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38 years later, tragedy still makes no sense

Train tracks west of Mountainair show how desolate the area is and how complicated it would have been for Anthony Samora to drive his truck onto the tracks. (Courtesy of Leo Samora Jr.)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nothing about the night Anthony Samora died made sense.

Not to cousin Leo Samora Jr., anyway.

Others in the family, he knew, had wanted it that way. Better not to open old wounds, pull apart old mysteries.

They were told it was a suicide, which may have accounted for the reticence. But there were other stories about how his death was something more sinister.

This Carrizozo High School photo of Anthony Samora is one of the few photos Leo Samora has of his cousin. Anthony Samora was 23 when he died March 8, 1980, his truck crushed by a freight train in what authorities called a suicide. But his cousin has never believed Anthony took his own life. (Courtesy of Leo Samora Jr.)

“I always heard the stories, the whispers,” Leo Samora said. “I was always told those stories were best kept unsaid.”

But it has been 38 years since Anthony’s broken body was pried from his truck, dragged and crushed by a Santa Fe freight train near Mountainair.

And now it’s time to talk.

“As my own years continue to pile up on me, Anthony’s memory and death have been gnawing at me,” Samora said. “I consider Anthony more as a brother than a cousin.”

He and Anthony had grown up together in Carrizozo, a small, high plains town in the center of New Mexico, built by ranchers and railroads. Both were sons of railroad workers.

“We went to school together, played ball, belonged to the Boy Scouts, hunted deer,” he said.

They joined the Army together in 1975, were both discharged in 1978, and parted ways – Anthony to Albuquerque to pursue a career as an electrician, Samora to Alamogordo to work for the post office.

But, in 1980, when Anthony, then 23, had a big announcement, Samora was among the first to know.

“He told me there was this lady – I assume in Albuquerque – he was going to marry,” Samora said. “He asked me to be his best man at his upcoming wedding, which he was excited about.”

Her name was Kathy Sandoval. She was pretty, he said, with long, dark hair. She had a son named Mark, who may have been about 7 at the time.

In March 1980, Anthony had traveled to Carrizozo to tell his family about his impending marriage, Samora said. He was driving back to Albuquerque – his usual three-hour route taking him west across the lonely expanse of N.M. 380 then north on Interstate 25 – in the early morning hours of March 8 when he inexplicably wound up on the train tracks seven miles west of Mountainair.

News accounts at the time said that, around 2 a.m., Anthony’s truck was parked or stalled on the tracks more than a quarter-mile from the nearest railroad crossing when it was struck, then dragged a half-mile by a Santa Fe freight train, traveling west at 55 mph. The train’s engineer told police that, by the time he saw the truck, it was too late to stop.

It took 45 minutes to free Anthony from the wreckage. He died about three hours later, shortly after arriving by ambulance at an Albuquerque hospital.

A terse, two-page autopsy report by the state Office of the Medical Investigator lists numerous fractures, lacerations and hemorrhaging from his skull to his legs. The OMI classified the manner of death as suicide from “collision with train.”

There is no indication that the OMI or any other agency attempted to further substantiate the death as a suicide. A formal request to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety for all reports on the incident came back empty. No records exist, the department said.

The National Transportation Safety Board also said it had no record of the crash. The Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis reported the crash only as a fatality of a “trespasser” who was “crossing track not at a crossing.”

Samora said he has no idea why his cousin ended up near Mountainair, which is 83 miles north of Carrizozo and about 32 miles east of his usual route. Getting onto the track itself would have required traversing a gully, dirt road and a graveled embankment.

“If he really wanted to commit suicide, why would he not just park at a crossing?” he said. “This was an area you had to know, especially in the dark.”

His cousin, he thinks, would not kill himself, especially not by a train.

“He was happy,” he said. “He had just announced he was getting married. He was doing well at his job. He was not depressed.”

Samora said he had heard whispers about how his cousin’s death might have something to do with his confronting someone who had been harassing fiancee Kathy. Another rumor involved Anthony being beaten up by someone in Mountainair who then drove him onto the tracks.

But Anthony’s parents, both now deceased, did not want Samora snooping into those rumors, he said.

“They accepted the death as an accident and refused to pursue any investigation,” he said. “The tragedy was swept under the rug. They feared the possibility of something more sinister having happened.”

Now 38 years later, Samora said he wants to make sense of that night. But with no investigative records available and no one willing so far to come forward, sense may be hard to come by, what happened that night as fleeting and as haunting as a train whistle in the night.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.