Modern Wild West Train Heist: Tvs, Nikes

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. - National Park Ranger Tim Duncan has his hands full dealing with speeders, cactus poachers and off-roaders as the lone federal lawman for this arid region - 1.4 million acres of protected high desert.

The most serious criminal activity Duncan faces? Train robbers.

The Union Pacific rail line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas runs straight through the desolate heart of the eastern Mojave. Dead center in the national preserve is The Hill, an 18-mile grade, where 1 1/2-mile-long eastbound freight trains with double stacks of containers slow to a crawl.

"It's been bad," says the bearded, jovial Duncan. "Sometimes both sides of the track have been littered with boxes of merchandise the thieves have thrown off the train. This is one of their favorite spots."

It's night, and Duncan is hunkered under a concrete railroad bridge with Union Pacific special agent David Sachs, who is dressed Ninja-fashion entirely in black, including Kevlar vest and boonie hat. Moonlight casts spectral shadows across sage, tamarisk and gray desert floor. Two other pairs of railroad police, and a German shepherd, are concealed along the tracks.

Half a mile away, another special agent, Darrell Brown, an infrared night scope slung around his neck, has taken position atop a railroad signal mast. He is wearing camouflage pants and a black T-shirt with POLICE stenciled on it in white.

Over Brown's radio, the not-quite-human voice of an automated sensor reports that the coming freight's brakes are operational: "Two-forty-three. No defects."

Suddenly, there's the flash of the train's headlamp and the squealing and wheezing of steel wheels as the 120-car freight starts up the grade.

The thieves - if there are any - will be scrunched down in "tubs" between the containers and the sides of the freight cars, invisible to anybody at ground level. But from his vantage point atop the signal mast, Brown will be able to peer directly into the tubs as the train rumbles by beneath him.

"They are difficult to see," says Brown, a muscular veteran of two decades with the railroad. "The train crews seldom spot them, unless they're alerted by a crew on a train going the other direction."

As the six diesels begin the laborious climb uphill, the container train slows to 8 mph.

Often, Brown says, robbers meet the train at Yermo, five miles east of Barstow. During the day, they hole up in abandoned buildings. As night falls, they flit across the railroad yard and hop aboard eastbound double stackers carrying goods from the Pacific Rim. They travel light - with burglar tools and a quart of water. They wear several layers of clothing to cushion the spine-jarring bumping of the freight cars.

Using lengths of pipe, bolt cutters or hacksaws, they cut the seals on the containers and rummage through boxes, looking for electronics, athletic shoes or expensive clothing that can be turned over for quick money.

"The people hired by the gang bosses in Los Angeles to rob the trains are very low-level," Brown says. "They're like the drug-cartel mules, guys with nothing to lose. They're given a few hundred dollars, and the gangs look on them as being expendable."

The thieves hop off trains and drag the loot into the desert, sometimes for half a mile, cover it with brush and wait for a truck.

In the past month, thieves have been hitting the trains hard. One double stacker arrived in Las Vegas with 24 containers broached.

"We have to keep hammering 'em, or the loss of merchandise would be staggering," says Union Pacific special agent Paul Kunze, whose usual beat is the stretch of track between Yermo and Las Vegas.

"It used to be they'd steal cigarettes, tires and booze," Kunze says, "and the pros could smell the merchandise in the boxcars."

Now it's electronics and expensive clothing, although thieves also have taken outboard motors and even washing machines.

The jackpot for a container burglar, however, is finding a shipment of Nike Air Jordans, Kunze says.

A 31-year veteran of the railroad police, Kunze, at 56, is fit and athletic. He takes pride in being able to pursue fleeing suspects over miles of desert. Last month, during the pursuit of a train robber flushed from a double stacker, Kunze chased the 20-year-old suspect four miles through deep sand, gullies and thorn brush, crossing Interstate 15 twice, until a California Highway Patrol helicopter helped make the arrest. He says that afterward he had to pull the thorns out of his leg with a pair of pliers.

"In the past year we've arrested 50 train robbers," Kunze says. Most, however, escape into the desert.

Even when captured, few of the thieves have been prosecuted, Brown says. "They're just deported. It's impossible to get them to inform on the higher-ups. They know it'd be a death sentence for them."

Another tactic has been to ambush the trucks. Railroad police have recovered two rental vans that got stuck in the sand when they were driven out to load stolen merchandise, Kunze says.

Railroad policing is relatively new to the Mojave. In 1994, what had been the Mojave National Scenic Area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, became the Mojave National Preserve, run by the National Park Service.

Funding in the first year was exactly $1, because of a squabble in Washington about the amount of off-road use. The park staff got laid off, and for a year no rangers patrolled the back country.

"During that year, the stretch of track between Kelso and Nipton was littered with cartons and all sorts of merchandise the robbers couldn't fit into their vans," Duncan says.

"All of this clothing and jewelry started turning up along the track," says Linda Darryl, manager of the Nipton Store. "Everybody around here was wearing T-shirts and bracelets. We thought it was strange that this stuff was falling out of locked containers."

Rural mail carrier Mike Smith has found and returned truckloads of merchandise left by the thieves. One park ranger found and returned thousands of cartons of cigarettes.

While Brown and the Union Pacific police mainly are concerned about protecting shipments, Duncan's concern is the safety of park visitors.

"The park service isn't happy about the idea of criminals out on the road trying to hitch a ride," Duncan says. "That's not considered part of the national-park experience."

When Brown or Kunze spots thieves in the tubs, they radio the train's engineer to stop at a point where agents are concealed, and the chase begins. "We've had some success using dogs," says Brown, who handles one called Bet.

This night, Max and Bet are still sluggish after the four-hour ride from Vegas. "Achtung!" shouts Max's handler, Steve Stevenson (all commands to the dogs are given in German). "You need to get them fired up." For practice, Max, on command, attacks a padded sleeve worn by a visitor.

Kunze, who now also has clambered up on a signal mast, worries about his Navy Seal wristwatch, which gives off a faint greenish glow, and about the luminous sights on his 9-mm pistol. "Can they see that? I might have to go back to a Timex."