On the morning of May 14, Aaron Salazar stepped onto a Portland-bound train with a hundred dollars in the pocket of his skinny jeans and a plan.

The Kaiser High School graduate, who came of age in east Oahu’s Kalama Valley, had decided after a visit with family in the Denver area to transfer to Colorado State University from Portland State University, where he was an economics major.

In his home state of Colorado, Salazar wouldn’t have to hustle so hard to pay the rent. He could move in with his father. He’d be surrounded by some of his dearest relatives.

A pop culture fanatic and Kaiser High School graduate, Aaron Salazar was seriously injured while riding an Amtrak train. Police said Salazar attempted suicide. His family claims he was the victim of a crime. Contributed by the Salazar family

Before he boarded Amtrak’s California Zephyr for an overnight journey back to the PSU campus, Salazar vowed to return to Denver in June for his cousin’s graduation.

But Salazar never made it to Portland. He didn’t make it to the graduation party either.

On the morning of May 15, police found Salazar unconscious along the railroad tracks four miles east of Truckee, California. He was foaming at the mouth and bleeding from the head in a remote area with no vehicle or pedestrian access.

Salazar, who is recovering from his injuries at a Colorado rehab center, spent the next two weeks in a coma.

Investigators for the Amtrak Police Department say Salazar, who is gay, hurled himself out of the moving train in an attempted suicide.

“He was very distraught,” Amtrak Police Chief Neil Trugman said at a press conference in Truckee on May 29.

But Salazar’s family and friends say the buoyant 22-year-old would never intentionally hurt himself. Although encouraged by Salazar’s first steps toward regaining mobility and brain function, they remain agonizingly shrouded in the mystery of what happened to him. Salazar himself can’t remember, at least not yet, what happened and family members are reluctant to push him to talk about it.

“There is no effing way my grandson jumped out of a moving train going 40 miles per hour unless he was in fear for his life,” said Michael Mathieu, Aaron Salazar’s grandfather in Hawaii Kai.

Family Wants FBI To Investigate

The idea that Salazar would try to kill himself, a theory for which Amtrak investigators have provided no evidence, is something the family says it cannot accept. They’ve even reached out to Hawaii’s congressional delegation, which prompted all four elected officials to send a letter to Amtrak insisting on a thorough investigation into what could be a hate crime.

Almost four months after he was found along the tracks, there are more questions than answers about how the 22-year-old came so close to death.

A point of contention between Amtrak investigators and the Salazar family are the severe blisters found on Salazar’s thighs and groin. Amtrak police said the blisters resulted from friction burns. Family members say they appear to be something else, such as chemical burns.

“There is no effing way my grandson jumped out of a moving train going 40 miles per hour unless he was in fear for his life.” — Michael Mathieu, Aaron Salazar’s grandfather

As a source of their suspicion, the family points to the condition of the black skinny jeans Salazar wore that day. There are no tears or signs of heavy wear.

Many of Salazar’s injuries — a broken nose, a purple, egg-sized welt on his head — could have been wounds from a fist fight, the family says. According to the family, doctors in Nevada who initially treated Salazar said his injuries were consistent with a beating.

Aaron Salazar on Friday, Aug. 31. He is recovering from injuries sustained while traveling on an Amtrak train to Portland at a rehab hospital in Colorado. Contributed by the Salazar family

Mathieu said he wants the FBI to investigate the incident as a hate crime. At the very least, he wants a police department independent of Amtrak to interview witnesses and probe the evidence before anyone rules out the possibility that Salazar was the victim of a crime — and perhaps targeted for being gay.

But Amtrak is resolute. “At this time there is no indication that there was an altercation or an argument on that train,” said Trugman, who said he based this assessment on witness statements and “other factors.”

He did not elaborate when asked by reporters to expand upon the evidence.

This account of what happened to Salazar in the 26 hours he spent on the train is based on public records and interviews with a half-dozen of Salazar’s family members and friends.

The Mystery Friend

Settling into his seat on the overnight train to Portland, Salazar texted his mother about the beauty of the mountains along the route. He took cell phone photos of the sun setting in a blaze of color outside the train car window.

Even at 22, Salazar was so tight-knit with his family — regularly texting his grandparents, flying to Las Vegas for his sister’s 25th birthday — that his classmates at PSU lovingly teased him for it.  

Growing up in Kalama Valley, Aaron Salazar and his sister Alyssa were inseparable. In young adulthood, they remained in constant contact on the phone and made frequent visits. 

Salazar was 7 when he moved to Oahu with his mother and sister. In Kalama Valley, the trio was absorbed into a loving, four-generation ohana.

Family members describe Salazar as kind, upbeat and gentle. He likes to read, cook and debate presidential politics. He has dreams of one day holding office.

His favorite activity is watching music videos with his older sister, Alyssa. Together they study the dance moves and ensembles sported by Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande and Madonna, offering up their critiques and praises.

“Aaron likes pop culture,” said Alyssa Salazar. “He’s kind of the typical gay guy. And he’s very into his school. He’s very interested in the world and how everything works.”

His family says he faced the usual stresses of a dedicated college student — midterm pressure, the difficult act of balancing school, work and fun. But they say he was happy studying world markets and sharing an apartment with three other guys and a cat that adored him.

Salazar chose the rail trip to Portland over an airline because the cost of airfare was high. His mother had offered to pay for his transportation, and he didn’t want to financially burden her.

At 9:01 a.m. on May 15 — almost 25 hours into Salazar’s train ride — Salazar’s cell phone buzzed with a text message from his grandmother in Hawaii.

“Home yet?” she asked him.

“Not yet, I wish though,” Aaron typed. “This damn train is taking forever lol and I have to stop in Sacramento. I have a layover before getting on the next train.”

He continued, “I made a friend on the train though and we’re going to go get some food and explore in the meantime though.”

His grandmother replied, “Be safe let me know.”

Twenty-six minutes later, a Union Pacific railroad foreman adjacent to the tracks saw the California Zephyr roll by. According to Amtrak police, the foreman said one of the coach cars had an open window.

Three minutes later, the California Zephyr arrived at the Truckee station with a passenger missing.

‘This Is Not What He Wanted’

Alyssa Salazar with her younger brother, Aaron Salazar. Alyssa and her mother moved from Hawaii to be with Aaron while he works toward recovery at a rehab hospital in Colorado. Contributed by the Salazar family

Truckee Police Department officers were first to respond to a report of a man lying between the Truckee River and the railroad line in a remote corner of town, his head about 11 feet south of the tracks 

Salazar was unresponsive on his back. He was taking shallow, gurgling breaths.

There was a purple, egg-sized welt above his eye. His hair was saturated in blood. His pulse rattled in his neck.

A police officer who covered Salazar with a blanket as rain started to fall reported that Salazar’s skin was discolored between his belly button and his belt.

In Salazar’s front pocket, police found a wallet full of credit cards and more than $100 cash. His laptop and luggage were still on the train.

Salazar was admitted with life-threatening injuries to a hospital in Nevada. Within 24 hours, family members from five states were at his bedside.

“It didn’t look like him when you saw him,” Alyssa Salazar said. “It looked like someone different.”

Two weeks passed before Salazar opened his eyes.

In time, Salazar started speaking in grunts. Now, almost four months after coming so close to death, he can put together sentences. His words are slow and heavy, as if they’re trudging through mud.

“He’s very fragile mentally though, right now, so we don’t push him,” Alyssa Salazar said. “He’s very emotional. He gets upset really quick. He cries a lot. He just wants his family around him and he knows who we are, he just doesn’t know what happened to him.”

At the Colorado rehabilitation hospital where Salazar is recovering from a near-severed brain stem, a psychologist asked him what he remembers about the train ride. According to Salazar’s sister, the probing made him intensely upset. He couldn’t remember anything. Emotionally, he regressed.  

“And the fact that he can’t remember, I know that hurts him,” Alyssa Salazar said. 

Amtrak Police: No Crime Committed

The California Zephyr has no surveillance cameras. There’s no footage to mine for clues about what happened.

A Truckee police report from May 15 notes that Salazar’s injuries, “did not appear to be severe enough to be consistent with being hit by a train, but were more consistent with jumping from a moving train.”

But what if Salazar was pushed out of the train? And if he did jump — did he jump to escape some threat on the train?

Within hours of Salazar’s hospitalization, Truckee police turned the investigation over to Amtrak, whose police department takes the lead when a person is injured in a federal right-of-way.

A spokesperson for the Amtrak Police Department said the investigation remains open, pending any new information or the opportunity to interview Salazar.

“After an extensive investigation by the Amtrak Police Department, in coordination with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, there is no indication of criminal activity at this time,” the spokesperson said.

The department did not answer Civil Beat’s specific questions about the investigation, nor did it make available an investigator for an interview.

“I made a friend on the train though and we’re going to go get some food and explore.” — Aaron Salazar in a text message to his grandmother

Salazar’s family members say they haven’t been given any evidence to support Amtrak’s theory that Salazar jumped from the train — a scenario that’s inconceivable to them.

They also cite inconsistencies in the investigation.

Mathieu, Salazar’s grandfather, said an Amtrak police officer originally told him by phone that there was a witness who saw Salazar jump from the train. Then the officer recanted, according to Mathieu.

Mathieu said he was then told in an email from Amtrak officials that the windows on the California Zephyr do not open.

But at a May 29 press conference, Trugman, Amtrak’s police chief, said the window Salazar is believed to have jumped from opens by lever.

“Unfortunately it’s not that difficult (to open the window),” Trugman said.  

In a letter to Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson, Hawaii’s congressional delegation communicated the Salazar family’s concern that he could have been the victim of a hate crime and urged investigators to consider all possibilities. 

The family also disputes Amtrak’s claim that Salazar was distraught on the train. They want more information about how investigators arrived at this conclusion.

And they want to know whether Amtrak found and questioned the person Salazar befriended on the train, as he relayed to his grandmother in a text message minutes before he went missing.

Salazar, they say, is gullible and naive. Maybe the so-called friend he made had sinister intentions.

“I’m not a policeman, and I know I watch a lot of TV, but a lot of things don’t seem like they were handled like you would if you just wanted to find out the truth and weren’t worried about who writes you a check every Friday,” said Mathieu, who owns a small handyman business.

“Give me something believable, but don’t tell me three versions of how he jumped out a window and want me to be kosher with that.”

Aaron Salazar’s family is questioning the Amtrak Police Department’s conclusion that Salazar tried to kill himself by jumping from a moving train. Pictured in Hawaii Kai is his grandfather Michael Mathieu, left, his grandmother Angel Mathieu, center, and his sister Alyssa Salazar. 

Sonia Trujillo, one of Salazar’s cousins, has poured hours into her own investigation.

He had blood in his nails so I asked them to take DNA and they said they didn’t need to,” the 43-year-old mother and former accountant said. “They never even questioned any other thing, they just kept asking me about his mental state.”

She continued, “I saw the injuries between his legs, I saw them first-hand. I don’t know where they came from, but they are saying it was road rash and that didn’t make any sense because the pants weren’t worn at all.”

Family members say Amtrak police returned to them everything Salazar was wearing that day — everything except his black skinny jeans.

‘I Hope He Never Remembers’

Salazar could make a full recovery, his family says. Or his progress could permanently stall. Right now he is recovering slowly.

His mother and sister emptied their home in downtown Honolulu. Now they live in Colorado, where Salazar is in rehab fighting to  improve.

There are huge challenges ahead for Salazar. He seems to have lost many of his memories from the last year. He has also lost some mobility. Food is delivered to him by tube.

For now, the family doesn’t want Salazar to be interviewed by investigators. They are afraid it could traumatize him.

“Aaron is crying because he can’t remember what happened,” said Angel Mathieu, Salazar’s maternal grandmother. “I hope he never remembers. I can’t imagine what it would do to him.”

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