Freight Train Riders of America
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The Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA) is an American gang of homeless men who move about in railroad cars, particularly in the northwestern United States. Allegedly, this gang has connections to hate groups and has also been linked to many violent crimes along the rail lines of west coast of the United States.
History and background
Members of the FTRA claim to be a loosely knit club of homeless people organized for mutual support. Believed to number as many as 1,000 FTRA started with 12 original members then grew., FTRA members are most frequently encountered along the BNSF Railway's Hi-Line, which stretches from Chicago to Seattle, often sleeping in switching yards, bridge underpasses and boxcars along the route. While the "elite" of the FTRA ride the hi-line and are recognized by the color black worn in a bandanna usually with a conch for a slide, the mid-line wears a blue bandanna, and those who ride the Union Pacific "Sunset Route" from Southern California to El Paso wear either a red or desert camouflage-colored one.
Retired Spokane police officer Bob Grandinetti has specialized in investigating the FTRA, both as a Spokane police officer and since his retirement. He has linked members of the group to food stamp fraud, illegal drug trafficking, and hundreds of thefts, as well as brutal assaults and murders committed against other transients, hobos, and freighthoppers.
A series of murders of transients along the rails committed by a serial murderer, Robert Joseph Silveria Jr. (aka "Sidetrack"), led to police and media attention on the FTRA, including a May 1996 murder which led to the FTRA's being profiled on America's Most Wanted. Silveria claims to have not been a member of the FTRA, but former police officer Bill Palmini, in his book Murder on the Rails about the Silveria murders, says he was a member. Robert Silveria is currently serving a double life sentence in Oregon for the murders.
Some graffiti attributed to FTRA members [according to whom?] has included Nazi swastikas; this has led to speculation that the FTRA has a white supremacist orientation and comparisons to the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. Since no other evidence exists other than the graffiti for the FTRA being a white supremacist group, these allegations are generally discounted. Most other homeless people who have interacted with FTRA members compare them to the Hells Angels motorcycle club, not to the Aryan Brotherhood. Much of the hype on the FTRA is overstated.
Realistically, any distinction of FTRA as an organization, or a count of its members, is a loose one at best due to the circumstances inherent to rail-riding, and to homelessness in general. This also speaks to the contradictory information regarding whether or not FTRA is a criminal group, or embraces white supremacism in any 'official' capacity. Author Richard Grant writes that various FTRA members, including founder Daniel Boone, claim that the FTRA was 'founded' on the basis of camaraderie between people sharing a similar lifestyle, and not as a criminal nor a hate group. Individuals claiming membership may commit criminal acts or harbour supremacist ideologies, irrespective of FTRA itself, and for which they alone are responsible.
The FTRA in popular culture
- Authors Bill Palmini, Bob Grandinetti and science fiction writer Lucius Shepard have written about the FTRA, as well as William T. Vollmann, most notably in his book on freighthopping, Riding Toward Everywhere
- Members of the FTRA appear in issue #6 of the comic book Y: The Last Man, available in the collections Cycles (ISBN 1-4012-0076-1) and Deluxe Book One (ISBN 1-4012-1921-7).
- The FTRA is featured in the television drama Numb3rs in the first season on the episode Sabotage (ISBN 1-4157-2025-8)
- Robert Joseph Silveria, Jr. ("the Boxcar Killer")
- Grant, Richard, Ghost Riders: Travels With American Nomads (London, 2003), p.270
- Grant, Richard, Ghost Riders: Travels With American Nomads (London, 2003), p.271
- Wilson, Scott Bryan "Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann" Quarterly Conversation
- Mysterious brotherhood may have deadly foothold on the rails
- Murder on the Rails, by William G. Palmini, Jr. and Tanya Chalupa, New Horizon Press, 2004 
- Who is "Bozo Texino"? – article on FTRA and rail hobo world