LOS ANGELES — There’s a story the late comedian Richard Pryor told in the film “Live on the Sunset Strip” about how his wife caught him with another woman. He insists nothing is going on, asking her: “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”
Though the circumstances are considerably more dire, the incredulous Salazar family believes the Amtrak chief of police want them to make a similar leap of reason about their beloved 22-year old gay son Aaron, a passenger on the Amtrak Zephyr, who was found beaten and broken by the railroad tracks near downtown Truckee, Calif., on May 15. Amtrak insists Salazar was suicidal. Everyone who knew him insists he was full of life.
At a press conference in Truckee on May 29, Amtrak’s Chief of Police Neil Trugman explained that Amtrak investigators interviewed 300 people during their investigation and found witnesses who described Salazar as “distraught” and experiencing “life issues.”
“[Salazar] shared with them a number of life concerns he was having,” Trugman said. “A fall from a moving train would cause significant injury. There is no physical evidence or witnesses statements to (indicate) a physical altercation occurring on the train. There’s nothing to suggest he involuntarily was removed from that train…. There’s nothing to suggest criminal intent in this investigation.”
Salazar “was very distraught,” Trugman repeated. “All indications right now appear that it was an attempted suicide.”
Not so, say Salazar’s friends and family. “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,” Morgan Patterson, a friend of his from Portland State University, told the Los Angeles Blade. “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.”
Despite the national interest prompted by revelations that Amtrak has responded poorly over the years to other families of missing or mysteriously dead passengers, Salazar’s parents remained silent—until Trugman’s press conference.
“First and foremost, Amtrak is a for-profit company that is currently investigating its own case to prevent any liability,” the parents wrote in an email to the LA Blade and investigation partner, Bob Conrad of ThisIsReno. “From the very start, they ruled this case an attempted suicide. Their investigators gave us misleading information, including telling us that they had a witness who saw Aaron jump out a window on the train. When we fact-checked their claim and confronted the detective, he simply backpedaled his statement. Amtrak’s investigators only investigated the case as an attempt at suicide.”
Secondly, Salazar’s injuries are inconsistent with Amtrak’s theory. “For one, those burns that were supposedly from jumping out of a train are not consistent with the facts because Aaron’s jeans were not damaged and his injuries themselves do not match jumping out of a train. We are also surprised by this false theory because they have never had medical experts examine his body to determine the cause of his injuries. Their form of investigation has been little more than a smear campaign to sweep Aaron’s story under the rug like Robin Putnam’s case a few years ago.”
Salazar ended up in extremely critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit of a Reno, Nev., hospital. He has since been upgraded to Guarded Condition but is still unable to communicate. Robin Putnam, to whom Salazar’s family referred, was not so lucky. In a case that mirrors what happened to Salazar, Putnam, 26, a junior at the California College of the Arts in Oakland who was perceived to be gay, disappeared around July 7, 2012 while riding an Amtrak train from Emeryville, Calif., to Grand Junction, Colo. His remains were found by Union Pacific Railroad employees on Aug. 25, 2015 in a riverbed that had gone dry near Wells, Nev. Elko County Nevada Coroner, Dr. William Webb, listed the cause of death as “Undetermined.”
Putnam’s family is still seeking answers. They, too, claim Amtrak investigators lied to them, insisting that Robin Putnam had committed suicide. “He was quiet, fastidious about his appearance—well manicured and soft spoken. But he was happy and he had friends,” his mother Cindy Putnam said, adding, “Not suicidal.”
Frustrated, Douglas Putnam filed a Freedom Of Information Act request with Amtrak in October 2016 and while several sections were redacted, he did discover that their son’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.
“We’re very sorry that Aaron’s family has to deal with those people,” the Putnams told the Los Angeles Blade. “Maybe the pressure being brought to bear on Amtrak may finally give us some answers as to what happened to our son.”
The joint Los Angeles Blade/ThisIsReno investigation discovered that issues with Amtrak’s veracity could be much deeper than these two incidents. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior FBI official with a working knowledge of Amtrak police operations, procedures, and policies noted to the 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 knowhow 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 to Chicago lines and is familiar to the Los Angeles Blade said on condition of anonymity that 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,” the Amtrak employee said.
“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 employee continued. “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.”
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.
“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 Sens. 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 passengers.
“I couldn’t be more disturbed by this investigation into @Amtrak. Thank you @ThisIsReno for demanding answers for these families,” Schieve tweeted. “(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.”
The Salazar family has set up a GoFundMe account, Justice for Aaron, to help defray medical and legal costs.
This story is the result of a joint investigation by Bob Conrad of ThisIsReno, and Christopher Kane and Karen Ocamb and staff at the Los Angeles Blade.