The alleged plan was simple yet bold: Steal a locomotive. Drive it to a bar. Toast your daring. But the caper landed a train-loving suspect in jail.
Photos BY ROBERT SAMUELS
The heist from a Kendall sidetrack was revealed on a Sunday, shortly before midnight. A railroad crew came out to crank up locomotive No. 2617 -- a 120-ton blue and yellow behemoth that has snaked up and down the East Coast, hauling loads for CSX. But somehow, it had vanished.
They called 911 with a most unusual and alarming request: We need your help finding our missing locomotive.
Finding it was relatively easy. Trains run on tracks, after all. They located the abandoned locomotive seven miles to the southwest. It was missing its fire extinguisher.
But who took the locomotive and how? Swiping a train isn't like hot-wiring a Camaro. There's a complex choreography of switch-flipping, knob-turning and lever-pulling to start it up.
Someone had to possess some know-how.
Investigators ruled out terrorism. Their conclusion: The trainjacker wanted to take a joy ride.
Detectives took pictures, lifted fingerprints. Soon, a clue connecting the heist to fashion and snacks emerged.
A fingerprint taken from the fuel pump belonged to one Brandon Dowdy, a mechanic who lives in Cutler Bay. He did not work for CSX.
Records show that Dowdy had previously been charged with committing a modest crime. On Jan. 23, a week after his 22nd birthday, a security guard spotted him allegedly trying to steal a $32.99 plaid jacket and a $3.79 package of beef jerky from a Kmart. He was charged with petty theft. They put his right thumbprint on file.
Three days after the train caper, police knocked on Dowdy's door. His friend, Alex Johnson-Self, a lanky man with stringy hair and small brown eyes, answered. He told them this story:
On Feb. 22, Johnson-Self and Dowdy saw the locomotive, saw that no one was looking, and decided to climb aboard. They used a hammer to break through the locks that secure all the switches. They started it up.
When they realized that they could actually drive it away, Dowdy instructed his buddy to hop out and drive his silver pickup truck to the Redland Tavern, where they would rendezvous. By car, it's a 20-minute trip.
The Redland Tavern, a place that advertises ''Bikers Welcome'' on the sign out front, is steps away from the tracks near Krome Avenue and 232nd Street. On Sundays, patrons listen to a country and classic-rock band called Big Dick and the Extenders.
The ride -- through a region dotted with strawberry fields, ranches selling rabbits and chickens, and nurseries with signs saying ``no hay trabajo'' (there is no work) -- chugged past subdivisions and a Lexus dealership.
The locomotive passed through several railroad crossings but did not engage the crossing signals, since those are triggered by an operator inside the train. Fortunately, no cars or pedestrians were flattened.
Johnson-Self said he drove Dowdy's silver pickup truck south toward the bar. They eventually did meet up, although it is not clear precisely where. The locomotive was found about a mile north of the watering hole.
The same day that Johnson-Self 'fessed up, police caught up with Dowdy. He was in the silver Ford pickup truck, driving to his father's house in Dunedin, near Tampa. Inside the truck was a telltale piece of evidence: the locomotive's missing fire extinguisher.
When detectives asked Dowdy why he entered the engine, according to the police report, he told them he ``saw the train and wanted to look at it.''
In addition to the pending petty-theft charge, he now faced some not-so-petty charges: grand theft, burglary and illegally interfering with a railroad track. (Johnson-Self was charged with theft and railroad interference for allegedly helping Dowdy start up the locomotive.)
The train industry takes the theft of its locomotives seriously, especially since 9/11. Conceivably, a locomotive hauling hazardous materials could crash into a secure site like a port, unleashing a toxic cloud from a tanker.
Dowdy was just heading to a bar, according to his buddy.
CSX, nonetheless, is reviewing its security procedures. ''There are serious consequences to stealing a train,'' CSX spokesman Gary Sease said.
Through his public defender, James Chimera, Dowdy declined to speak to The Miami Herald. His arraignment is scheduled for Wednesday.
Dowdy's mother, flight attendant Elizabeth Combs, says her son has always had a thing for railroads.
The family celebrated his eighth birthday party at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in South Miami-Dade County. Family photos show Dowdy smiling broadly, wearing a blue and white conductor's hat. His vanilla-frosted birthday cake was decorated with multicolored train figurines.
By age 10, he was volunteering in the model-train room at the museum. The director there confirmed that Dowdy was a volunteer, but did not want to say more.
While growing up, Dowdy played with a train simulator computer game, which taught him the ins and outs of working a train.
''I love my son, and he has a good heart and is very bright,'' Combs said. ``I'm not saying what he did was right, but I don't think he meant any harm. He just loves trains.''
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