Max Rivera can’t shake the memory.
As he lay in bed during the wee hours of Aug. 15, Rivera heard a commotion. The sounds of rustling and some voices – maybe distressed voices – drifted into his small bedroom from out near the railroad tracks a few paces behind his home.
Rivera thought about going out to check, but he didn’t. The noises weren’t out of the ordinary. Ever since he had moved his family in a few years earlier, late-night mischief had been the norm in the rocky, garbage-strewn area behind his house.
But this time would turn out to be something more than mischief.
“I always think, what if I could have done something,” Rivera said, standing in his backyard, just a few paces from the tattered yellow police tape that had hung there over a month. The creases on the sides of his eyes deepened in a pained expression.
Six people have been killed on the railroad’s land or in Rivera’s northeast Richmond neighborhood between Feb. 3 and Oct. 17. Two of them were children.
The death that haunts Rivera was that of Kevin Barrera, 14. The boy’s battered and shot body was found around dawn on Aug. 15, just off the railroad tracks south of the corner of Sanford Avenue and Cherry Street, just a few yards behind Rivera’s house. No arrests have been made.
The small bungalows around Shield Reid Park are home to a predominantly Latino community. Mexican flags fly from many porches.
The railroad tracks bend through, cushioned on both sides by weed-tangled, garbage-strewn dirt.
There is no wall between the homes and the tracks, no fence of any kind restricting access. People traipse through the broad landscape freely and frequently.
“This whole area, all this land, is always causing us trouble,” said Rivera, whose small house has about 15 yards between its property line and the tracks. “We need a wall here to be safe.”
Rivera worries about two potential dangers.
“People dump trash and God knows what else, they graffiti, there is even killings,” he said. “That’s what we deal with here every day, but what if one of the trains falls off the tracks and spills some chemicals? What happens to us?”
Rivera has found a sympathetic ear in one city agency.
“It was tragic what happened to that boy,” said Diane Gatewood of Barrera’s killing. Gatewood is an agent in the Office of Neighborhood Safety, which was created about two years ago to intervene in neighborhood gang disputes before they turn violent. “I was at that scene, he was found right next to the tracks and everybody around was really shaken up.”
Gatewood wants Union Pacific to better manage the land that she said is a factor in local crime.
But she acknowledged that getting the railroad to pony up resources is unlikely.
“The solution is that Union Pacific needs to fence that area off,” Gatewood said. “The tracks are used for freight, and the danger of derailments is always there, which is just added to crime and loitering that is already a problem.”
On a breezy September afternoon, remnants of crime scene police tape fluttered against weeds and a chain-link fence near the railroad.
Tires, spray cans, electronics and other wastes dotted the landscape.
Graffiti covers a cinderblock wall on the southern border. The wall encircles a building.
Tom Lange, a spokesman for Union Pacific, the railroad company that owns the land, said signs and other terrain features typically warn pedestrians to stay off the private property for their own safety.
As for whether a wall or fence may be a solution, Lange said he was not aware of any community or city inquiries about the issue.
“If nobody is even asking us the question, then the answer is no,” Lange said of possibly installing a barrier. “But if somebody came to us, then there is a lot we have to consider. We would look at the situation through all the different angles, see what options may exist.”
Police in Richmond say they are hampered by the maze of railroad tracks that crisscross through the city.
Most are active. Some are idle relics of the city’s industrial origins.
“It’s a constant challenge for us, sure,” said Officer Phillip Sanchez, who patrols the Iron Triangle, a section of the city that owes its name to the tracks that compose its boundaries. “We simply can’t pursue into a lot of these areas, we can’t drive into them because of the terrain, and a lot of times the guys we’re chasing know that.”
The likelihood of Union Pacific undertaking an effort to construct new barriers may be slim, especially since the railroad tracks were laid through the area decades before new home construction crept closer.
The railroad’s Lange suggested the responsibility lies with the city, not the railroad.
“If Union Pacific had done something on its property to alter the landscape of the community, we would evaluate what we might need to do in terms of mitigation,” Lange said. “In the majority of cases such as this, however, it is the city’s responsibility to implement mitigation efforts such as fences and walls for businesses and residences that elect to develop around active railroad operations.”
Rivera disagrees, and said he plans to pressure the railroad into investing in its neighbors’ safety.
Rivera said he plans to help organize a petition drive among his neighbors declaring they want the railroad to build a wall.
Gatewood is skeptical that an equitable solution can be struck between neighbors, city officials and the railroad.
“Will the railroad do something?,” Gatewood said. “I don’t know, I think it might take an act of Congress.”