
Framing the state of affairs within the Amtrak system, an Amtrak employee who has worked on the California-Zephyr Express and is familiar to the LA Blade said on condition of anonymity:
“Security at Amtrak is next to zero. We often face hostile passengers. Often times they are not removed for fear of being reprimanded by management. A dining car LSA [Lead Service Attendant] was punched. Did security measures change? No. A conductor was shot because he would not let a passenger off to smoke at a stop that was not a smoking stop. Did security measures change? No. A conductor was stabbed in the head. Did security measures change? No.
“A passenger was attacked by another passenger with sledge hammers we keep on the train in case of an emergency and they are easily accessible by passengers. Did security measures change? No,” the Amtrak employee said. “Congress also allowed for guns to be checked in the baggage car. Is the baggage car locked? No. Can passengers get to it? Yes. A padlock is the only thing that keeps the guns locked.
“Every day we go to work we anticipate something happening because it’s a fact of life for us. It’s very much like the Wild West still.”
Rico, Colorado residents Douglas and Cindy Putnam have experienced how difficult getting straight answers or even answers whatsoever from Amtrak officials can be. Their 26-year-old son, Robin Andrew Putnam, was traveling on July 7, 2012 on an Amtrak train from Emeryville, California to Grand Junction, Colorado where they were waiting to pick him up upon its scheduled arrival on the morning of July 8. He never arrived.
The Salt Lake City Utah police department, Amtrak Police and his parents initiated a massive search with no results. A tip from a fellow female passenger and an Amtrak employee claimed that when the train made a scheduled stop in Salt Lake City at 3:00 AM, Putnam got off the train, leaving his laptop and other belongings onboard.
However, they said he never returned to the train.
During that initial intensive two-month effort, a Salt Lake City Police detective, Cody Lougy, asked Putnam’s mother Cindy if her son was gay and maybe was suicidal. She responded that to the best of her and her husband’s knowledge neither was the case. That was substantiated by Putnam’s friends and classmates at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, where he had just completed his junior year.
A national “Missing Person’s” case was initiated with “NamUs” (National Missing and Unidentified Persons Search), which stored Putnam’s DNA, dental records, photos and case information on file.
On the morning of Tuesday, August 25, 2015, Union Pacific Railroad employees were working on the train tracks near Wells, Nevada when they found human remains. The remains were exposed close to the westbound tracks in a wash that had gone dry due to an ongoing drought in that area.
Elko County Nevada Sheriff’s Deputies documented the scene and gathered the remains. Officials found a debit card and a set of keys with Putnam’s name on them in his pocket. An Internet search led investigators to NamUs and a lab search made a positive identification with a dental match on Friday, August 28, 2015. Shortly afterwards, a local Rico, Colorado law enforcement official, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, notified his family.
As with the current case involving Aaron Salazar, the Putnams found dealing with Amtrak investigators frustrating. Their missing person’s case turned into a possible murder investigation. Douglas Putnam explained to the LA Blade that because his son’s remains were found in a location that had been underwater in extremely alkaline water, Elko County Nevada Coroner, Dr. William Webb, listed the cause of death as “Undetermined.”
The overarching problem for Putnam’s parents was getting answers from Amtrak police investigators who had maintained from the outset that Putnam had fallen off the train, maybe of his own volition, insinuating that he was suicidal.
“Robin was a talented artist who enjoyed drawing, painting, writing and researching topics related to fine arts, animation, science, philosophy and spirituality,” Douglas Putnam said.
“He was quiet, fastidious about his appearance — well manicured and soft spoken. But he was happy and he had friends,” his mother Cindy Putnam added. “Not suicidal.”
After his remains were found, the Putnam family continued to press Amtrak investigators for answers. In desperation after a year of receiving virtually no information regarding their son’s case, the parents filed a ‘Freedom Of Information Act’ request with Amtrak in October 2016. Upon receipt of the report, several sections were redacted and calls afterwards to Amtrak officials went unanswered.
Although Putnam’s laptop had been found onboard the train by the Conductor his small bag and backpack were never discovered. However, his father said, the ‘Freedom Of Information Act’ results indicated that Putnam’s wallet ended up at the Amtrak System ‘Lost and Found’ at the end of the route in Chicago nearly a week after Putnam had gone missing.
The parents expressed their sorrow that yet another family is apparently being treated with the same kind of indifference by Amtrak investigators that they received.
“We’re very sorry that Aaron’s family has to deal with those people,” the Putnams told the LA Blade. “Maybe the pressure being brought to bear on Amtrak may finally give us some answers as to what happened to our son.”
Lawmakers demand answers
On May 25 Oregon’s Congressional delegation sent a pointed letter to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson requesting a thorough investigation into the mysterious injuries sustained by passenger Aaron Salazar in Truckee, California.
“We write today in great dismay at the news that Salazar, a Portland State University student, is fighting for his life in a coma, with serious injuries to his brain stem and a broken pelvis,” they wrote.
“This incident may have been a hate crime,” they said. “We … urge Amtrak to utilize all available resources to promptly investigate this case. We expect a full report on the investigation of this crime, to our federal delegation and to Aaron’s family.”
The letter was signed by Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader, Suzanne Bonamici, and Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.
Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve expressed dismay at the ThisisReno report that found a number of similar, unexplained incidents of injury and death of Amtrak passenger deaths.
“I couldn’t be more disturbed by this investigation into @Amtrak. Thank you @ThisIsReno for demanding answers for these families,” she tweeted Saturday. “(It’s) shocking to read about similar incidents to those of Aaron’s. We continue to pray for him while he clings to life in a Reno hospital.”
Follow complete coverage of this incident here.
Reporting by Bob Conrad | ThisIsReno, Christopher Kane | LA Blade, with additional reporting from News Editor Karen Ocamb and the staff of the LA Blade.