Around his neighborhood, Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez was considered a recluse with four miniature greyhounds and a poorly kept yard. But among young train fans, he was something of a celebrity.
"He called them his teenage train buffs," next-door neighbor Bud Amelsberg said. "They would all yell at him as he rolled by."
Sanchez, 46, died at the controls of the commuter train that slammed head-on into a freight Friday, killing 24 passengers and injuring nearly 140.
Investigators looking into what went wrong in the final minutes of Metrolink 111 want to find out if Sanchez was text messaging a young train buff from his cell phone when he ran through a red signal and into the path of a Union Pacific locomotive.
Metrolink has said Sanchez caused the crash — the nation's deadliest train wreck in 15 years — but the National Transportation Safety Board is withholding judgment and said it could take up to a year to complete its investigation.
The NTSB subpoenaed Sanchez's cell phone records to review text messages that 14-year-olds said they exchanged with him in the moments before the wreck. The teens told KCBS-TV they received a text message from the engineer at 4:22 p.m. — a minute before the collision.
Tributes on Internet
Rail enthusiasts, including one of the boys, have posted tributes on the Internet describing him as a kind, caring man.
A two-minute memorial tribute posted on YouTube less than 24 hours after the crash showed video of Sanchez in the cab of a Metrolink train and the words: "Rob, from all us railfans. We love you. We will never forget you. Let your warmhearted soul RIP and in heaven."
Sanchez had driven Metrolink trains since 1996, a spokeswoman said. He worked as an Amtrak locomotive engineer from 1998 to 2005, according to an Amtrak spokeswoman, who declined to give other details because of confidentiality rules.
At the time of the crash, Sanchez was employed by Connex Railroad, a subsidiary of Veolia Transportation that operates Metrolink routes.
Neither Metrolink nor Connex has released any details of his life, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday questioned his work schedule. She said he worked an "untenable" schedule of 11-hour days, five days a week in split shifts.
A glimpse into Sanchez's life reveals short stays in several western states, including Arizona, Oregon and Nevada, and a brush with the law in California.
He was accused of stealing video game consoles in San Bernardino County six years ago, said his defense attorney Wilson Wong. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor grand theft and was sentenced to three months in jail, which he was allowed to serve on weekends. He also was cited for three traffic violations between 2001 and 2005.
Sanchez lived in the modest La Crescenta neighborhood, a suburb nestled in the hills north of Los Angeles. His small white house on a dusty dirt lot stands in contrast to the other homes that boast colorful shutters and neatly trimmed flower gardens.
Neighbor: He was loner
The easy smile and kind eyes in the burly engineer's driver's-license photo belies some neighbors' memories of him.
"Everybody is very friendly but he never really wanted to be," said Jack Geer, 66. "He was a loner."
When Sanchez spoke with his neighbor Amelsberg, the topic was often trains.
"He loved the trains, it was his life," Amelsberg said. But he said Sanchez became withdrawn after putting up a 5 1/2-foot fence, a purchase that perplexed Amelsberg because the lower fence Sanchez had previously was enough to keep his tiny dogs from getting out.
"He got quieter and quieter and for the last year, I never saw a thing," Amelsberg said. "His back yard is nothing but dog poop and weeds."
Neighbors saw him coming and going from work, but he was never with anyone else.
Though results from toxicology tests on Sanchez are pending, coroner's assistant chief Ed Winter said his body was ready for release.
Winter didn't know who was going to pick it up. It took three days to notify a relative about his death.