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NC train robbery becomes a federal case

By Andrew Kenney
akenney@newsobserver.com

GREENSBORO Robbery is commonplace in North Carolina, to the tune of 12,000 criminal charges last year.

But when two armed men stepped aboard a parked Norfolk Southern train on April 29, 2012, they entered a league all their own. In the eyes of the law, the men became the state’s only train robbers in recent memory.

William James Johnson Jr., 20, of Salisbury and Altise Shaheed Bridges, 25, of China Grove pleaded guilty earlier this month to train robbery, and now, each faces up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of probation.

The freight train had stopped in Salisbury’s rail yard for a change of crews. Carrying a 12-gauge sawed-off Winchester shotgun and a revolver, the two men made for the engine, where they found the train’s engineer and conductor and took a wallet and some cash before escaping back into the night, according to court records and media accounts.

It was not the kind of dramatic heist for which train-robbery laws in North Carolina and around the nation were written – but it met the definition.

“In the past, you’d think of a train robbery in the wild, wild West – they might have been carrying gold or something,” said Susan Terpay, a spokeswoman for Norfolk Southern. “This was an empty grain train.”

Terpay said no one she spoke to at Norfolk Southern could remember the last robbery aboard one of its trains, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Greensboro could not recall the last time it had handled a train-robbery case.

Johnson and Bridges only got away with $30 and credit cards, according to media reports. But the fact that they chose to rob the engineer and conductor aboard the train sent the case up the line to federal prosecutors.

Under the Hobbs Act, crime that affects interstate commerce – such as a bank robbery – can rise to the federal level, where prosecutors may press additional firearm charges that carried up to seven more years in prison, according to Kearns Davis, a former federal prosecutor.

“They can charge them with the extra consecutive sentence, then agree to dismiss it, helping to persuade the defendants to take the plea,” said Davis, now a North Carolina defense attorney. Federal convictions also lead to federal prison.

Court records show the train robbers sowed the seeds of their arrest soon after the crime. First, Johnson dropped the shotgun as they fled through the woods and told a friend about it, according to court documents. And that friend – Kenyad Kelly – would prove to be a key witness in the investigation, according to court records.

Kelly, 19, pleaded guilty on Dec. 3 to accessory after the fact to train robbery. He helped Johnson find the gun in the woods and either helped or watched as Johnson wiped it down, according to court records.

Neither Johnson’s public defender nor Bridges’ attorney could be reached for comment. Kelly’s attorney declined to comment.

All three men will be sentenced in March, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC
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