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Aaron Salazar was on an Amtrak train last week traveling from Denver to Portland, but mysteriously ended up in a coma at a Nevada trauma hospital instead.
Salazar’s last known communication was a text message to his great-grandmother who lives in Hawaii.
According to the Truckee California Police Department’s Detective-Sergeant Danny Renfrow, sometime shortly before noon on May 15, following Salazar’s text message, the 22-year-old gay Portland State University junior was found in critical condition by railroad workers lying beside the Union Pacific Railroad’s right-of-way property within the town’s corporate limits.
The extent of his injuries necessitated a Medevac to the Renown Regional Medical & Trauma Centre 31 miles away in neighboring Reno, Nev., according to Truckee Fire-Rescue officials.
Salazar’s cousin Austin Sailas, the spokesperson for Salazar’s family, said that Salazar is in a deep coma in the ICU suffering from “injuries consistent from being kicked and beaten.” Sailas added that Salazar’s brain stem is damaged, he has a black eye, a broken pelvis and a series of blister-type burns from his groin area down his right leg. “His left hand had marks as if he punched somebody in self-defense,” Sailas added.
Another family member, Sonja Trujillo, who saw Salazar in the ICU, said that he had severe bruising to his upper torso, as well as other contusions. His sister, Alyssa, said he had what looked like blood under his fingernails.
Renfrow said that although his department initially responded to the call, the location where Salazar was discovered actually falls under the federal jurisdiction of Amtrak, with Amtrak’s in-house Police Department taking the lead on investigating any crimes occurring on an Amtrak train or a railroad right-of-way. Renfrow then referred further questions to Amtrak’s investigators.
“I have a layover before getting on the next train,” Salazar texted his great-grandmother. “I made a friend on the train and we’re going to go get some food and explore.”
Eight days after Salazar was found, the family was growing increasingly frustrated, according to both Sailas and Trujillo.
“The detective keeps trying to tell us maybe he jumped,” Trujillo said. “I, his family, we don’t believe that. No, his injuries are consistent with a beating, in my opinion.” She then added, “He was happy.”
Sailas agreed with Trujillo’s assessment, noting that Salazar had discussed graduation plans with him along with a family outing later on this summer.
The family said they are also frustrated because the attending physicians at Renown Regional Medical Centre have told them that his injuries correspond with a beating, but they won’t put it in writing because of the ongoing police investigation.
Both Trujillo and Sailas noted that Amtrak investigators said they have not accessed Salazar’s phone or computer yet, although investigators are in possession of his laptop, iPhone, wallet and the clothes he was wearing at the time of the incident. The family would like to have access to his phone and computer saying that those items could provide insight into what happened. For instance, the great grandmother later provided the text message Salazar sent her, and the family wonders if there may be other revealing texts and photos.
“We have been asking and calling and they have been withholding even the simplest (answers), like where was Aaron found and what time,” Sailas said. “Simple questions that any parent would like to know. As for his parents, they need answers for their peace of mind. They just want to know their son didn’t suffer in pain for hours and hours.”
Trujillo also thinks that the fact that his wallet was on him with about $281 means that it wasn’t a robbery. “He’s gay—maybe a hate crime? That and he just isn’t the type of person to just jump from a train,” she said.
Family members don’t believe he’d jump from a moving train because of his upbeat and happy nature.
“We just want answers,” his sister Alyssa Salazar said, “and for people to pray for him.”
Amtrak released this statement on May 21: “The Amtrak Police Department is conducting an ongoing investigation into this incident. At this time, there is nothing to suggest criminal intent. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Amtrak Police Department at 800-331-0008.“
After learning of the story, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve reached out to Salazar’s family. “I’m very concerned,” she said. “There are more questions than answers at this point. I want this family to know we are a community that cares.”
Schieve said she’s also reaching out to officials and law enforcement in Truckee seeking more answers.
The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help defray the hospital costs.
(Reporting by Bob Conrad, Editor & Publisher of ThisIsReno Media LLC, with additional reporting from Los Angeles Blade staff.)