- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

Angel Resendiz-Ramirez was the hobo from hell. For 20 years he rode freight trains across the Mexican border into Texas, seeking victims in a trail of slaughter that stretched as far north as Illinois and left at least nine persons dead.

Justice caught up with the 41-year-old drifter, recently found guilty of the rape and murder of a Houston doctor. Evidence from prosecutors painted a stark contrast with the romantic portrait of grizzled drifters riding the rails across the vast American interior, looking only for their freedom and the next meal.

Ramirez used trains first to select his victims and then as an escape route. He was charged with killing six persons in Texas, shooting an elderly man and bludgeoning his daughter in Illinois and crushing a man's head with a rock in Kentucky before raping his girlfriend and leaving her for dead.

Rejecting his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, the jury convicted him of the murder of Dr. Claudia Benton, a geneticist who was raped, stabbed and battered in her home, only a short walk from the railway.

The case has sent shock waves through the loosely knit community of modern-day hobos, or "freight-hoppers," a growing number of whom are young adventurers, often middle class and well educated, who seek illicit thrills in jumping aboard an empty boxcar.

Using books such as "Hopping Freight Trains in America," written by a California lawyer and the bible of the so-called "recreational-hobo" movement, as many as 20,000 people regularly ride the rails each year.

For recreational hobos, the plaintive wail of a train whistle on a sultry southern night has given way to the chirrup of a mobile phone. The rattle of boxcars over points is matched by the chatter of keys on a laptop, while a credit card in the pocket means they always can be sure of their next meal.

Many hold down well-paying jobs, like Dawson Morton, a law student at New York University, who publishes his exploits on his Web site and advises beginners to pack earmuffs, suntan lotion and a good book.

Hans-Christoph Steiner, a computer programmer from Manhattan, is also a confirmed freight-hopper.

"The idea has always intrigued me. I like the image of a self-sufficient wanderer who doesn't burden others," he said.

Confirmed freight-hoppers also can join the National Hobo Association, which has a membership of more than 3,000 and publishes a magazine, the Hobo Times. The association even offers "hobo gear," including a monogrammed polo shirt and a waterproof jacket to "keep out the night chills around the jungle campfire."

Buzz Potter, president of the association, who rode freight trains while looking for work after World War II, says the Ramirez murder trial has damaged the image of hobos.

"I'm head of 3,400 guys who wouldn't hurt a flea," he says. "You have to be more careful out there, no doubt about it. But I know more guys who have Ph.D.s who ride freight trains."

The first hobos were Civil War veterans who hitched rides home in the 1860s. The name is thought to derive from "homeward bound boys," shortened to "hobo."

Their heyday was in the Great Depression, when tens of thousands of unemployed men rode across the United States looking for work. Their lives later were immortalized by the writer James Michener, a former hobo, and Boxcar Willie, a legendary country and western singer.

Union Pacific, one of the biggest railways, says it arrested 97,000 people for trespassing in 1998 but released most with a warning.

Police say they also believe that a gang known as the Freight Train Riders of America or FTRA a railway equivalent of the Hells Angels may have been responsible for dozens of attacks and murders during the 1990s.

The FTRA is thought to have been founded by Vietnam War veterans and at one point numbered 2,000. Its members are rumored to have killed more than 60 fellow transients. Roberto Silvera, a suspected leader of the gang, confessed to 20 murders after his arrest in Oregon two years ago.

Some of the killings attributed to the FTRA may have been the work of Ramirez, who was known as "the railway killer" before his arrest last year. The Mexican was able to carry out his attacks thanks to a series of astonishing blunders by U.S. immigration officials.

Despite being on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, he was stopped by border patrol officials at least seven times and returned to Mexico without questioning. He eventually gave himself up to authorities after negotiations through his family.

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