Bellingham, Washington, woman sentenced to prison for ‘shunt’ attack on BNSF track
Defendant convicted at trial in September 2021
Seattle – A 28-year-old Bellingham, Washington, woman was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 12 months and one day in prison and three years of supervised release for committing an act of violence against a railroad carrier, announced U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. Ellen Brennan Reiche, was one of two people arrested on the BNSF Railway tracks near Bellingham, near midnight on November 28, 2020. Reiche was convicted September 9, 2021, of placing a ‘shunt’ – a device that interferes with train signals – on the tracks. At the sentencing hearing, Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez called her offense “extremely serious.” In addition to the prison sentence, the court ordered that Reiche must complete 100 hours of community service while on federal supervision.
“Placing a shunt on active railroad tracks puts lives in danger – to drivers preparing to cross the tracks who may not get any warning lights of an approaching train, and to the homeowners in the area who could be endangered by a train derailment,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. “In this case the shunt was placed just prior to the arrival of a train with 97 tanker cars loaded with crude oil. Thankfully, the device was discovered and removed before it could cause a tragedy.”
According to records in the case and testimony at trial, on the night of November 28, 2020, Reiche and co-defendant Samantha Frances Brooks, 24, were observed on video surveillance walking on the tracks near a crossing in Bellingham. Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene. The defendants were detained for trespassing, and a shunt was found on the tracks near where the deputies had first encountered them. Reiche was carrying a paper bag containing wire, a drill with a brush head, a magnetic adhesive and gloves. The wire was similar to the wire used in the shunting incidents. The shunt that was placed on the tracks could have interfered with the railroad crossing warnings at Cliffside Drive in Bellingham. A train carrying crude oil, among other cargo, was scheduled to come through that area soon after this incident.
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force worked with BNSF police to investigate the placement of 41 shunts on the BNSF tracks since January 19, 2020. A shunt is comprised of wire that is stretched between the rails and often fastened with magnets, disrupting the systems that indicate a train is on the tracks. On ten occasions, shunts were placed in areas that disrupt the crossing guards where the tracks cross streets, so vehicles could have tried to cross the tracks unaware of the oncoming train. On the night of October 11, 2020, multiple shunts were placed in three different locations in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. The shunts triggered an automatic braking system on a train that was transporting hazardous and combustible material. The emergency braking then caused a portion of the train to decouple from the engine. Decoupling has the potential to cause a derailment—in this case—of tanker cars of flammable gas in a residential area.
In asking for a 27-month sentence, prosecutors wrote to the court about the danger of shunts, including the potential to cause derailments, which can be deadly and cause extensive environmental damage. “There have been at least two examples just within the past year that hit close to home. In one, an oil train derailed near Custer, Washington, causing massive fires and other damage, and in the other, a passenger train bound for Seattle derailed in Montana, killing three people and injuring dozens. Here, if a train had derailed where Reiche placed the shunt, numerous nearby homes and the train crew would have been badly affected. And even setting aside the risk of a derailment, the shunt endangered anyone crossing the tracks at Cliffside Drive. There might have been no warning from the crossing system at all.”
Co-defendant Brooks pleaded guilty July 9, 2021, to interference with a railroad signaling system. Brooks was sentenced in October to 6 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release, with Brooks ordered to complete four months of home confinement and 200 hours of community service while on supervision.
The case was 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. Critical investigative assistance is being provided by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Philip Kopczynski, Sok Tea Jiang, and Thomas Woods.