Train Gangs Today
Howard, Christine, Burke, Tod, Law & Order
Approximately 20,000 transients "ride the rails" in the United States yearly. Many of these people are homeless, moneyless or just thrill seekers. Due to the number of people riding the rails, it is not surprising that train gangs are one of the newest forms of gangs developing. Freight trains provide a covert form of transportation and are thus attractive to this group who likes to remain anonymous to the rest of society. Members can hop on and off a train at their discretion, and can cross the country while doing so.
Any community with railroad tracks is at risk of having members of this new type of gang infiltrate their neighborhoods. The leading gang goes by the name of Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA). In 1984, this organization was established by a group of ex-Vietnam veterans in Montana, who road the rails in the western part of the United States. These veterans took to riding on freight trains after being unable to make a transition back to civilian society.
The FTRA was originally formed for the purpose of camaraderie. In 1987, the group formed an enforcement arm known as the "Goon Squad" or the "Goonies." This branch kept other members in line and victimized nonmembers.
Making sure members did not attack others in the group was important to the FTRA. They targeted non-member transients for their food, clothing and money as a means of survival. According to Officer Bob Grandinetti, Office of Special Problems, of the Spokane, Washington Police Department, the FTRA is estimated at having 800 members.
Victims of the FTRA are usually other transients, since they are vulnerable targets. Such crimes usually go undetected because victims are unlikely to report them. Individuals who roam near railroad tracks, or in places where FTRA members congregate, have also been preyed upon. Examples include a female bar owner who was beaten to death by FTRA members after closing for the night; a couple murdered at a campground located near railroad tracks; and a man murdered in his home after befriending a FTRA member. This gang appears non-discriminatory in their victim selection; which places many at risk.
Gang members typically steal the victim's personal identification and effects so that they can later use them to obtain multiple food stamps and other forms of public assistance. Detective Mike Quakenbush of the Salem, Oregon Police Department, characterizes FTRA members as "scam artists" that travel from state to state at different times of the month so that they are able to obtain the maximum amount of food stamps and other state assistance possible. They often trade food stamps with others in the area, in exchange for alcohol or drugs. They may also cash the food stamps at local grocery stores and receive 50 cents on the dollar.
Grandinetti has identified three main factions of the FTRA. They are separated based upon geographical rails and bandana color:
Low riders - who ride the rails in the south from Texas to California. They wear red bandanas around the neck. Mid riders - who ride the rails across the Midwest. They wear blue bandanas around the neck.
High riders - who ride the northern rails from Minnesota to Northern California. They wear black bandanas.
The bandanas are considered their badges or colors, similar to those worn by street gangs. They tend to be the only type of clothing worn to distinguish members of the group. Bandanas are awarded during the initiation ceremony, which consists of other members urinating on the bandana and then tying it around the prospective members' neck. The bandana must be worn for a week without washing to prove their respect for other members. The bandana is fastened around the neck with a conchon. According to Quakenbush, rank is communicated by the material and the nature of the design of the conchon. For instance, after one member of the FTRA died, other members assembled and bought him an ornate gold conchon to signify his importance. …