PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Over two decades ago, an Amtrak train derailment in the middle of the Arizona desert became an urgent investigation into who sabotaged it. Who did it and why, remains unsolved.
In our True Crime Arizona investigation, we get possession of pictures taken by a passenger on board, that have played a role in the FBI investigation for 25 years.
“It was about 1 or 1:30 in the morning, and I was laying on a couple seats,” Lou Ann Zulawski recalled. “I couldn’t see. It was dark. It was like pitch black out there. The only light there was, was the moon, and if I remember correctly, it was a full moon,” she said.
That’s when everything changed.
“You could hear all the railroad ties being ripped up,” Zulawski said. “We just came to a quick jolt, and you hear all the crashing, all the sound of the wood breaking, and it threw me to the floor, and I don’t know how many other people got thrown to the floor.”
On October 5 in 1995, the Sunset Limited Amtrak train was traveling through Arizona. Two hundred twenty-five passengers were on board in the middle of the desert.
After the crashing sound, there was no electricity, and no civilization in sight. Nobody knew where they were or what had just happened. And nobody knew they were now the victims of a calculated crime that would make headlines around the world.
“I had just enough battery to make a call home. That’s about it,” said Zulawski.
Zulawski had boarded the train in Texas, heading back home to Los Angeles, when the train suddenly went off the tracks.
“It felt almost like being shook to your feet by an earthquake,” she said.
And miles and miles away, in the then small town of Buckeye, was Patricia Borree. She was the lone emergency dispatcher that night.
“It was a quiet night until Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office came up on our radio,” Borree said. “It was a nightmare, because it was so far out in the middle of nowhere.”
It would take hours to get emergency crews out to the remote location, between Hyder and Tonopah.
“We called every ambulance company,” said Borree. “We had to contact farmers that had road graders to grade the road out towards the railroad tracks and grade out a trauma center.”
With no GPS technology, she made a decision.
“We had to get lighting out there,” she said. “We had to stage everybody all along the route to direct all the ambulances out to where the scene was.”
The area was lit up in red and blue.
“You could hear all the helicopters and all the lights, the blinking lights from the sirens,” said Zulawski.
Zulawski’s passenger car didn’t have any major injuries, but just ahead it was a grisly scene. Amtrak train worker Mitchell Bates was kill, caught between the cars when they collapsed over the bridge.
Seventy-five others were injured, and 12 of them critically hurt. There were many children on board.
“A mass evac zone is basically what it looked like. All the helicopters -- I mean, I lost count of all of the helicopters coming in and out,” Zulawski said.
She said that’s when an engineer came running into their car.
“They asked if anybody had a camera, and I said, 'Yes, I have a camera,'” Zulawski recalled. “He said, ‘Well, come with me.’ He says, ‘I need you to take a picture of this part of the track.’ So, we got down on our bellies, and I got my camera with the flash, and I took some pictures they asked me to take. And it turned out that it was actually the point of derailment,” Zulawski said. “So at that point, I kind of knew.”
The Sunset Limited had been sabotaged.
“In my 30 years in the FBI, the worst crime scene I ever saw,” said Larry McCormick. He is now retired, but was second in command at the FBI in Phoenix during the time, and headed out to the scene as soon as headquarters called.
“I would call it organized chaos because there were so many rescue people there, fire people, law enforcement,” McCormick said. “I’m amazed more people weren’t killed, to be honest, with you looking at the scene.”
The investigation began into who did this and why. It didn’t take long until the first clues were found.
“Well, they had found some notes,” said McCormick when asked if there were any leads at that point. “That indicated it was a domestic terrorism type of case. It’s a different animal. It’s a different type of crime,” he said.
Eight-by-10-sized typewritten notes were found on the ground, held down by rocks, that said the group responsible for the crime were the Sons of Gestapo. The notes said the reason why they did it was to retaliate against the FBI and ATF for their involvement in the 1993 Waco Siege.
“The actual manifestos were signed by the Sons of Gestapo. However, to date, we still haven’t been able to verify that they are an actual group,” said special agent Michael Lum, who is on the FBI task force currently working the case.
“Was it calling for retaliation against these agencies? Why would that involve the Amtrak train?” asked Briana Whitney of Arizona's Family.
“I don’t know. That’s -- they went after -- it was a terrorist event. They went after civilians just going about their everyday life,” said Lum.
“Do you think they wrote that to try and throw you off?” asked Whitney.
“That’s a very good possibility,” he said.
But those responsible didn’t just sever the tracks. They cut the electrical wiring and rewired it so the warning lights that would tell an engineer to stop the train because something was wrong never flashed. There was no way to see this coming.
“Even if the engineer saw it at the last moment as he’s going over, he wouldn’t have had time to actually stop,” said Lum.
“So whoever did this had to have some sort of knowledge of the train tracks themselves?” Whitney asked McCormick.
“I would think so, yes,” said McCormick.
At that point, Borree is still trying to coordinate getting crews in and out of the scene. She still didn’t know how the accident happened, but it didn’t matter.
“You’ve gotta get through this,” she said. “You have to make the phone calls and get the people the help they need. You can fall apart afterwards, but while that’s going on you don’t have time to sit there and cry your eyes out.”
When she found out the train was deliberately sabotage, it was an emotional blow.
“Why would anybody want to hurt totally innocent people? That’s a sick person,” Borree said.
Days after the derailment, investigators held a press conference. They had another lead. They said passengers saw one or two people running away from the area just before the train crashed.
But investigators were running into one big challenge. There wasn’t much evidence left at the scene from the perpetrators, and to this day, the FBI won’t reveal much about what *was* out there.
“I had read something about a pry bar or crowbar being found at the scene, possibly missing from a volunteer fire department nearby. Is that credible?” Whitney asked agent Lum.
“There are a lot of rumors. And again, I don’t want to get into those rumors because some of those could -- do -- relate to the investigation,” he said.
But Zulawski’s 35-millimeter camera answered our question loud and clear. She captured a photo of a metal tool left on the tracks.
“Here was a piece of metal left. I don’t know if they used that to pry something or what,” she said as she showed Arizona's Family the picture.
The once chaotic crime scene is now the center of a case gone quiet and cold. McCormick fears, after all these years, there may never be justice for Mitchell Bates and the injured passengers.
“As time passes, it gets much more difficult to solve these cases,” he said. “People’s memories go. People die. It’s been 19, 25 years almost. The longer it goes, the more difficult it is.”
But the FBI said improved DNA and forensic technology could break the case wide open.
“Can you confirm there are active leads right now?” Whitney asked Lum.
“There are active leads right now,” he responded.
Lum said there were only five to six hours between the last train that successfully crossed that track and the sabotage of the Sunset Limited. This crime was planned by somebody who knew exactly what they were doing and where they would do it. One question triggered a long, cautious pause at the FBI.
“Do you believe it was some former disgruntled worker?” Whitney asked Lum.
He paused for a while.
“That’s a detail I can’t really get into right now,” Lum said.
Thousands of days have gone by, and thousands of dollars remain unclaimed. There is still a $310,000 reward for anybody with information.
For Zulawski, that fateful night in the train was eerie and unforgettable. She believes, eventually, someone involved will fall off track and get a one-way ticket to prison.
“It may not be in my lifetime, but somebody is going to say something,” Zulawski said. “If they do find them, it’s still murder. It’s still murder.”
If you have any information on the Sunset Limited derailment, call the FBI.