The secret world of trains, murder, and a mother’s search for her daughter.
By Danelle Morton
When her teenage daughter Marissa disappears onto the rails, Danelle Morton turns her journalistic skills loose in the train yard. In the wild hobo life, she finds corruption, thievery, and murder coursing through the heart of every city in the land.
EPISODE 1: OH, LOOK WHAT I’VE DONE
My daughter disappears into the rails and I vow to find out everything I can about the wild place she now calls home.
Three weeks before the end of her freshman year at college, my daughter skipped town to hop trains. Marissa called to say she was thinking of dropping out, but she was already gone, crossing the Oregon border in a beat-up blue van. After that, onto the rails.
My calls went straight to a voicemail of heavy metal music. Sometimes I cried out in pain when I heard that. Where was my girl? What was she after? When she unzipped her sleeping bag in the boxcar, who was sleeping nearby?
And when the yearning got bad, I listened to her music, her song Santa Monica whose refrain is “Oh, look what I’ve done.”
I should have seen this coming. I thought back to her senior year in high school. Those weeks before graduation, new friends, a little older and scruffier, started showing up around dinnertime. Vagabonds, I thought, adventurers. Hobos? Did people still do that? Everyone of them was a great storyteller.
One woman described looking out the boxcar door after a rainstorm as the train chugged up the Cascade mountains with waterfalls and rainbows at every turn. Another recalled a raucous ride on a hotshot, the long-haul freights that go 70 miles an hour, as the sun set over the corn fields. The music started up, with riders trading instruments so everyone could dance. Marissa was enchanted, but I didn’t see that she was already making plans.
At graduation she sang Santa Monica and split, for the summer. The whole family waited for her at the reception, but she never showed. She came home two days before college started, clearly peeved that she had to return. When she left in April, I started looking into the rails.
I’ve been a journalist all my working life. I studied history at Berkeley: the opening of the west and how the transcontinental railroads knit the country together after the Civil War. My family are working-class Californians six generations back. They saw the men who built the railroads as heroes who laid the track that made us a nation. All Hail The Big Four.
Generations paid the price for making billionaires out of scoundrels. The Big Four fleeced the country, exploiting workers, grabbing native land with impunity, crashing the economy again and again with their corrupt financing schemes that caused three recessions in the late 1800s. The railroads were brutal proof of capitalism’s insatiable appetites.
I found a map of the rails, with a dense matrix of lines in the east, and lonely strands across bare stretches in the west. I tried to imagine myself scaling a fence at the edge of a train yard, hiding in the brush, or behind a boxcar, where my friends and I picked a train to ride. That’s as far as my mind would take me. I didn’t even want to go that far once I found out about Dirty Mike.
There are two classes of hobos: young people, like Marissa and her friends, on an adventure, and lifers called home bums, a thousand or so people the rails have hardened to the point of no return. They hop from town to town, living someplace for a few days while they run a scam or sell some drugs. The hardest one of those was Dirty Mike, hitman for Freight Train Riders of America, or FTRA. Retired Union Pacific rail cop Larry Diaz disagreed when I described the FTRA as the Hell Angels of the rails: [LARRY DIAZ: The Hells Angels were angels compared to the FTRA. They would take you out in a second. ]
Mike liked to travel with young people who stuck with him because they wanted to learn the rails. None of them believed his FTRA hitman act. [MCGEE: He comes back to camp saying he just killed someone for the FTRA and I called bullshit. I started throwing beer cans at him. If he was doing that, he wouldn’t be bragging to a bunch of drunk twenty-year olds.]
The young hobos guessed Mike was in his forties and he told them he’d started in his teens. Was it possible that he’d been killing people for 30 years, slipping in and out of the yards, getting away with murder?
When I looked at that map of the nation’s rail lines, I’d try to guess where Marissa might be, maybe on the Union Pacific Sunset Line heading east from L.A. to New Orleans. And then I’d imagine Dirty Mike, maybe on a hotshot from Chicago to El Paso. Was there a corner of the hobo jungle, or a boxcar, where their paths might cross?
Wherever this monster was, he was riding free through the dark heart of America. And somewhere on those hundreds of thousands of miles of track was my daughter, sweet and tender in my memory, but harsher and harder every day she spent on the rails.
Maybe you have an image of trains from a childhood book, or a song by Woody Guthrie. Whatever idea you have, the truth of the rails will chill your soul. Come with me on my slow ride, as one mom tries everything she can to snatch her girl back from the brink.
EPISODE 2: HOW TO HOP A TRAIN
The secrets of the rails, the hobo code, and the cost of living free.
So I went out to an encampment near the Emeryville train station, and to People’s Park in Berkeley, where I knew train hoppers panhandled. For a little cash, young travelers were happy to talk. No amount of money could get them to break the hobo code, though. Everyone refused to tell me how to hop a train.
“Why would I tell you that?” a young rider scoffed. An old bum I met in Berkeley’s People’s Park said. “So you can go out there and get yourself killed? No way. ” This was my first exposure to the class structure maintained by hobos young and old. In a world where people boast about living for free and not giving a fuck what anyone thinks, there sure were a lot of rules.
You get to the top by knowing how to ride. Knowing the best places to hop out at every yard, and the choice dumpsters and squats, helps you stay alive. The route matters, too. It takes many years on the rails to learn the schedules of the U.S. Mail and the FedEx Ground trains that leave many times a day on the same tracks from the same yards. Or the schedule of the Juice Train, 60 orange-juice-filled container cars that leave daily from Miami to New Jersey or Cincinnati. This kind of knowledge doesn’t come easy, and it wasn’t shared easily either.
In the hobo caste structure, Marissa was on the lowest rung, an “oogle”, what riders called kids who just broke free from home. Oogles are liabilities. They drink too much and make dumb mistakes, like causing a racket that can attract the cops and “blow up a spot.” Often older riders just ditch them—literally —like leave them in a ditch.
One oogle described how she nearly died when the people who were going to take her on her first ride split while she was sleeping it off. She decided to grab her first train alone. Without someone to teach her, she “rode suicide,” arranging herself at the corner of an empty container frame and holding on for hundreds miles.
What an oogle!
Containers come in three lengths, and those that don’t fill the frame leave big spaces with solid floors that are great for riding. Boxcars are good. You ride with one door open because you need the air, but opening two alerts the bulls that there’s people inside. And god help the hobos if the boxcar door slams shut, because it can’t be opened from the inside. Grainers have little porches front and back that offer fresh air and a view, or an unbearable ride in a storm or heatwave. You don’t want a flat, open gondola car that transports logs and pipes. If the train jerks to a stop, the cargo will crush you.
Never toss your pack onto a moving train and then try to catch it, the way they do in the movies. One of Marissa’s friends, Natasha, described how she nearly died this way. She hopped her first train out of New York during record heat, 103 degrees. Natasha threw her pack and her water jug onto a moving train and the jug shattered. She and her companion had one liter of water between them and 18 hours to Chicago. [Natasha: When we finally stopped, I passed out next to the train and my friend had to drag me out of the yard.”]
Marissa was making epic oogle mistakes, I learned during our irregular phone calls. I never knew when she would call, so I was always ready. I kept a diary where I jotted down the landmarks and towns she’d passed, the names of everyone she was with, and the cell number she was calling from.
In one of these phone calls, Marissa described being stuck in Mobile, Alabama with Joey Two Times, who said everything twice. They took a train in the wrong direction, so they reversed course and returned to Mobile, only to take the wrong train again. It was a hot and sticky August, and they were miserable, hungover and dehydrated. On the third try, they caught the right train and snagged a grainer. As the train pulled out of Mobile, they entered the woods and the temperature dropped. They snaked through the lush southern summer singing at the tops of their lungs. It was life at the extremes. The bad times made you as miserable as a human can get, but the good times were glorious.
When we hung up, I consulted my map of the tracks and used Google Street View to find a visual, but most of where the train passed there were no roads. Still I cherished this beautiful image, embellishing it by adding a full moon rising, a counterweight to my growing knowledge of the dangers around her.
Riding in a boxcar is only romantic from afar. The sounds of the steel wheels on the tracks, the train cars jostling, the engines and the rattling of the boxcar doors mean everyone has to shout to be heard. So that guy at our dinner table Marissa’s senior year, the one who described playing music and dancing in the boxcar, was lying. What a shock! Everybody on the rails lies. A lot of hobos are on the run, so they don’t tell the truth about where they came from, and may not know where they’re headed. Few people use real names, and everyone exaggerates.
As the train approaches the yard, riders know to “stay frosty,” be still so you don’t set off the motion sensors. A smart rider will pack a Mylar blanket, like the ones they give marathoners after a race, to deflect the heat sensors that detect bodies hiding in boxcars. Some riders carry railroad scanners to catch the dispatcher calling out which trains are leaving, where they’re headed, and which are being searched by the cops.
I could only hope that Marissa had found some people who knew what they were doing. I bet she had. I tried to spend as much time wishing her well as I did worrying. Often, when I was struggling to sleep, I’d think of that train in Alabama, with my moon guiding her way. It was 2009 when she left, the middle of the financial collapse, and my personal economy was cratering. I didn’t blame her for stuffing only what she needed in a garbage bag and hitting the road. What was so great about this life I held out to her? My daughter and I were not so far apart in this.
EPISODE 3: WHO DIES IN THE TRAIN YARD?
Twice a day someone dies in the train yards, meaning the longer Marissa stayed out, the slimmer the chance she’d ever come back.
My daughter Marissa comes from a long line of badasses—hellraising pioneers, street savvy single moms. I was fourteen the first time my mom called me a tough old broad. My great grandma taught English to Chinese immigrants in the mining camps in Shasta County to support her two children after her husband drowned in a whirlpool. By hopping trains, Marissa had us all beat.
She’d been gone about a month when I was in San Francisco working on a magazine piece. In the library bathroom, I washed my hands next to a young woman taking a sponge bath in the sink. She had dreadlocks, a pierced septum, and wore the patched and cut up jeans Marissa favored. She seemed a little shaky. I wondered when she’d last eaten.
When she smiled at me, I saw one of her front teeth was chipped. My friend who works with the homeless warned me that when they start to lose their teeth, it’s a sign that they’re slipping away, out of our world and into that one for good. How long before Marissa couldn’t find her way back? Or worse, got killed or maimed in the train yard.
Every three hours someone is hit by a train, and most who die are young, between the ages of 20 and 49. A quarter of them are deemed suicides, disproportionately young men in their 20s, and women in their 50s. Suicide by train is so common, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers estimates, that a freight train engineer will kill three people during a twenty-five year career. With commuter train engineers, the number is closer to twenty. The extra trauma these engineers carry comes from the 60 seconds before the train hits the victim. No matter what they try, they can’t stop the train in time, which gives them a full minute or more to contemplate the life before them that is about to end.
The trains move quickly and silently through the yards, throwing off confusing shadows. Trespassers flinch trying to figure out where sounds are coming from. Of the 500 or more people who die in the train yard every year, two thirds are drunk or high on drugs, and many die passed out on the tracks.
There are other ways to die there, with seven to ten murders a year and more bodies just outside the yard. Fights break out in the hobo jungles, encampments just beyond the rail yard fence, protected by a stand of trees or in tall brush. In the jungle, nighttime is party time, where people share the dope or booze. There’s music and tall tales, but beyond the edge of the campfire, danger lurks. A lot of train travelers, and especially the FTRA, are crazy.
Nearly 87 percent of those who die are men, meaning Marissa’s odds of surviving were a lot better than I thought, until I looked more closely at the numbers. The only age where more women than men die in the yard is 19, Marissa’s age when she disappeared.
In my talks with the hobos around where I lived, it was clear that danger was as highly valued as freedom in this life. Danger, violence, and silence created a sense of exclusivity. Only a few from the regular world would choose this life, and fewer still survive it. I talked to one younger rider named Doggie, who proudly displayed his mangled hands. The tips of his left index and middle fingers, and right ring and index fingers were cut off when a train backed over him. These severed fingers were a badge of honor. He’d taken his life right up to the edge and managed to pull it back. Did Marissa know of these dangers when she made this choice, or was that what drew her there? Whatever it was she was trying to work out with this, she was betting her life that she’d find it out faster on the rails.
EPISODE 4: THE HUMAN FACTOR
Humans just get in the way in a train yard, the railroads say, so they’re doing their best to eliminate them, even the ones driving the trains.
When you imagine an eight-million ton freight train speeding across the plains, you might assume it carries a big crew. It doesn’t. Freight crews used to number seven when trains were a lot shorter. Now trains twice as long — they can stretch up to three miles — operate with a crew of only two: a conductor to supervise the cargo, and an engineer to drive the train. To keep these beasts in motion, the engineer operates seven engines: two in front, three in the middle and two at the end.
Most of the 3000 serious rail accidents a year are caused by what the Federal Railway Administration calls the “human factor.” Yard workers forget to set the switches that direct the train, or don’t set them correctly. There’s a train or equipment idling where it’s not supposed to be and another train slams into it. Or someone leaves a tool on the track that causes a train to derail. Railroad crews are paid decently for these dangerous jobs, averaging $63k a year, with plenty of overtime. With the high personnel costs, and the many mistakes, the railroads have been working for decades to eliminate the human factor with self-driving trains.
The industry term for this is Positive Train Control, and it gained momentum in 2008 after a collision on the California coast where 25 people died.
Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Steve Ruda, first on the scene at Chatsworth, said he’d never seen such carnage. A total of 135 people were injured, 46 of them critically. By the time service was restored four days later, experts were pretty sure who was at fault: Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez, who had been texting at the time.
Sanchez missed a signal that would have idled his train on a side track while the Union Pacific freight train passed. The Metrolink train blew through the stop sign and proceeded along the single-rail track. Sanchez looked up from his phone as the oncoming freight train emerged from a tunnel, the two trains heading toward each other at 40 miles an hour. The Union Pacific engineer pulled the brake two seconds before impact. Sanchez died instantly. The UP crew survived by breaking through a windshield as flames engulfed the compartment.
The NTSB investigators determined that all of the switches and signals worked properly. They even brought a freight train and a Metrolink train to the scene, head to head, and slowly backed them to recreate the accident. None of this mattered when they found Sanchez’ texts.
The carnage of this crash boosted the relentless campaign to free the rails of the human factor. Computer control could eliminate these vulnerabilities. If there had been no engineer, those 25 people would be alive. In 2008, Congress passed the Railway Safety Improvement Act mandating full Positive Train Control nationwide, just completed for the December 31, 2020 deadline.
In trying to understand what Marissa chose, I thought about her and her friends stumbling through a world designed without human considerations. I thought of Marissa cowering in the shadows of a big, computer-controlled train, with only her wits to protect her. Was it really so bad where she came from that this was better than that? I had dozens of questions for Marissa, who we’d moved heaven and earth to bring home for Christmas, but I didn’t know if I’d have the courage to ask them.
EPISODE 5: THE COMFORT OFFENSIVE
She comes home for Christmas. Is comfort enough to get her to stay?
It was tough to get Marissa home for Christmas. In the eight months since she’d split, she’d lost her phone and her ID, so she was hard to contact, and couldn’t board a plane or a passenger train from Austin to Oakland. The Greyhound would let her on, though, and she called me when it started north up Interstate 5. I was excited to see her, but already I was calculating how to keep her home.
I’d thought a lot about how to be with her. Maybe too much. The radical freedom she embraced had placed me in a kind of prison. Now I was inhibited, fearing that if I said what I really thought we’d argue and I’d drive her back on the rails before New Years. Yet I didn’t want to be phony, lovey dovey when she had caused me so much pain. So I busied myself with what I called the comfort offensive.
I fussed over her room, sparkling clean with fluffy new towels, and new sweats, t-shirts, and hoodies. Pajamas and underwear laid out on the bed. I had all her favorite foods and was planning a tremendous welcome home breakfast. She’d been living in a friend’s bathroom with her boyfriend, who was wanted on an aggravated assault warrant, and their pregnant pitbull. Who would choose that over home?
The girl coming toward my car at the Greyhound station at 6:30 am had a tough walk, a long-limbed, loose stride with swagger at the hips, and a can of mace hanging from her belt loop. I wasn’t sure this was Marissa until she opened the door to my car and tossed in her pack. I examined her loose camo pants, ragged purple shorts over those, layers of tattered sweaters and a jean jacket with a huge drawing of Johnny Cash. How much she had changed in just eight months frightened me, but I didn’t want to greet her with that. I was so grateful she was home. When we hugged, I got a powerful smell of cigarettes. Everything was too much to take in. I love her. That was the strongest of all those feelings, and I clung to it.
As I made breakfast, she took a long shower, put on new clothes. After she ate, she took a nap in those fresh sheets. Some family came over, but we went to bed early. I hit my bed with a smile, anticipating my first uninterrupted sleep in months. She was safe, clean, well fed, and sleeping just a few feet away. And we had another morning to share the next day. When I woke up, she was gone.
Over the next three weeks, I didn’t see her that much. She had slipped right back into the local music scene, with plenty of holiday gigs at bars around Oakland and Berkeley. A local producer recorded a few of her songs for a compilation CD including a new one, “Windowsill”, a song she’d played busking on the streets of New Orleans. If comfort didn’t matter to her, maybe music could keep her here.
But then her new driver’s license arrived, and her father agreed to pay for her plane ticket back to Austin where her pit bull just had eight puppies.
On the way to the airport, I emphasized that if she wanted to come back all she had to do was call and we’d buy her ticket home. She said she wasn’t ready. After the puppies were placed in good homes, and she got her teeth fixed, they’d be on the next freight to NOLA. Her teeth? Marissa had an appointment with the free clinic dentist in Austin who wanted to pull some of her back teeth. Anxiety gripped my body, remembering my friend who works with the homeless who warned when they start to lose their teeth, they’re slipping into permanent homelessness. “Don’t worry, mom,” she said as she hugged me curbside. “ I know how to be safe. Thanks for everything.”
I held it together until I got out of the airport, and then I cried the rest of the drive home.
EPISODE 6: THE LAST LAWLESS PLACE
Everyone in the train yard has a criminal side hustle. Dirty Mike has two or three.
When a train makes its way east from Los Angeles along the Union Pacific Sunset Route, the last stretch of track before it hits El Paso is up the slope of Mount Cristo Rey. It’s not a steep incline, but it is twisty, so the freight trains, laden with double-stacked containers carrying goods from China, snake up the mountain at a mile an hour. This is when cargo thieves strike.
The thieves wait in the bushes alongside the tracks as the train starts its assent. When a half a mile of train has passed, they climb on, uncouple a boxcar, and let the back of the train glide gently down the slope to level ground. Then the thieves have a full hour to “shop the train,” as retired Union Pacific cop Larry Diaz puts it, before law enforcement gets there.
Diaz started working at Union Pacfic in the 1990s, first in the Colton yard, 50 miles east of L.A. More than 90 percent of the goods we import from Asia arrive in the U.S. in containers, and most of that passes through Colton. The hobos call the Colton yard “gladiator school.” As one put it, ”You fight your way in, and you fight your way out.” An emblem of toughness on the rails is the tat SSC, South Side Colton, which a lot of FTRA members have on the sides of their necks. Of the 241 people who died in California’s rail yards in 2020, 49 of were from the yards around LA.
Diaz was so good at catching cargo thieves that UP transferred him to El Paso, the big game, where the billions of dollars of cargo coming from Mexico somehow loses its way as it crosses over the Rio Grande.
El Paso is at the intersection of the historic trade route from the U.S. to Mexico, and the east/west route across the southern states. El Paso handles 62 trains a day, but the most popular route for smuggling drugs from Mexico is north to Kansas City and Chicago. When he got to El Paso, Larry Diaz was impressed with the skills of the Mexican Mafia. [DIAZ : These illegal aliens understood our rails better than most railroad police. We had no idea the network that they had set up.]
The security at the border is dense, with DEA, Border Patrol, Customs sensors in the ground, drones overhead and cameras everywhere. Every train coming in from Mexico is searched by cops and dogs. Border Patrol scans it with special cameras that give a 360 view, including of the undercarriage. Yet in 2010, 11 tons of weed worth $22 million rattled undetected over the Union Pacific bridge from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso, and on to Chicago.
The train looked like any other crossing the border but, after it was captured, law enforcement called it the Weed Express, the biggest bust for drug smuggling since the summer before, which was 2,500 tons of weed. But Union Pacific, which owns FerroMex, the Mexican railway, had a lot of trouble at the border. Border Patrol found significant quantities of drugs stashed on UP trains from Mexico 38 times in a decade.
Despite heavy regulation of the rails, the trains remain the country’s last lawless place. Seems like almost everyone in the train yard has a side hustle, and the territory is crawling with gangs. Intermingled with the crews in many of the northern yards are Hells Angels and heavy infiltration by the Mexican Mafia along the southern border. And there’s the smaller gangs, like the FTRA.
Dirty Mike’s gang, The Freight Train Riders of America, were established in a bar in Libby, Montana in 1985. They were a bunch of disgruntled Vietnam Vets, further enraged when Reagan cut their benefits. The FTRA also stands for Fuck The Reagan Administration. The FTRA and other gangs, like the Wrong Way Kids and the Franklin Mountain Crew, don’t get hassled much by the cops, who know they smuggle bricks of meth and weed in their backpacks, because the railroad bulls want to know what they know.
Diaz described the scene at Sunland Park, a rail crossing a few miles west of El Paso, where the Rio Grande was so dry, you could jump in the river bed and not make a splash. Hundreds of people a day walked into the United States over that dry ground, and a thirty or so of them carried backpacks stuffed with bricks of drugs that railroad gangs like the FTRA moved over the rails to cities in the north. The FTRA paid $300 a pound for Mexican weed, or $1000 for meth that sold for four to five times that in Kansas City or Chicago. They weren’t interested in boosting flat screen TVs but they could point out the people who did, and they were willing to trade that information for passage through the yard.
As I got a more complete idea of the hustles underway in the big yards, I understood why Marissa attached herself to older, scarier train riders who could protect her, and why some of her friends took up with Dirty Mike. Despite his bullshit, Mike had secret allies in the train yard, and he really knew how to ride, able to just look at the trains on the tracks and know from its content exactly where they were going. He was friends with cops in every yard. Many riders saw him chatting with the bulls as if they’d known each other for 20 years.
If the bulls and Dirty Mike had been friends for so long that Mike knew their names, how much business had they done together in the yard? If my hunch was right, and Dirty Mike had a lot of blood on his hands, did these cops know? Or had he done some work for them? I sure wanted to find Dirty Mike.
EPISODE 7: THE SQUAT FIRE
In New Orleans, with Marissa as my guide, I get answers to my questions, and we come to a new understanding.
In the fall of 2010, Marissa called from Florida to say she was ready to come home, but it would take a month or two to get there. She wanted to circumnavigate the country, heading north to New York City to see her brother, then maybe Buffalo, Detroit and Milwaukee and beyond. She and her friends liked the old rust belt cities where there were lots of abandoned houses where they could crash. She’d turn south at Seattle and maybe she’d be home for Christmas.
Every phone call along the route made me happier than the last. She just might survive this, and the odds were getting better the closer she got, but I was trying not to get too excited about this grand return. Whatever it was that brought her out onto the rails likely wasn’t completely solved. Although I had many hopes, I had to accept that she might be back out there if things didn’t work out quickly at home.
Marissa had arranged a place to live before she hit town. She and four women who’d recently left the rails, rented a house half a block from the Oakland tracks. They called it the Womansion. Part of the hobo code is that since all of them had crashed on people’s floors or sofas, they owed the same to the community when they got “housed up.” If an appealing group of travelers urged Marrisa to come with them, I didn’t know what she’d do.
I saw how having to show up to a job, and pay her bills, was making her restless. Her job wouldn’t hold her down. She was a Peachy Puff Girl, a freelance cigarette girl, dressing in a sexy nurse or maid costume with a tray displaying cigarettes, candies, and condoms that she hawked to tech bros outside San Francisco bars, insulted and propositioned all night long. She couldn’t be more lightly attached to this world, and it made me awfully nervous. And she wouldn’t answer any of my questions about how she’d lived and why she’d gone because she said I’d never understand.
A few weeks after she got back, eight young travelers, some of whom she knew, died in a squat fire near the railroad tracks in New Orleans. The dead—aged 17 to 29—were from Wisconsin, Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Nebraska, and New Orleans. Perhaps Marissa was right that I couldn’t understand, but this tragedy made me want to try. What had pushed them onto the rails? What had they left behind? Was I an outlier among those eight sets of parents, or did these parents struggle, as I had, to convince their children to come home?
I knew I’d never be allowed into this world without my daughter as my guide. To my surprise, she agreed to come. Marissa met me in New Orleans and brought me down rutted alleyways to squats with no electricity or running water to interview her friends. We huddled around candles as they described the fights with their parents, the failures at school and the general cynicism about striving for conventional success that made them cast off from the world. Every night when I got back to the place I was staying, I sat in the living room staring at the walls, absorbing how my worst fears were true.
Despite this, I had a great time in NOLA. The liquor was cheap, the evenings were long and full of music and dancing. One night when I was walking to meet Marissa in the French Quarter, I heard some buskers playing Marissa’s song “Windowsill” and followed those notes to the source thinking I might find her there. She wasn’t there, but she’d left a mark on New Orleans in a song that haunted its streets.
Another night Marissa took me to a cookout on a desolate block where, as a rare visiting parent, I was treated like a queen. There was a standoff between the homeowners and the punks when a wrestling match started in the middle of the street. We heard sirens approaching. Marissa and I jumped in my rental car, Marissa navigating as we swerved through the 9th Ward like girlfriends on a spree.
We sat in the car laughing at our escape. When the laughter stopped, I brought up how much more I had learned in NOLA about the dangers on the rails. I mentioned the FTRA. I asked her if she knew Dirty Mike. She said she didn’t think so, but she had met other FTRA. An old, grisly FTRA guy had tried to rape her in a boxcar but she lept around, signaled with a flashlight, making so much ruckus that someone passing by called the cops. They arrested the old guy, but they let Marissa go.
Of all the terrible nightmares I had about Marissa on the rails, this was the worst: a train in motion, disconnected from the world, and a thug after her with no one to protect her. Amazing that she survived. Her foremothers’ spirits were with her in that boxcar. I now knew why she refused to answer my questions. She was protecting me.
Through the people I met in NOLA, I traced the parents of those who had died in the squat fire and found that there were many like me. Most of them had sought help from psychiatrists for their unhappy children: bright kids, many of them artistic, who couldn’t fit into the social life at school. The parents placed their kids on antidepressants, which the kids tossed as soon as they stepped onto the rails. Friend after friend of Marissa’s scoffed at the idea that my world was more stable than that of the life tribe they’d chosen, which at least felt real.
The young hobos were searching for the basics – food, water, shelter – a regular state of crisis that revealed weakness and strength. They learned more about each other in three days than they knew about some members of their families, even if most times they didn’t know each other’s real names.
When I got home, I recognized that part of what I learned in New Orleans was how wrong I had been about why Marissa left. I thought when she left she had done this to me, because she didn’t love me or trust me. In New Orleans, as she brought me into her world, introduced me to her friends and vouched for me as someone they should talk to, she proved that assumption wrong. She loved me and trusted me. This was something she had to do, and I was never a factor.
EPISODE 8: KING OF THE HOBOS
Dirty Mike ends up in Placer County Jail on a murder charge. When I visit, he makes me a surprising offer.
Marissa was home, building her version of the straight life, but for some reason I was still investigating the rails. I couldn’t shake my fascination with them, with this world that had its own rules, code, and justice. And I kept trying to find Dirty Mike.
Something struck me about that name, and the photo a rider shared with me of his tag inside a bright green boxcar: Rollin’ Dirty and King of The Hobos. He wasn’t the only serial killer in the FTRA rank and file, I’d discovered. The Boxcar Killer, Robert Silveria, was serving double life sentences in a state prison in Wyoming for two of the 14 murders he claimed he committed in his 15 years on the rails.
Every week or so I googled Dirty Mike, hoping he might have been arrested. One day in May I found a BOLO (be on the lookout) put out by the El Paso police, Dirty Mike wanted for the murder of Venus Driscoll, a 52-year-old woman who lived near the Union Pacific’s Alfalfa yard. The first time I saw his face, I gasped. He had a hangdog look, sorrowful, and what appeared to be a railroad track tattooed across the edge of his right eye. A few weeks later he was arrested on an assault charge near the hobo jungle in Vancouver, Washington.
Before Texas could get its hands on him, he was extradicted to Placer County California for the 2005 murder of John Smoler just outside Roseville’s J.R. Davis yard. This was very exciting news! Placer County was just an hour and a half from my home, so I visited the next Saturday.
I watched from behind the bulletproof glass of the visiting room while four armed guards escorted him to his seat. Three pointed rifles at him while the fourth secured the shackles around his ankles, wrist, and waist through a hasp in the floor.
He looked straight ahead, eyes above me, while I tried to memorize the marks on his lean body. His strong arms filled out the cuffs of his prison jumpsuit. I verified that it was a railroad track across his right eye, eleven ties. He had an area code in big numbers tattooed across the left side of his neck, and a teardrop at the lower corner of his right eye. “SSC”, South Side Colton, took the territory just above his left clavicle and “S-L-O-W R-I-D-E” was spelled out in crude letters across his knuckles. He was missing a lot of teeth.
The guards left. He pivoted forward and grabbed a receiver, so I sat straighter to reach for mine. He was yelling into the mouthpiece, really telling me off, but he’d picked up the wrong receiver.
I held my receiver away from my head and pointed at it with a sarcastic smile indicating that I couldn’t hear him. We both grinned. He picked up the correct one, anger spent.
“Who are you?” he said.
“I’m a writer.”
Suddenly he was looking me in the eye, not over my head. The longer he examined me, the more grateful I was for the glass between us. I saw a hint of a smile turn up the corners of his mouth as he recognized how he could take advantage of this situation.
“I always knew it would end like this. They’ve got me for three murders but they easily could get me for twenty. I’m going to spend the rest of my life in jail. All I have left is my story,” he said. “I’ll tell it to you.”
SEASON TWO: ROLLIN’ DIRTY
Danelle discovers Dirty Mike really is the killer she feared him to be.
When he gets arrested in Vancouver, WA, detectives send Dirty Mike’s (aka Michael Elijah Adams, real name Leon Louie Theil) DNA, fingerprints and mugshot through the FBI database, which connects him to fifteen murders in nine states. No one he traveled with on the rails, none of the rail cops who were his friends, nor any of his family and buddies from childhood knew who he really was.
After her visit to meet him at the Placer County Jail, Danelle begins corresponding with Dirty Mike and discovers he is a good writer. He can’t write about his crimes, but his vivid descriptions of the FTRA are riveting. He was an apprentice to legendary FTRA founder Cactus Jack, who brought Mike into the gang at its annual Winter Gathering. Jack teaches Mike the scams and tricks necessary to survive, and how to read the rails. Mike’s violent nature helps him move up in the FTRA hierarchy, aided by his unique talent for blending in with young people who serve as cover for his mayhem. Young hobos don’t get arrested as often as the lifers do. None of the young people he travels with believe he’s a serial killer.
Writing to Mike was just a hobby at first. Morton knew it would take years before she would have enough information to develop a timeline for a man who had no sense of the month or the year when things happened. The podcast follows her as she verifies his wild claims, meets people who feared him, and those who loved him.
Yet as state after state drops their charges against Mike, for lack of evidence or credible witnesses, we see how he gets away with murder, to the sorrow of El Paso detective Jimmy Aguirre. When Aguirre saw Venus Driscoll, Mike’s last victim, exhumed from a shallow grave near the Alfalfa Yard, he was struck by how seldom he’d seen a middle-aged woman as a murder victim there. He vowed to find her killer no matter what. He was the officer behind the BOLO that led to Mike’s arrest, snagging the monster who had gotten away with it for decades. When Texas drops Mike’s murder charge, Aguirre quits the force in despair.
SEASON THREE: UNDERCOVER SUPERSTAR
How do you keep the thieves away when the cops are criminals too?
Larry Diaz was a superstar when it came to catching cargo thieves for Union Pacific. The first Latino on the force, Diaz could talk to sources other officers couldn’t get. That’s how he built his legend.
Early on he tracked three stolen container cars of cigarettes, each car worth $1.3 million, to an industrial park near Colton. Union Pacific rail cop police chief then sent Larry undercover with the Mexican gangs. The season will follow Larry’s covert operation, as well as the discrimination and racism he faced as the only Latino in an all-white police force.
The conflict there, and his success busting open the cargo theft gang world in LA, got him transferred to El Paso where the cargo theft is higher value and harder to solve. He’s brash, talkative, and a great storyteller who can crack open for the listeners the corrupt and complicit world of railroad cops. Few people know that rail cops are a private security force with full police powers on railroad territory without any government supervision, no publicly enforced standards or public records to provide scrutiny of their actions. Dirty Mike estimates that 85 percent of the rail cops are on the take, and Diaz agrees.