Today's train robbers taking a more sophisticated route
NEWARK -- Instead of six-shooters and horses, these modern-day train robbers used two-way radios, night vision goggles, and bolt cutters. Instead of bandannas, they had ski caps monogrammed "CRB," for Conrail Boyz. And while alleged ringleader Edward Mongon is unlikely to become the stuff of legend, authorities say his gang lasted longer and stole far more than Jesse James or Butch Cassidy ever did.
Train robbery, a quintessentially 19th-century crime, is rolling on into the 21st century.
Along with the technology, though, the targets have changed: The old gangs preyed mostly on passenger trains, snatching gold and cash from riders and the baggage-car safe. Today, freight trains loaded with such merchandise as electronics, cigarettes, and tires are the lure.
"If you can sell it on the street easy, they'll get it," said James Beach, a captain for the Union Pacific railroad police in Fort Worth.
Law enforcement authorities have responded with advanced technology of their own. Just as Pinkerton detectives used the newfangled telegraph to track Cassidy, today's railroad police use computers to pinpoint where cargo disappeared and infrared scopes that show people hiding in rail yards.
Most freight bandits are hit-and-run artists whose strikes have little planning, such as those conducted by street gangs in Chicago and Los Angeles or by Mexican gangs that dash across the border in Texas and New Mexico.
Many of the gangs do not measure up in sophistication to the Conrail Boyz, a ring centered in northern New Jersey. It took its name from a railroad that operated freight routes in the Northeast until the 1990s.
Steven Hanes, director of Norfolk Southern's police force, pronounced the Conrail Boyz the "largest single gang ever to attack North American railroads."
Conrail police had made dozens of arrests of Conrail Boyz since 1992, but mostly on relatively light charges, and they were back on the streets quickly. But over the summer, 24 alleged members were charged in a racketeering indictment and all except one of them were rounded up.
The Conrail Boyz helped make Newark, which has the East Coast's busiest container port and is served by hundreds of trains, a hotbed of train robbery.
Other lucrative areas for theft include Chicago, Dallas, Memphis, and East St. Louis, Ill., because the freight lines run through poor, usually rough parts of town.
"Our trains have to move slowly through some areas, and these young gangbangers will jump on moving trains, grab stuff, throw it off, and run away," Beach said. Engineers often cannot see the thieves because freight trains can be 150 cars long.
In the case of the Conrail Boyz, train jumpers would find out which container cars had valuable cargo, then radio the information to cohorts. The cohorts then would pose as rail workers and ask dispatchers which siding track the train was headed for. Once the train stopped, the thieves would toss the merchandise into trucks.
The gang targeted designer clothes and other merchandise. In one brazen heist, members drove a container with 17,496 Sony PlayStation units worth $5 million out of the Jersey City rail yard in 2001, according to Norfolk Southern police.
Overall, train robberies are rare, considering the billions of dollars of cargo rolling on 173,000 miles of rail in North America. Freight losses to theft and pilferage have been conservatively estimated at $9.5 million to $14.6 million a year over the past six years, hitting $11.4 million in 2002, according to the Association of American Railroads. That is a fraction of a percent of the industry's 2002 revenue of $42.9 billion.
But Beach said he thinks theft is more common now than in the post-Civil War era of the James Gang, if only because the country has grown in population and there is much more track.
Violence is sporadic, a far cry from the Wild West days. Much of the railroad thievery these days is burglary rather than robbery -- that is, the thieves usually break in and steal cargo instead of demanding someone hand it over. The Conrail Boyz did not carry guns so that they could avoid long prison sentences if arrested, investigators said.
Nevertheless, one alleged member of the Conrail Boyz is charged with crashing a getaway car into a vehicle driven by a Conrail sergeant, and Mongon, 28, is accused of putting out a $1,000 contract to have someone assault a Conrail lieutenant. Mongon is awaiting trial.
A day before authorities rounded up the Conrail Boyz, two Mexican men were sentenced in New Mexico to two years in prison for their roles in a clash with two FBI agents during a foiled train robbery along the border last year.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.