jan. 28, 1999
They were transients crossing the tracks of America - hobos with colorful names like Frypan Jack and Slow Motion Shorty.
Buzz Potter remembers the days when these boxcar-riding nomads were welcome to knock on his mother's door looking for jobs or handouts. Those days, he said, are long gone.
Now Potter, president of a loosely knit group called the National Hobo Association, is worried about Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, a rail rider suspected of being a serial killer.
"They're calling him the 'hobo killer,'" Potter says with disgust. "It's giving us a bad name."
Bad name or not, Potter acknowledges that times have changed for hobos, that today "anybody who'd see two grimy guys at the back door would bolt the door and call 911."
No firm numbers on hobos are available. Union Pacific agents detained about 97,000 people for trespassing last year, releasing most with a warning, says spokesman Ed Trandahl. Officials at other major railways say they have similar problems.
But the category of trespassers includes rail riders as well as people who illegally walk across company property, and the railways wouldn't give breakdowns.
Investigators believe Resendez-Ramirez has traveled the country extensively on freight trains. He has become the object of a nationwide manhunt.
He has been charged with the two slayings in Illinois and is suspected of a 1997 Kentucky killing and five since last fall in Texas. The crimes occurred in homes near railroad tracks, and fingerprints have linked Resendez-Ramirez to at least some of the killings.
Potter said that although rail riding is often associated with the Depression, jumping on trains without a ticket has never really gone away.
Railroad officials still detain people for trespassing, and there's still an annual Hobo Convention at Britt, Iowa, where old-timers, modern-day rail riders and fans can swap tales.
These days, however, not many people who jump a freight fit the image of homeless, rootless hobos living on handouts and camping in hobo "jungles" alongside tracks.
Railway workers are concerned that there seems a growing interest in the hobo life, partly among adventure-seekers armed with credit cards and train schedules out for a two-week trip. Others include undocumented immigrants who are traveling to jobs.
Potter, one of those who admits he occasionally hops freights, says the public has the wrong impression of rail riders.
"You have to be more careful out there. There's no doubt about that. But I know more guys who have Ph.D.s who ride freight trains," says Potter, who lives in Nisswa, Minn.
"I'm head of 3,400 guys who wouldn't hurt a flea," he says. In addition to true hobos, the late author James Michener was a member. The association even has a Web page.
Last year, railways reported 522 trespassing-related deaths, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That number also includes suicides and pedestrians hit by trains.
"It's clearly a problem - and it's totally unsafe," says Richard Russack, a spokesman for Burlington Northern & Santa Fe.
Loners by nature and well aware of the illegal nature of what they do - even it's mostly a misdemeanor violation - most rail riders are reluctant to talk publicly about what they do.
One who will talk is Duffy Littlejohn, author of "Hopping Freight Trains in America." He estimates that he's ridden nearly 500,000 miles on freight trains since 1970, but he's also a lawyer living in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Why does he do it? "There's danger. There's thrill. There's risk because it's illegal," says Littlejohn.
"This is a rich, rich American tradition, riding the rails," Littlejohn says.