Suspect in train derailment appears in court; hearing delayed

Saturday, January 29, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- A man charged with murder for allegedly triggering the collision of two commuter trains during an aborted suicide attempt appeared in court Friday, but the hearing was delayed so he could undergo further medical evaluation.

Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, who also apparently tried to slash his wrists and stab himself after the wreck, was brought to court in what appeared to be a hospital smock and had bandages on his wrists.

Standing in shackles, Alvarez had his head tipped forward and his eyes were downcast, but he looked up occasionally to glance across the courtroom. Asked by Superior Court Commissioner Dennis Mulcahy if he agreed to the delay of the arraignment, Alvarez said, "Yes, sir." He said nothing else.

Authorities say Alvarez caused the wreck by driving an SUV onto the tracks, then changed his mind and left the vehicle.

The vehicle was struck by one train, which derailed and hit the second Metrolink train. Eleven people died and nearly 200 were injured.

Prosecutors on Friday filed an 11th murder charge against Alvarez, who could face the death penalty. Prosecutors have not said what punishment they will seek.

Outside court, defense lawyer Eric A. Chase said that there was a "lynch-mob mentality" in the case and that he wanted people to "take a step back and think about the consequences of their actions."

When asked whether he considered the murder charges excessive, Chase said only, "I want the heat to die down a little bit."

The Glendale police chief described Alvarez earlier in the week as "deranged."

The arraignment was rescheduled for Feb. 15. Chase said he wanted time to get opinions from medical experts on Alvarez's state of mind.

The chief executive of the Metrolink system said a preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board indicated that all equipment on both commuter trains was "working as intended."

"Our crew tried to get as many people to hold on," David Solow said. "They did their jobs."

The train that struck the SUV was being pushed from the rear by its locomotive while being operated at the leading end by a "cab-car."

But critics say having a massive locomotive in front reduces the chance of derailment in such situations.

Solow called the Metrolink's configuration a "safe operation," saying the practice was common throughout the United States and the world.

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, a man with a history of mental illness stopped a car on the tracks and stepped away just before a freight train barreled into it, police said Friday. The car was demolished, but no one was hurt in the collision Thursday in the town of Stamps.

That case follows an incident Thursday in Southern California in which a man who parked his sport utility vehicle on tracks in Orange County was arrested for investigation of evading a police officer. Irvine police said the man drove off when police spotted him and, after a chase, a dispatcher talked him out of suicide during a cell phone call.

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