Portland State student Aaron Salazar is in a coma with multiple injuries after being found unconscious next to a railroad in Truckee, Calif. on May 15.
Salazar, 22, was travelling aboard an Amtrak train on his way back to Portland from Denver, where he had been visiting family. The train made a brief stop in Truckee, a town just north of Lake Tahoe.
What happened to Salazar during this stop is unclear, but a railway worker found him next to the tracks sometime before 11:30 a.m. when Truckee police reported to the scene. His injuries consist of brain damage including damage to his brain stem, a broken neck, pelvis and nose, burns along his groin and inner thigh, and a black eye.
Almost two weeks later, Salazar remains unconscious in a hospital in Reno, Nev., and his family is no closer to knowing what happened, despite repeated attempts to communicate with the Amtrak Police Department.
“We believe it could be a hate crime due to, for one, the focus on his crotch area for injuries, and also [because] he was a proud gay man,” said Austin Sailas, Salazar’s cousin. “We believe it could have been a homophobic-enticed attack.”
Reno Gazette Journal reported doctors told Salazar’s family his injuries correspond with those of a beating.
According to Sailas, Salazar sent a text message to his grandmother not long before he was found, saying he had “made a friend on the train” and was going to spend time with this person in Sacramento during their layover. That was the last anyone heard from him.
According to Sailas, Amtrak Police has been investigating the incident as an attempted suicide.
“I’m just fighting for the Salazar family,” Sailas said. “I can’t stand to let Amtrak try to cover up Aaron’s story. They’ve been pushing a narrative that he jumped out of the train.”
The Amtrak Police Department has not provided any details to the family or news media apart from a statement saying there is currently “nothing to suggest criminal intent.”
The statement added Amtrak Police has contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and “conducted numerous interviews with customers, crew members, family and friends, as well as reviewed other available data sources.”
“The individuals who noted interactions with Mr. Salazar shared that he had expressed to them a number of life concerns and challenges,” a separate statement details. “We are unable to comment on Mr. Salazar’s medical condition, but note that a fall from a moving train would cause significant injury.”
It continues, “there is no evidence of a physical altercation occurring while Mr. Salazar was travelling on Amtrak.”
Inconsistent information from Amtrak and Amtrak Police
“[Amtrak has] been pushing a narrative that [Salazar] somehow opened a window and jumped out of the train,” Sailas said. Amtrak has also refused to tell the family the exact time and location Salazar was found.
An Amtrak customer service representative confirmed windows on Amtrak trains do not open. However, Marc Magliari, Amtrak PD public relations manager, clarified that some windows are clearly marked for evacuation and able to be opened, and passengers are able to move between train cars.
However, Salazar isn’t the first to receive severe injuries under mysterious circumstances on an Amtrak train. In 2012, Robin Putnam, 26, disappeared during a layover in Salt Lake City while travelling on Amtrak from California to Colorado—the same train route Salazar rode. It was not until 2015 that Putnam’s remains were found in Nevada, also by train tracks. Investigators never discovered the truth behind what happened to Putnam, or who was responsible for his death.
According to a 2016 NBC News report, Putnam’s parents struggled to get information from Amtrak regarding surveillance footage. “[Putnam’s father] said it’s been a hard fight,” the article states, “and he has been told the footage is either unavailable, doesn’t exist or officials already reviewed it and didn’t see Robin.”
Then, in 2014, Rosie Madison, an elderly Amtrak passenger on her way from New York to Texas, was discovered to be missing during the trip. She was found the next day in Annapolis, Mo., injured and lying in the bushes. Amtrak officials claimed investigators found a step stool next to an open window on the train after she was reported missing and believed she jumped out. But according to an article published by Fox2Now, some people in Annapolis asked, “How does an elderly woman, who already had a bad hip, climb up and out a window on a train that is moving at nearly 50 mph?”
A follow-up article stated Madison’s family felt Amtrak was “unresponsive and uncooperative” throughout the investigation. The family was not called until nine hours after Amtrak officials discovered Madison was missing. This incident also points to a discrepancy in what Amtrak has shared regarding the ability for passengers to open the windows on their trains.
Los Angeles Blade listed at least six additional Amtrak passengers who have been severely injured, disappeared, or died while traveling via Amtrak in the last six years. Many were ruled accidents and families were given little detail.
Amtrak police takes the lead, lawmakers insist on full investigation
According to Truckee Police Chief Robert Leftwich, the Truckee Police Department is not actively involved in the investigation into what happened to Aaron Salazar. “That’s our appropriate position here,” Leftwich said. “[Amtrak PD is] the better agency to investigate this—they have more access to the information that’s needed, and clearly they have jurisdiction on their train…we’re not the lead agency or jurisdiction that handles the railway.”
Leftwich said without being the leading investigative agency, there is no way for him to draw conclusions as to whether criminal intent was involved. When asked if he thinks Amtrak PD is conducting an effective investigation, he said he has enough experience with Amtrak to believe it is doing thorough work.
“There’s no reason that those questions aren’t being asked, that they haven’t conducted those investigative steps,” he said. “I’m sure that [is] what’s currently the process and why they’re saying that it’s an active investigation.”
Based on what the Truckee PD knows, Leftwich said, “All indications are that whatever happened here happened on the Amtrak train while it was in motion. Aaron never reached Truckee and never got off of the train in Truckee. He was located in Truckee on the side of the tracks but for all intents and purposes was on that train moments before.”
Leftwich added he was unaware that Amtrak PD issued a statement saying there is currently nothing to suggest criminal intent, even though Amtrak police wrote in the same document it is working in “in coordination with local authorities.”
“The Truckee Police Department will never allow a conspiracy or cover-up to occur regarding any incident or investigation,” reads a May 24 statement. “The Truckee Police Department will also never allow a crime against the LGBTQIA community to go unaddressed or uninvestigated. A case where a hate crime was committed would be addressed to the fullest extent of our capabilities.”
On May 25, six Oregon lawmakers, including Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, wrote a letter to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson calling for a thorough investigation in light of recent hate crimes across the country.
“The timing of this incident happens just one year after a white supremacist began harassing two women of color on Portland transit,” the lawmakers wrote. “Of the three people who stepped in to intervene, two were killed and one was seriously injured. There are too many stories like these and too many lives lost or injured due to hate crimes in our communities.”
“We expect a full report on the investigation of this crime,” the letter continues, “to our federal delegation and to Aaron’s family.”
Students, family rally support
Meanwhile, Sailas and family are focusing on Aaron’s condition. They created a Twitter handle called #JusticeforAaron, as well as a Go Fund Me page, where they have raised over $52,000 so far. As of Saturday, May 27, Salazar has been able to breathe without a respirator.
Aaron Salazar is studying economics at Portland State, and according to Sailas, hoped to be accepted into a Master’s program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “He was a big fan of politics,” Sailas said. “We would discuss it all the time.”
Chantha Kim, an adjunct professor in economics at PSU, said Salazar works for the department as a work-study student. “He is one of the most outgoing, friendly, kind, and charismatic students I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” Kim said. “He sees the beauty and joy in everyone and everything in life.”
Salazar was also briefly on the ASPSU Student Fee Committee during the 2015–16 school year, according to Candace Avalos, coordinator of student government relations and Greek life advisor at PSU.
According to Avalos, there is “no way” this incident was an attempted suicide. “[He is] super fun, energetic, very sweet and kind, just a good overall person,” Avalos said. “It really does feel just like out of nowhere.”
Sailas said Salazar is “a really happy guy” who “just enjoyed life” as well as music, reading, politics and Lady Gaga.
Salazar’s family is currently working on getting the story out to the media, “because whoever did this to Aaron is still out there,” Sailas said. “We don’t want another victim like Aaron.”