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Bellingham woman pleads guilty to terrorist attack on railway

Multiple incidents along the railroad tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties have lead to federal indictments and unanswered questions.

WHATCOM COUNTY, Wash. — A Bellingham woman has pleaded guilty in federal court to a terrorist attack and violence against Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway in northwestern Washington. 

Samantha Brooks and Ellen Reiche were each indicted with one count of terrorist attacks and other violence against a railroad for allegedly placing a shunt on tracks near Bellingham in November 2020. The devices have the capability to disrupt BNSF train safety features. Brooks pleaded guilty, while Reiche pleaded not guilty.

"Knowingly impairing the operation of a rail signal is a federal crime," explained Steve Bernd, a spokesperson in the Seattle office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). "It's considered a terrorist attack or an act of violence against a railway."

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), more than 40 shunts were placed on railroad tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties between January and November of 2020. After the first shunts were found, the DOJ said someone claimed responsibility on an anarchist website. 

"No case will be open because someone believes - no matter how abhorrent the belief is - what they do,” explained Bernd. “They have to take some sort of step." 

The placement of shunts could potentially lead to the derailment of a train. 

"Interfering with the operation of a train that could potentially lead to a derailment or interfere with the signals farther down the line that could impair crossing guards could put the public in serious jeopardy," Bernd said.

The night Brooks and Reiche were discovered along the tracks, video surveillance allowed Whatcom County Sheriff's deputies to respond quickly before any harm was caused.

Bernd said the FBI relies on anyone who sees something to say something. 

“Probably one of our most difficult tasks would be finding that lone wolf; that person in their basement that is self-radicalizing or motivating themselves to do some sort of act that's going to harm others. It's very difficult to detect that."

Many of these cases are still being investigated. 

If anyone has information that might be helpful to the FBI, they can call 1-800-CALL-FBI. Terrorism that targets a railroad facility is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and includes a $250,000 fine.