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Man Who Left SUV On Tracks Is A Murderer

A jury convicted a man of 11 counts of first-degree murder Thursday for causing a 2005 rail disaster that turned two commuter trains into a tangled mass of smoking wreckage littered with victims.

Defendant Juan Alvarez, 29, who claimed he had only been trying to commit suicide when he started the deadly chain of events, looked on stolidly as the Superior Court jury returned verdicts that could lead to the death penalty.

The jury also convicted Alvarez of one count of arson and found true the so-called special circumstance of multiple murders, but acquitted him of a charge called train wrecking.

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

Early on Jan. 26, 2005, Alvarez left a gasoline-drenched SUV on railroad tracks in Glendale, northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

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.

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

One man who lay injured in the wreck 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," the message said. Its author, John Phipps, survived.

Alvarez admitted causing the disaster but claimed he had intended to kill himself, then changed his mind and was unable to get the vehicle off the tracks.

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 defense painted Alvarez as a victim of childhood abuse who became a drug addict and suffers mental illness.

The prosecution called him a pathological liar whose claim of mental illness was a manipulative tactic.

Separately, the derailment triggered 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.