Juan Alvarez parked a heavy vehicle across the track, doused it with petrol and stood back to watch. Within minutes the train smashed, tearing carriages apart and flinging them into nearby buildings. Was Juan a mental wreck or he had something else in mind?
Friends and relatives wondered just why 30-year-old Carmelita Alvarez had stayed with her husband Juan for nearly 10 years when most wives would have long since given him his marching orders. For 29-year-old Juan was mean, lazy, work-shy, violent, alcoholic and obsessively jealous. He even accused Carmelita of cheating with someone who secretly slept in their bed with them when Juan was asleep... He employed private detectives to spy on her when she went shopping, convinced she was having an affair with supermarket managers...
In fact Carmelita was a devoted and totally faithful wife who had never even looked at another man after marrying Juan in 1996. But only she could take so much and from time to time she threatened to leave him. Juan Alvarez's reaction was to threaten to commit suicide — and it always worked. "Every time he tried to kill himself I'd always show him pity and affection," Carmelita would later tell a Los Angeles court. "He would beg for forgiveness and I'd have him back."
But by the autumn of 2004, even the saintly Carmelita had enough. She filed for a separation order claiming he had "threatened me with bodily harm and excessive mental cruelty," and took her two young daughters to stay with her mother. In vain, Juan Alvarez wept and pleaded. He once again threatened suicide but Carmelita remained stony-hearted.
This time, Juan Alvarez knew he had to do something really spectacular if he was to get his wife and children back. This time he would pretend to be killed and would then miraculously return from the dead into the arms of his grieving and forgiving wife. Juan believed he was on to a winner. In fact he was just about to cause one of America's worst-ever rail crashes, which would kill 11 people and seriously injure nearly 200.
Early on the morning of January 26, 2005, five weeks after Carmelita left him, Juan Alvarez, who occasionally worked as a labourer and part-time barman, set out in his Jeep Cherokee towards the nearby Glendale-Los Angeles Metrolink railway line, at that time working at full capacity taking thousands of commuters to work in the city. He arrived at a freight yard a mile from Glendale and drove along deserted track until he came to the main commuter line. Alvarez deliberately parked the heavy vehicle across the track, and doused it with petrol. Then he stood back to watch.
His plan, he later told police, was to let his wife think that he had been killed in the resulting crash, only to later reveal that he hadn't. "She would be so thankful I was alive that she would have me back and things would be as they were." The death and disaster his action would almost certainly cause seemed to be of little interest to Juan Alvarez. Within minutes the inevitable happened. At southbound crowded Metrolink train smashed at 60mph into the jeep spinning off the track into a stationary freight train and continuing into the path of a fast-travelling northbound Metrolink, tearing carriages apart and flinging them into nearby buildings. The crash, which killed 11 and injured over 185, many critically, was so devastating that first reports were of a terrorist attack. Then came stories of driver error or mechanical failure.
Meanwhile staff from shops and offices streamed onto the track and tore at the twisted wreckage, trying to release the crash victims until rescue crew arrived. A state of emergency was declared and all hospitals in the LA area put on red alert as their A&E departments were crammed with rail-crash victims. Juan Alvarez was found standing on a bank above the railway track watching the carnage and telling his estranged wife on his mobile phone how he had escaped almost certain death when his jeep became wedged on the track. But if he expected sympathy and forgiveness he was mistaken. Carmelita phoned the police.
Alvarez reeked of petrol. At first he denied being the owner of the jeep. Then he said someone had stolen it and crashed it on to the railway line. Finally he said he had intended to commit suicide but changed his mind at the last moment. A year later, when Alvarez appeared before Los Angeles Supreme Court accused of 11 murders, arson and train-wrecking, prosecutor Caroline Brougham said Alvarez was a man "who was obsessed with getting attention, a liar and a schemer who wanted to cause a big spectacle in an attempt to win back his estranged wife. "He was mad at the entire world," prosecutor Brougham told the jury. "He wanted to hurt somebody. He even stayed around to see the catastrophe he had caused.
"If he is not guilty of felony murder, which carries the death penalty, he is at the very least guilty of second-degree murder for committing an act dangerous to human life." But defence lawyer Michael Belter painted a very different picture. Alvarez, he said, was a loving husband and father who was because of a cruel and traumatic childhood with unloving parents was in constant emotional pain. He was convinced that his wife was having an affair and that life was no longer worth living.
On the day of the crash he had no intention of hurting others but had meant to commit suicide. Attorney Belter said that at the time, Alvarez seriously believed that his wife was unfaithful although he later admitted that he was wrong. Unable to cope any longer, he had doused his jeep with petrol and drove on to the railway track to commit suicide.
A photograph of his children on the vehicle's dashboard had jolted him back to reality and he tried to move the jeep from the tracks, but it had stuck. Michael Belter told the jury: "He put rocks behind the rear wheels to try to provide leverage, but to no avail. The rocks were later found to be sprinkled with tyre residue, showing that Alvarez had desperately tried to move the vehicle before the train arrived." Giving evidence in court, Alvarez relished his moment in the limelight. In an immaculate white shirt and smart dark trousers he posed for photographers before telling the jury that he had desperately tried to get the jeep off the tracks and asked the families of the crash victims for forgiveness.
He told the jury: "I expect to be punished but I am not a murderer. The only person I had planned to kill was myself." But prosecutor Brougham claimed there was a more sinister side to Alvarez's character and under cross-examination he admitted he carried a knife and sometimes a machete. He also admitted that he had thought about killing his wife, had once pulled a knife on a cousin and carried a gun in his car. Alvarez showed no emotion when the jury found him guilty of 11 counts of first degree murder. Behind him sat a dozen relatives of people killed in the crash — the worst Metrolink accident in US history.
Said Susan McKeown whose husband Scott was among those killed: "I am so relieved that I can go home tonight and tell my kids that the man who killed their father is being punished."
Although the jury made a recommendation that Alvarez should be executed, Judge William Pounders sentenced him to 11 life sentences with no possibility of parole. The judge told Alvarez: "You are a manipulative liar who is violent and dangerous who has shown no genuine remorse." Ironically, Juan Alvarez's attempt to win back his wife has actually worked. She withdrew the restraining order before the trial and now regularly visits him in jail...