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Family of injured gay passenger doesn’t believe Amtrak

Railway police claim upbeat Aaron Salazar was suicidal

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Aaron Salazar was found beaten near the railroad tracks in Truckee, Calif. on May 15. (Photo Courtesy of the Salazar Family)

There’s a story the late comedian Richard Pryor told in the film “Live on the Sunset Strip” about how his wife caught him with another woman. He insists nothing is going on, asking her: “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

Though the circumstances are considerably more dire, the incredulous Salazar family believes the Amtrak chief of police want them to make a similar leap of reason about their beloved 22-year-old gay son Aaron, a passenger on the Amtrak Zephyr, who was found beaten and broken by the railroad tracks near downtown Truckee, Calif., on May 15. Amtrak insists Salazar was suicidal. Everyone who knew him insists he was full of life.

At a press conference in Truckee on May 29, Amtrak’s Chief of Police Neil Trugman explained that Amtrak investigators interviewed 300 people during their investigation and found witnesses who described Salazar as “distraught” and experiencing “life issues.”

“[Salazar] shared with them a number of life concerns he was having,” Trugman said. “A fall from a moving train would cause significant injury. There is no physical evidence or witnesses statements to (indicate) a physical altercation occurring on the train. There’s nothing to suggest he involuntarily was removed from that train…. There’s nothing to suggest criminal intent in this investigation.”

Salazar “was very distraught,” Trugman repeated. “All indications right now appear that it was an attempted suicide.”

Not so, say Salazar’s friends and family. “Someone who is suicidal does not constantly talk about their future. Aaron had big plans to graduate from Portland State with his degree in economics and continue his education through graduate school in Denver,” Morgan Patterson, a friend of his from Portland State University, told the Los Angeles Blade. “He wanted to be able to make decisions and change the world. Not once did Aaron display any type of behavior that makes me feel like he would want to take his own life. He has so much to live for and has such a close bond with his family and friends. We would know if Aaron needed help.”

Despite the national interest prompted by revelations that Amtrak has responded poorly over the years to other families of missing or mysteriously dead passengers, Salazar’s parents remained silent—until Trugman’s press conference.

“First and foremost, Amtrak is a for-profit company that is currently investigating its own case to prevent any liability,” the parents wrote in an email to the LA Blade and investigation partner, Bob Conrad of ThisIsReno. “From the very start, they ruled this case an attempted suicide. Their investigators gave us misleading information, including telling us that they had a witness who saw Aaron jump out a window on the train. When we fact-checked their claim and confronted the detective, he simply backpedaled his statement. Amtrak’s investigators only investigated the case as an attempt at suicide.”

Secondly, Salazar’s injuries are inconsistent with Amtrak’s theory. “For one, those burns that were supposedly from jumping out of a train are not consistent with the facts because Aaron’s jeans were not damaged and his injuries themselves do not match jumping out of a train. We are also surprised by this false theory because they have never had medical experts examine his body to determine the cause of his injuries. Their form of investigation has been little more than a smear campaign to sweep Aaron’s story under the rug like Robin Putnam’s case a few years ago.”

Salazar ended up in extremely critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit of a Reno, Nev., hospital. He has since been upgraded to Guarded Condition but is still unable to communicate. Robin Putnam, to whom Salazar’s family referred, was not so lucky. In a case that mirrors what happened to Salazar, Putnam, 26, a junior at the California College of the Arts in Oakland who was perceived to be gay, disappeared around July 7, 2012 while riding an Amtrak train from Emeryville, Calif., to Grand Junction, Colo. His remains were found by Union Pacific Railroad employees on Aug. 25, 2015 in a riverbed that had gone dry near Wells, Nev. Elko County Nevada Coroner, Dr. William Webb, listed the cause of death as “Undetermined.”

Robin Putnam, 26, a junior at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, disappeared around July 7, 2012 while riding an Amtrak train to Grand Junction, Colo. His remains were found by Union Pacific Railroad employees on Aug. 25, 2015. (Photo Courtesy of the Putnam Family)

Putnam’s family is still seeking answers. They, too, claim Amtrak investigators lied to them, insisting that Robin Putnam had committed suicide. “He was quiet, fastidious about his appearance—well manicured and soft-spoken. But he was happy and he had friends,” his mother Cindy Putnam said, adding, “Not suicidal.”

Frustrated, Douglas Putnam filed a Freedom Of Information Act request with Amtrak in October 2016 and while several sections were redacted, he did discover that their son’s wallet ended up at the Amtrak System Lost and Found at the end of the route in Chicago nearly a week after Putnam had gone missing.

“We’re very sorry that Aaron’s family has to deal with those people,” the Putnams told the Los Angeles Blade. “Maybe the pressure being brought to bear on Amtrak may finally give us some answers as to what happened to our son.”

The joint Los Angeles Blade/ThisIsReno investigation discovered that issues with Amtrak’s veracity could be much deeper than these two incidents. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior FBI official with a working knowledge of Amtrak police operations, procedures, and policies noted to the Blade that Amtrak police have long had a reputation for being difficult and less than transparent with families regarding incidents with their loved ones. The source noted that he is not directly connected to the Salazar matter.

“Amtrak is about 30 years behind in technology and operational knowhow procedural wise — especially forensically,” the FBI official said. “Another problem is Amtrak tends to keep investigations in- house, rarely asking for assistance from other agencies, including the Bureau, that could provide the answers those families are looking for.”

Framing the state of affairs within the Amtrak system, an Amtrak employee who has worked on the California to Chicago lines and is familiar to the Los Angeles Blade said on condition of anonymity that security at Amtrak “is next to zero.”

“We often face hostile passengers. Often times they are not removed for fear of being reprimanded by management. A dining car LSA [Lead Service Attendant] was punched. Did security measures change? No. A conductor was shot because he would not let a passenger off to smoke at a stop that was not a smoking stop. Did security measures change? No. A conductor was stabbed in the head. Did security measures change? No,” the Amtrak employee said.

“A passenger was attacked by another passenger with sledgehammers we keep on the train in case of an emergency and they are easily accessible by passengers. Did security measures change? No,” the employee continued. “Congress also allowed for guns to be checked in the baggage car. Is the baggage car locked? No. Can passengers get to it? Yes. A padlock is the only thing that keeps the guns locked. Every day we go to work we anticipate something happening because it’s a fact of life for us. It’s very
much like the Wild West still.”

On May 25, Oregon’s congressional delegation sent a pointed letter to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson requesting a thorough investigation into the mysterious injuries sustained by passenger Aaron Salazar in Truckee.

“We write today in great dismay at the news that Salazar, a Portland State University student, is fighting for his life in a coma, with serious injuries to his brain stem and a broken pelvis,” they wrote. “This incident may have been a hate crime,” they said. “We … urge Amtrak to utilize all available resources to promptly investigate this case. We expect a full report on the investigation of this crime, to our federal delegation and to Aaron’s family.”

The letter was signed by Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader, Suzanne Bonamici, and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve expressed dismay at the ThisisReno report that found a number of similar, unexplained incidents of injury and death of Amtrak passengers.

“I couldn’t be more disturbed by this investigation into @Amtrak. Thank you @ ThisIsReno for demanding answers for these families,” Schieve tweeted. “(It’s) shocking to read about similar incidents to those of Aaron’s. We continue to pray for him while he clings to life in a Reno hospital.”

The Salazar family has set up a GoFundMe account, Justice for Aaron, to help defray medical and legal costs.

This story is the result of a joint investigation by Bob Conrad of ThisIsReno, and Christopher Kane and Karen Ocamb and staff at the Los Angeles Blade.

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California

California’s LGBTQ Pride week 2021, Capitol Lighting

The building will be illuminated for the week, marking just the second time in California’s history that Pride colors have donned the dome

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California Capitol Building illuminated for Pride 2021 (Photo by Nune Garipian 2021)

SACRAMENTO — The California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus and partner organizations held a press event and lighting ceremony, Monday, June 21, for the illumination of the California State Capitol Dome in rainbow colors to kick off a weeklong recognition of Pride Month.

The building will remain illuminated for the entire week, marking just the second time in California’s history that Pride colors have donned the dome. The first lighting occurred after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality.

The ceremony is part of a citywide initiative to put light installations at additional Sacramento landmarks, including City Hall, Sutter’s Fort, and the Museum of Science and Curiosity. The lighting initiative is the brainchild of the Sacramento LGBT Community Center and the first of its kind for the region.

Speakers and participants included Assemblymember Evan Low, Chair of the CA Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, Senator Scott Wiener, former Chair of the CA Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman, Vice Chair of the CA Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, California’s Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins, Senator John Laird, Alexis Sanchez, Director of Advocacy for the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, Tony Hoang, Executive Director-designate for Equality California, Tami Martin, External Affairs Director for the Capitol LGBTQ Association and Legislative LGBTQ Caucus members and community stakeholders.

Editor’s note: The Los Angeles Blade thanks the efforts of the event’s photographer, Nune Garipian, who is responsible for covering the event on behalf of the Blade. All photographs are [Copyright Garipian 2021] and are used by permission.

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California

9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocks lower court overturn of assault rifle ban

Benitez ruled that California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons violates the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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SAN FRANCISCO – In a ruling issued Monday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez’s controversial decision to overturn California’s assault weapons ban on June 4. The ruling will be on hold until the 9th Circuit court decides on a separate gun control case.

Benitez ruled that California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons violates the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The state had first crafted the ban in 1989 and in the intervening thirty-two years lawmakers in Sacramento had repeatedly amended the law.

Benitez overturned the ban and likened an AR-15 semiautomatic gun to a Swiss army knife, calling it “good for both home and battle.” California Governor Gavin Newsom took exception to the comparative made by Judge Benitez remarking at the time;

“Today’s decision is a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period. As the son of a judge, I grew up with deep respect for the judicial process and the importance of a judge’s ability to make impartial fact-based rulings, but the fact that this judge compared the AR-15 – a weapon of war that’s used on the battlefield – to a Swiss Army Knife completely undermines the credibility of this decision and is a slap in the face to the families who’ve lost loved ones to this weapon. We’re not backing down from this fight, and we’ll continue pushing for common sense gun laws that will save lives.”

The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 (AWCA) is a California law that bans the ownership and transfer of over 50 specific brands and models of semi-automatic firearms, which were classified as assault weapons. Most were rifles, but some were pistols and shotguns.

The case, Miller v. Bonta (previously Miller v. Becerra) had been brought by the  Firearms Policy Coalition, (FPC) which in 2019, developed and filed the suit as a federal Second Amendment challenge to California’s Assault Weapons Control Act (AWCA). The FPC argued that the State’s ban prohibits arms that are constitutionally protected, no more lethal than other certain arms that are not banned, and commonly possessed and used for lawful purposes in the vast majority of the United States.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta had appealed Benitez’s ruling. On Monday he said in a tweet; “This leaves our assault weapons laws in effect while appellate proceedings continue. We won’t stop defending these life-saving laws.”

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Orange County

Disney honors Pride month and keeps some pandemic rules for now

“I was lost, desperate to connect with someone who understood what I was feeling. That all changed when I arrived at Disneyland.”

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Graphic via the Walt Disney Company's Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Division

ANAHEIM – The Walt Disney Company’s Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, (DPEP) is celebrating and honoring Pride this year, highlighting its LGBTQ employees as well as supporting a welcoming and embracing work environment where LGBTQ+ cast members are encouraged to be their authentic selves.

Writing for the company’s blog, Michelle Mockler, DPEP’s External Communications Manager profiled  James Heath, a Senior Duty Manager at the Disneyland California Adventure Park. Heath, who has been employed by the Disney company since he was 17, related his personal experiences with Disney that he said shaped not only his career as an employee but as a gay man as well.

In the winter of 2000, Heath applied for a job position in hopes of fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a cast member, a term that Disney describes it employees as. After several interviews, James was offered a cast member role as a Food & Beverage Host.

According to Heath, he didn’t realise that position working at Disneyland had just given him something far more important than a job… “It gave me a place to belong,” he told Mockler.

Mockler writes that just two years prior, Heath had made the decision to come out as gay. At 15 years old, he found himself as the only openly gay student in his school.

“While I was fortunate to have supportive family and friends by my side, I was missing something truly critical at this time in my life: Other people like me. I was lost, desperate to connect with someone who understood what I was feeling. That all changed when I arrived at Disneyland.”

At Disney, James found himself working alongside other LGBTQ+ cast members. He found people, with whom he could share stories, compare experiences and talk through challenges.

“Being gay was no different to my coworkers and leaders than any of the other countless qualities that make each of us unique.”

Twenty-one years later, the now thirty-eight year old Senior Disney Manager related; “Sometimes I wonder who I would be today had I not had this safe place to grow into my own skin. I was fortunate to have allies who courageously pushed against outdated ideas to give me a safe place to thrive.”

Heath says that he’s found himself in the role of leader, mentor, ally and advocate.

“It’s my turn to give back and help to further our culture of inclusivity. Somewhere out there, a future cast member is looking for a place where they can belong. I’m committed to helping them find it at Disney.”

As Disney celebrates Pride Month, this past week as the State of California lifted most of the restrictions imposed by California state and local health officials and Governor Gavin Newsom. However, Disney officials have decided to keep in place for the time being some of those measures.

“I don’t want to say we are going to go back to the way it was,” Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, said Thursday about managing the parks. “I want to be really smart in the way we do this.”

The parks at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim in Orange County are continuing to reopen in phases, but a handful of the COVID-era changes are going to stick.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times this past week, D’Amaro said that the company is poised to keep “in place a reservation system that was adopted to manage visitor numbers under the state-imposed capacity limits and the continued use of a virtual queuing system that was designed to give all parkgoers a shot at visiting the most popular attractions.”

Currently valid theme park admission as well as a confirmed park reservation about both required if a guest wishes to visit either Disneyland or Disney California Adventure. Park Pass Reservations are also currently required at Disney World.

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