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Utah cold case investigators unveil nationwide resource aimed at solving railroad killings

Posted by Travis Uresk | Aug. 24th, 2022 | Utah Cold Case Coalition |

By Daedan Olander

Aug. 24, 2022

The database currently contains more than 1,000 entries and is expected to continue growing.

Compared to other violent crimes, railroad killings often receive less attention, attorney Karra Porter said Tuesday. She and her team are working to change that.

Porter is a co-founder of the Cold Case Coalition, a Utah-based nonprofit dedicated to helping families and investigators with unsolved deaths and disappearances. Cold cases along the nation’s rail network in particular can be especially hard to solve, since perpetrators sometimes use false names, or steal other people’s identities, which can make them difficult to track, Porter said.

If a killer commits a homicide in one location and hops on a train headed elsewhere, Porter added, then in a matter of hours, the perpetrator and victim can be separated by hundreds of miles.

But thanks to years of work by its team of volunteers, law enforcement agencies now have a new resource for identifying the perpetrators of cold cases linked to the nation’s rail network.

At a news conference Tuesday, the coalition unveiled a nationwide database that holds a veritable almanac about all things — and people — related to past violent railroad crime in the U.S.

It was an effort that took thousands of unpaid hours, and the work is still ongoing. When asked to characterize the project, Porter said “it was just something needed. It was obviously needed.”

The database

The novel database is exhaustive and — perhaps most importantly — searchable. It stores instances of violent crime as well as a large variety of information about victims, witnesses and suspects — including names and aliases, physical descriptions, dates of birth and other identifiers.

The physical descriptions are key, Porter said, because they contain searchable words that can link individuals with railroad-related crimes around the U.S.

The database currently has more than 1,000 entries, spanning crimes ranging from the 1960s to 2012, and still more are being added. At least 12 of the cases originated in Utah.

Volunteers have pieced together information from newspapers, police and court records and even railroad documents, and they soon hope to visit train archives in other states that may contain more information.

The research and puzzle-like challenge makes the task interesting, coalition board member Renee Van Tussenbrook said. Part of the allure is investigating a subset of crime that often flies under the radar.

“It’s unbelievably satisfying, because no one looks at these cases,” Porter said.

‘May be the most difficult types of homicides to resolve’

According to a train conductor with whom Porter recently spoke, there are likely hundreds of bodies lying beside railroad tracks around the country that have yet to be discovered. Other remains have been found but not identified, and even known homicides are often omitted from cold case lists.

“It’s really not the fault of law enforcement, in most cases, because these things are just extremely difficult,” she said. “They may be the most difficult types of homicides to resolve, because oftentimes, the victims have no relationship to where they’re found or where they’re killed.”

Due to the large search radius, it was especially difficult for law enforcement to hunt down railroad killers before the internet and other technologies became widely available, Porter said. The coalition, and its database, is trying to fill that gap.

While the tool is not publicly available due to concerns about privacy (names listed in the database are often accompanied by Social Security numbers), Porter said she is happy to perform searches for police or family members of missing people.

Despite the subject matter, both presenters were animated Tuesday while describing the coalition’s latest undertaking. The next step is to spread word about the resource, and the pair expressed hope that authorities would begin reaching out to utilize the database in the near future.

“We’re helping people find closure,” Van Tussenbrook said. “Family members out there who have gone years and years, and have not found any answers.”

Porter added that the database has already paid dividends, noting that volunteers are finding previously undiscovered patterns and nexus points between different crimes.

“We think we’ve got leads on some cases already,” she said, “just as we were putting it together.”


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