2nd woman convicted of railroad track sabotage in Washington

SEATTLE (AP) — A second defendant has been 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 — apparently part of a campaign to protest construction of a pipeline across British Columbia.

Following a two-day trial and three hours of deliberation, a federal jury in Seattle on Thursday convicted Ellen Brennan Reiche, 28, of Bellingham, of violence against a railroad carrier. Her co-defendant, Samantha Frances Brooks, 24, pleaded guilty in July.

They were 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.

The pair said they were looking for a set of keys, and that they had Thanksgiving leftovers in the bag, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle.

Deputies found a shunt buried under rocks on the tracks nearby. Such devices, consisting of a wire stretched across the tracks, mimics the signal of a train on the tracks and can disable railroad crossing guards and cause trains to automatically brake and disable railroad crossing guards.

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 across through Indigenous land in British Columbia. Opponents say the 416-mile (670-kilometer) Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project will worsen environmental damage.

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.

The FBI has been investigating the shunting incidents.

On Oct. 11, 2020, shunts were placed in three different locations in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. They triggered an automatic braking system on a train that was transporting hazardous material, causing a portion 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, 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 about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Seattle, and 120 people were evacuated from a half-mile radius. About 29,000 gallons of petroleum crude oil spilled from three of the tank cars.

An investigation into that derailment continues, and no cause has been publicly identified.

Brooks and Reiche each face up to 20 years in prison, though as part of Brooks’ plea deal the government agreed to recommend a sentence at the low end of her guideline range as determined by the U.S. District Court. Brooks is due to be sentenced Oct. 7; Reiche on Dec. 17.