Image: Juan Alvarez
Nick Ut  /  AP
Juan Manuel Alvarez, shown in April during his trial in Los Angeles, claimed he was only trying to kill himself when he parked his SUV on train tracks, causing a fatal derailment.
updated 6/26/2008 4:06:23 PM ET 2008-06-26T20:06:23

A man who claimed he was attempting suicide when he triggered a 2005 rail disaster was convicted Thursday of 11 counts of first-degree murder and could face the death penalty.

Two commuter trains collided into a tangled mass of smoking wreckage littered with victims after Juan Alvarez left a gasoline-drenched sport-utility vehicle on railroad tracks in Glendale, northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Alvarez, 29, looked on stolidly as the Superior Court jury returned its guilty verdicts for the murders and one count of arson. The jury also agreed there was a special circumstance of multiple murders — making Alvarez eligible for the death penalty — but it acquitted him of a charge called train wrecking.

Jurors were ordered to return for the start of the penalty phase on July 7.

Alvarez had pleaded not guilty. He admitted causing the Jan. 26, 2005, disaster but claimed he had intended to kill himself, then changed his mind and was unable to get the SUV off the tracks.

A fast-moving Metrolink train struck the vehicle, derailed and struck another Metrolink train heading in the opposite direction and a parked freight train. In addition to the 11 deaths, about 180 people were injured.

Prosecutors denounced his claim of being suicidal as a lie and said he was trying to cause a calamity to get the attention of his estranged wife. Prosecutors said he started out that day with thoughts of killing his wife and then killed the rail passengers because she wasn't available.

The derailment created a horrific scene of mangled rail cars. Workers from nearby businesses scrambled to rescue the injured before firefighters reached the scene.

As he lay injured in the wreck, John Phipps used his own blood to scrawl what he thought would be his last words to his wife and children: "I (heart symbol) my kids. I (heart symbol) Leslie." He survived.

The defense painted Alvarez as a mentally ill victim of childhood abuse who became a drug addict. The prosecution called him a pathological liar whose claim of mental illness was a manipulative tactic.

Separately, the derailment led to a debate about the practice of running Metrolink trains in reverse, with the heavy engine at the rear being controlled from the other end by an operator in what is called a cab car.

Critics contended that the train wouldn't have derailed if the heavy engine had struck the SUV. The railroad defends the practice.

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