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Nearby: 2 Bellingham women face federal terrorist attack charges

Two Bellingham women were arrested on the BNSF Railway tracks near Bellingham and charged with terrorist attack and other violence against a railroad carrier. They appeared in federal court November 30th, according to US Attorney Brian T. Moran. 

Samantha Frances Brooks, age 27, and Ellen Brennan Reiche, age 23, were arrested Saturday, November 28th, at night in Bellingham while they were allegedly placing a ‘shunt’ on the tracks.  A shunt disrupts the low level electrical current on the tracks and can disable various safety features according to a press release from the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

A shunt is comprised of wire and magnets stretched between the tracks which disrupts safety systems that indicate when a train is on the tracks according to the press release.

“Since January there have been 41 incidents of shunts placed on the BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties—causing crossing guards to malfunction, interfering with automatic braking systems, and, in one case, causing the near-derailment of tanks of hazardous chemicals,” Moran is quoted as saying in the press release.  “These crimes endanger our community. I commend the agents from Customs and Border Protection, FBI, BNSF Police and state and local partners who prioritized stopping this criminal conduct.”

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According to a press release from Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), before this incident, no suspects have been identified and no arrests have occurred.

The DOJ press release said the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has been investigating the placement of shunts on the BNSF tracks since January 19th, according to the criminal complaint filed with the court.

On 10 occasions, shunts were placed in areas that disrupt crossing arms where the tracks cross streets. Vehicles crossing the tracks would not be warned of an oncoming train as a result.

On the night of October 11th, the DOJ press release said, multiple shunts were placed in 3 different locations in Whatcom and Skagit Counties.  These shunts triggered an automatic braking system on a train transporting hazardous and combustible material. This caused a portion of the train to decouple from the engine. This had the potential to cause a derailment of tanker cars containing flammable gas in a residential area.

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Shortly after the first shunts were discovered in January, a claim of responsibility was published on an anarchist website according to the DOJ.

On November 28th at about 11:30pm, BNSF Police observed video surveillance of what appeared to be 2 people kneeling on the tracks near a crossing in Bellingham according to the DOJ press release. Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the scene. 

A shunt was found on the tracks near where they had been observed on surveillance and the 2 women were carrying a paper bag containing a cordless battery powered drill with a brush head, scissors, adhesive magnetic tape, rubber gloves, and wire according to WCSO. The wire was similar to the wire used in the shunting incidents. The shunt that was placed on the tracks would have “interfered with the functionality of the Cliffside Drive railroad crossing,” according to the criminal complaint.

Brooks and Reiche were arrested by WCSO for 2nd degree criminal trespass and malicious injury to railroad property, a class B felony. They were later transferred to federal custody on November 30th and charged with terrorist attack and other violence against a railroad carrier according to WCSO.

The crime of terrorist attack on a railroad facility is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine according to DOJ.

The case is being investigated by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in connection with the BNSF Railway Police and with investigative assistance provided by WCSO.

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