Sheriff’s Department responds to “freight hopping” report - two men charged with stowing away

by Lissa Blake

It wasn’t a typical call to the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department (ACSD). But when dispatch received a call of an individual or individuals seen boarding a cargo train, the ACSD took measures to end the illegal activity and make sure nothing greater - or worse - became of it, using some creative tactics along the way.

According to Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick, about mid-morning Tuesday, July 2, his department received a call stating that at least one individual had been seen jumping onto a train in Marquette that was heading north. A call to the Canadian Pacific Railroad helped officials get the train stopped just north of Harpers Ferry, but no riders were seen during that initial search.

In addition to searching the entire train on foot in the somewhat wooded area, officials utilized the Sheriff Department’s drone, which flew the length of the entire train, approximately 160 cars. According to Mellick, the train was hauling coal in open cars.

“We didn’t see anyone, so the railroad decided to let the train continue north,” said Mellick.

Moments later, the Sheriff’s Department received a report that an individual had been seen walking near the train and that two individuals had been spotted on the train as it was leaving the Harpers Ferry area.

“What happened was when the train stopped, the two individuals went into the nearby woods to cool off. It can get really hot on top of that coal,” said Mellick.

After someone reported seeing the two individuals on the train, Allamakee County Sheriff’s Deputy Barry Olson drove ahead of the northbound train to gain a vantage point from the Black Hawk Bridge in Lansing. As the train slowed to go through Lansing, Mellick drove alongside the train, and at one point saw one individual peeking over the top of one of the railroad cars from inside.

From the bridge, Olson was able to spy the two suspects, and counted the number of cars left to the end of the train to inform officials of their exact location.

“We then had the dispatcher call to get the train stopped in New Albin. The railroad was able to stop that car right at the depot in New Albin,” said Mellick. The Sheriff’s drone was flown behind in order to look for anyone who might hop off before the train stopped in New Albin.

With the help of the Canadian Pacific Rail Police out of La Crosse, WI, the two men were apprehended and taken to the Allamakee Public Safety Center in Waukon.

The two men, 57-year-old Mark T. Rinderer of San Francisco, CA and 22-year-old Richard C. Strobel of Sugar Grove, IL, were charged with Stowing Away, a simple misdemeanor offense punishable by payment of a fine. They were released and left the Public Safety Center on foot.

The two had apparently hopped the train in Dubuque and were headed to La Crosse, WI. Further background checks revealed they were not otherwise wanted by the law and were breaking no other laws, other than riding the train, so were released.

Mellick said although the general public doesn’t hear much about people hopping trains - otherwise known as freight hopping - the practice is still alive and well.

“It’s a way of life for these guys,” said Mellick.

He said what freight hoppers do is climb on a car that is stopped, or they will often wait until the train slowly moves and then jump on.

“It’s dangerous. Each car has a ladder you have to use to access the car. Someone could slip and fall and end up under the train,” he said.

He added, when trains are starting and stopping, the cars experience a “slinky effect.” It may seem like the cars have come to a full stop, but they can still move quite a bit after that point due to momentum of other cars.

When asked what type of condition the two men were in when they disembarked the train, Mellick said, “They were pretty hot.”

Mellick agreed the episode was a little different from the average call his department receives, but he was glad no one was hurt and the situation came to a successful conclusion.

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