FTRA Neo-Nazi Gang Eyed In Murders Of Homeless In Denver FWD

Tom Boland (
Fri, 10 Dec 1999 19:54:02 -0800 (PST) 
FWD  Yahoo! News - Crimes And Trials Headlines
     Wednesday December 08 12:29 PM EST


 DENVER ( -- Homicide detectives probing the killing of several
homeless men are investigating whether the deaths could be linked to a
violent band of nomadic train-hoppers called the Freight Train Riders of

 While stopping short of calling the gang suspects in a string of slayings
of drifters in the city's downtown area, Denver Police Detective Mary
Thomas confirmed that authorities have questioned members of the group, and
haven't ruled them out in the killings.

 "If there are any solid leads that come from those interviews, it will be
followed up," Thomas told

 The group is known as ruthless by law enforcement and railroad security
agents nationwide. Authorities suspect members may be responsible for
hundreds of murders, said Bob Grandinetti, a retired Spokane, Wash., police
officer. Grandinetti has spent more than 15 years investigating the riders.

 Police: Gang preys on drifters

 The gang scrawls swastikas and white-supremacist graffiti on rail cars and
train overpasses and preys upon less-aggressive rail riders, primarily in
northern-tier and Gulf Coast states, Grandinetti said. He and others
familiar with the riders say they are not the harmless boxcar hobos of old,
but a predatory gang that shakes down other drifters for money and any
meager possessions they might have, and that its members aren't above
killing someone who balks at their demands.

 "They're demonic and very capable of doing this," said Bob Cote, a former
street person and longtime director of Step-13, a shelter and substance
abuse rehabilitation center in Denver. "They just ride the rails and create
mayhem," he said.

 Since early September, seven transients have been found beaten to death in
Denver's lower downtown area, known as LoDo. Autopsy results revealed that
all the men died of blunt-force trauma. Police have charged three young
street people in one of the murders, but haven't named any suspects in the
other six killings.

 Nathan Harrison, 20, Thomas Holden, 18, and Christopher Ball, 16, have
been charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Melvin Washington,
who died Sept. 15, a week after he was found beaten and bloody in an alley.

 Holden and Ball are in custody in the Denver County Jail, while Harrison
is fighting extradition to Colorado after his arrest in California.

 A turf war over panhandling rights?

 The trio belongs to a band of young street people that Denver police have
dubbed "mall rats," because they congregate near LoDo's 16th Street Mall.
Several other mall rats have been arrested for beating two other drifters.
Police said those beatings were part of a turf war between older and
younger transients for panhandling locations.

 A team of FBI profilers joined the probe at the request of Mayor
Wellington Webb, who said the slayings have left the city in "a state of
stunned disbelief." FBI spokeswoman Jane Quimby told that she
wouldn't comment on the bureau's role in the case.

 The headless bodies of the latest two victims, Harry Redden, 46, and Joe
Mendoza, 50, were found Nov. 17 in a field behind Union Station, Denver's
rail depot.

 The discovery so close to the railroad tracks led some to speculate that
the killings might be the work of the freight riders. Last week, police
returned to the crime scene with a backhoe to look for additional clues,
but Thomas declined to say what they were looking for or might have found.

 Freight Riders' numbers uncertain

 The freight riders were formed in the early 1980s in Montana, reportedly
by a handful of Vietnam veterans. Like other drifters, many journey south
during the winter months.

 Because of the nomadic nature of the gang and members' aliases, it's hard
to know exactly how many riders there are. Estimates range from 600 to
2,000, according to Walt Copley, a criminology professor at Metropolitan
State College of Denver.

 "They have a shifting membership and short-term leadership," Copley told

 Grandinetti became an expert on the riders after tracking a drifter
suspected of killing a young girl in the early '80s. After spending years
developing informants within the group, Grandinetti likened them to outlaw
motorcycle gangs.

 "They're hard-core druggies who prey on the weak," he said.

 Colored bandannas and silver clasps

 Grandinetti said the riders are identified by colored bandanas with
conchos -- ornamental silver clasps -- worn around their necks.
Different-color bandanas denote the rider's geographic region: Red bandanas
are for Southern states, blue for Northern, and black for Midwestern, he

 "The initiation rite into the gang requires that three current riders
urinate on the bandana," Grandinetti said. "Once they ride over 1 million
miles, they get a gold concho."

 Last year one rider, Robert Joseph Silveria, confessed to killing nine
drifters along rail yards in seven states stretching from Oregon to
Florida. He is serving three life sentences in Oregon and, if ever paroled
from there, faces another life sentence in Florida for beating to death
another drifter, Willie Clark, with a metal post after robbing him.

 Grandinetti said Silveria boasted of killing 50 others, and said he
learned to kill from another unidentified rider, whom Silveria claims is
still at large.

 'Made Charles Manson look like an altar boy'

 Step-13 director Cote said that after seeing an interview with Silveria,
he was convinced that the 39-year-old Californian was "as crazy as they
come," and that he demonstrated how dangerous the riders are.

 "He made Charles Manson look like an altar boy," Cote said.

 Cote said the riders pass through Denver on their way south during the
fall, but may have stayed on longer this year because of the city's
unusually warm weather.

 The riders signal each other by lighting fires along rail yards, he said.

 Homeless distrust police

 Standing outside a Denver soup kitchen, Robert Young, 56, who lives on the
streets, said he discounts what police are saying publicly about the

 "It's no young kids doing this; I think it's the skinheads or one of those
crazy cults," Young said. "They're not satisfied to kill them, now they
gotta dismember them, too."

 To 60-year-old transient Tom Hickman, who said he sleeps on a heating
grate at the Denver City and County Building, it matters little who is
responsible for the grisly homicides.

 "I just hope they don't get me," he said as he pushed a shopping cart
holding his belongings along a downtown street. "But there ain't no

 Keith Coffman is an correspondent in Colorado.

[Related Story: Rash of Transient Slayings Points to Serial Killer]


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