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Amtrak crash yields drug stash

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

A northbound Amtrak passenger train smashed into the rear half of a tractor-trailer carrying a half-dozen cars in the South Valley, sending two of the cars skidding into the dirt and the Southwest Chief grinding to a stop with minor damage to its lead locomotive.

When the dust and debris had settled after the Wednesday morning crash, two black packages lay alongside the tracks and complicated what would have been a simple investigation of a crash with no serious injuries.

The packages contained illegal drugs, according to a State Police spokesman, although he would not say what type or how much.

“Due to the nature in which the drugs were stored, further investigation needs to be conducted and other leads followed,” State Police Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez said in an email.

No one was under arrest as of late Wednesday night, he said.

Two of the train’s engineers were taken to an Albuquerque hospital with minor injuries, officials said. None of the 251 passengers was injured, and neither was the driver of the tractor-trailer.

That man, who was the lone occupant of the vehicle, declined to be interviewed at the scene.

Michael Andreatta, who was driving in the area of Second Street and Bowers Road SW shortly after 11 a.m., witnessed the crash. He said the tractor-trailer had stopped on the tracks as it tried to turn north onto Second. But because there was northbound traffic, the driver couldn’t make the turn before the train appeared on the tracks from behind a stand of trees and struck the tractor-trailer.

The investigation had clearly begun to focus on the packages, which were about a foot square and wrapped in black plastic, as more officers arrived at the scene shortly after noon.

A detective joked with several railroad workers, admonishing them not to take any “rolling papers or samples or little snorts.”

A State Police officer had a drug-sniffing dog named Sasja go through the two badly damaged cars that had been thrown from the tractor-trailer. Sasja appeared more interested in a red Chevy Impala that was no more than 10 feet away from the packages. That car had lost at least one door panel, and its trunk was thrown open in the crash.

A short time later, another officer, in plain clothes, sliced into one of the packages with a knife. And not long after that, an officer in uniform placed the two packages into a clear plastic evidence bag and took them away.

State Police also impounded the tractor-trailer, along with the four vehicles that hadn’t been tossed off. Those vehicles all were being searched as part of the investigation, Gutierrez said.

The tractor-trailer belongs to Bonham Valet Transport Inc., an Albuquerque company that hauls repossessed passenger vehicles, mostly between the Duke City and Phoenix.

Reached by telephone in Phoenix, the company’s owner, Thomas Bonham, declined to name the employee who had been driving the tractor-trailer. Bonham said the driver was “fine, although pretty shook up.”

He said he had spoken with police and that they hadn’t mentioned anything to him about a possible narcotics investigation.

“No one has mentioned anything like that,” Bonham said. “I don’t even know why there would be narcotics in there. I can tell you that (the driver) is a very good guy. There definitely wouldn’t be anything like that from my driver, that’s for sure.”

He said his company, which has operated in New Mexico for more than 16 years, typically picks up cars that have been repossessed by banks at various locations in the city and drives them to pre-determined buyers or auctions in Phoenix.

“We don’t know what we’re getting,” Bonham said. “We do nothing but load them, unload them and hand the keys to the owners.”

The driver was westbound on Bower’s Road and got the cab of his tractor-trailer across the railroad tracks, said Andreatta, the witness. The driver was trying to make a northbound turn onto Second Street, but a wall of traffic kept him from doing so.

“Then I saw the train clear the trees,” Andreatta said. “The driver honked his horn, trying to make that right-hand turn, and the train blew its whistle … I knew the train was going to hit the truck, so I pulled over. I saw a big cloud of debris come toward my truck, so I ducked down under the dashboard because I knew I would be hit if something came through the windshield.”

As he spoke, Andreatta looked down and saw a twisted, charred hunk of metal that appeared to have been the wheel from one of the vehicles that was thrown from the tractor-trailer in the crash.

Andreatta said the railroad gates were not down when the driver of the tractor-trailer pulled onto the tracks.

Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, said neither of the engineers taken to the hospital was seriously injured.

The Southwest Chief left Los Angeles, Calif., on Tuesday and was due to arrive in Chicago this evening, Magliari said. Because the train’s lead locomotive was damaged in the crash and had to be left in Albuquerque for repairs, he did not know how long the arrival time in the Windy City would be delayed.

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