Last Train Out

Hobos have been hopping freights since the Civil War. Now a new generation of riders is hitting the tracks--stockbrokers, students, and the occasional serial killer.

Tex is a big, good-natured galoot who spends his days at the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul. Nights he can be found at a camp along the railroad tracks near Lowertown with his dog, Nobody, and a bottle of something to keep off the chill.

"I started riding the rails in 1984," Tex says. "I was 20 years of age and fresh out of the penitentiary when I met some of these older guys, like Fast Cat and Half-Step. They asked me how come I was hitchhiking, and I said, 'Why do you think? I need a ride.' 'Then why not jump the train with us?' they said."

So he did, and he's been hopping freights ever since. Tex has been around St. Paul for the past two years, but he's talking about catching out for Oklahoma. Not before taking certain precautions, though. You'd think someone like Tex, who is about the size of an NFL tight end, doesn't have much to be afraid of. But according to him, discretion is the better part of valor on the tracks these days.

"I'm gonna get me a pistol," he says. "Hell, I've got no choice. Ain't nobody gonna take my shit off me. That's what they're doing out there now. A lot of the guys I used to know retired because of it. They got addresses and everything." Homeless kids who kill for kicks or to make a name for themselves are responsible for most of the violence in Tex's opinion. But not all of it.

In October, 42-year-old Rudy Pacheco was found beaten to death inside a grain elevator in the riverfront area where the Twins want their new stadium. Two transient men, Kenneth Adams and Rhon Butler, have been charged with killing Pacheco, raping several women, and severely beating another man during a two-day drunken binge. According to police, an unidentified witness watched while Pacheco was killed and saw the assailants pull his pants down around his ankles. "He's nothing but a cop-calling punk," the alleged killers reportedly said.

Police and railroad dicks across the country have encountered many murder victims with their pants pulled down. Some have come to think of that particular MO as the calling card of a racist gang with its own grisly rituals and agenda, which according to investigators includes murdering informers. The gang is called the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA). Whether Pacheco's killers are members, copy-cats, or neither is unknown. But FTRA members are frequent visitors to the Twin Cities area. Their graffiti are visible on just about any railroad overpass in town.

Another murder took place in August on the railroad tracks near Nicollet Island. According to court documents, a group of homeless teenagers had been discussing what it would feel like to murder someone. On August 14, prosecutors charge, Pam Keary, Jeff Shields, and Kenneth Ray Starlin lured 19-year-old Omar Abdullahi--a Somali immigrant who had been staying at a shelter--into an isolated area near the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. Abdullahi was hit with rocks, kicked repeatedly, and stabbed 13 times. An unnamed witness claims Starlin yelled, "die nigger, die," as he wielded the knife. A railroad crew found Abdullahi's body the next day.

Keary and Shields were arrested a short time later. Starlin fled to Colorado, where he is awaiting extradition. "He apparently drifts back and forth between here and there," says Susan Crumb, the assistant Hennepin County attorney who is prosecuting the case.

BUZZ POTTER WAS a hobo in his youth, and the romance of the rails never lost its grip on him. Like many former hobos who went on to lead more prosaic lives, the 59-year-old still occasionally hops a freight for the thrill of it. It's become more dangerous than it used to be, he acknowledges--but hobos aren't to blame.

"A hobo is a working stiff who uses the rails as free transportation," Potter expounds. "He's neat, he's clean, he has a $20 bill tucked in his boot, and he's on his way to someplace where he's heard there is work. He is not a tramp, who will work if he has to, or a bum, who won't work under any circumstances. He is an itinerant working man with his own code and his own lingo who takes pride in having his own independent lifestyle."

Potter has been in the mining and marine construction businesses most of his adult life. He once owned a bar in Brainerd. Now he lives in nearby Nisswa where he publishes a magazine called The Hobo Times, "America's Journal of Wanderlust."

Hobos, he explains, date back to the immediate post-Civil War years, when demobilized soldiers from both armies roamed the country in search of work. Adrift in an agrarian society, they carried hoes because they were most likely to earn money weeding fields. They became known as "hoe-boys," but as time passed and the nature of the work changed, so did their name.

The hobos' sentimental favorite among rail lines is known as the Frisco Line between Memphis and San Francisco, and a key word in their argot derives from that affinity. "The old hobos used to make a ceremony of collecting money for the communal pot of stew by throwing it into a circle," Potter says, "which became known as the Frisco Circle, or just the Frisco."

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