Bellingham woman sentenced to prison for sabotaging railroad tracks

SEATTLE — A 28-year-old Bellingham woman was sentenced to prison Friday for committing an act of violence against a railroad carrier, according to U.S. Attorney Nick Brown.

Ellen Brennan Reiche was convicted on Sep. 9, 2021 of placing a “shunt,” a device that interferes with train signals, on the BNSF Railway tracks near Bellingham in Nov. 2020.

“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.”

On the night of Nov. 28, 2020, Reiche and co-defendant Samantha Frances Brooks, 24, were observed walking on the tracks near the railroad crossing in Bellingham, according to records in the case and testimony at trial.

Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene and detained both women for trespassing. Deputies found the shunt on the tracks near where they had first encountered the defendants.

Prosecutors wrote to the court about the danger of shunts and their potential to cause derailments: “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.”

Reiche was sentenced in the U.S. District Court in Seattle to 12 months and one day in prison and three years of supervised release. In addition to her prison sentence, Reiche must also complete 100 hours of community service while on federal supervision.

Brooks was sentenced in October to six months in prison and three years of supervised release. She was also ordered to complete 200 hours of community service while on supervision and four months of home confinement.

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has worked with BNSF police to investigate the placement of 41 shunts on the BNSF tracks since Jan. 19, 2020.