Byron Acevedo, 18, of Guatemala, was one of the 11 illegal immigrants found in a railcar in Denison in 2002. Former Des Moines Register journalist Colleen Krantz focuses on how Acevedo came to his untimely death onboard the train in her film, “Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation.”
Byron Acevedo, 18, of Guatemala, was one of the 11 illegal immigrants found in a railcar in Denison in 2002. Former Des Moines Register journalist Colleen Krantz focuses on how Acevedo came to his untimely death onboard the train in her film, “Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation.”
Thursday, September 30, 2010

DENISON ­­– Dozens of railcars have passed through Denison in the last eight years, but none have been etched on Colleen Bradford Krantz’s mind like the one that carried 11 dead Central American and Mexican illegal immigrants into town on Oct. 15, 2002.

For eight years, while the event fell prey to the public’s short-term memory, Krantz, an Adel resident and former Des Moines Register journalist, could never seem forget the story of what she deemed “the train to nowhere.”   

“Before I left the Des Moines Register five years ago, I was working for them in eastern Iowa and didn’t have much to do with the story when it broke, but it always seemed to stick with me for some reason,” she said. “When I decided to leave the paper and stay at home with my kids, I started writing a book proposal on the subject.”

Not knowing where the book might go, Krantz partnered one year ago with film director Paul Kakert, president of the Davenport-based Storytellers International, to turn her search for answers into the newly completed documentary, “Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation” — a story of a U.S Immigration and Naturalization Service officer’s hunt for those responsible for the 11 deaths.

The public is invited to this weekend’s three free, advanced film screenings.

A Saturday screening is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center in Denison, where Chad Elliot, a Coon Rapids-based musician who composed the film’s music, will also perform.

There will also be two screenings on Sunday – one at 3 p.m. in the Iowa Public Television’s Maytag Auditorium in Johnston, where Elliot will perform again, and another at 2 p.m. in the Figge Art Museum, 225 W. Second St. in Davenport.

Iowa Public Television will also air the film at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12 — three days before the eighth anniversary of the discovery at the Denison FSC/ADM plant.

“It was Iowa Public Television’s idea to show it near the anniversary,” Krantz said. “They decided on that date three or four months ago, and told us to make that our target date for completion. They even talked about showing it on the actual anniversary, but I think there might have been scheduling conflicts.”

Krantz decided to bring “Train to Nowhere” to the big screen when publishers first shied away from her nonfiction book proposal because of a previous lack of sales for books on immigration.

That’s when she brought Kakert on board to direct the documentary, which started filming in Denison, Des Moines, Ankeny and Iowa City with a grant for a couple of thousand dollars from Humanities Iowa, which has covered part of the film’s $15,000 price tag thus far.

Kakert said the workload has been divided mostly between himself and Krantz, but it’s been worth it.

“The film is produced by Storyteller’s International, but the film actually found me,” he said. “When Colleen approached me about it, I loosely remembered the event and thought it was the kind of film Storytellers should make.”

What’s intriguing, he said, is that the documentary is not the typical immigration story.

“We went out of the way to make sure it’s neutral. No political or personal views were involved,” Kakert said.
“It’s a very different story that looks at where these people came from, which provides a twist not usually found in a story like this.”

Unlike Kakert, whose career is built on what he sees through a camera lens, “Train to Nowhere” is Krantz’s first crack at a career as an independent journalist and her first time in broadcast media, after 10 years of newspaper reporting.

And if film production wasn’t enough, Krantz, 37, couldn’t let go of her hope to find a publisher for her book, which she managed to do about two years ago.

Entitled “Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation,” the book is scheduled for release this spring.

Krantz, an Iowa State University journalism graduate, based her works on conversations with border guards and federal agents involved in the case, who helped piece together the victims’ path from Mexico, where they were loaded by smugglers into a grain hopper bound for the U.S.

The smugglers lost track of the hopper, which crossed the U.S.-Mexican border undetected by authorities, and continued on to Oklahoma, where it was stored for four months before it made its way to Iowa with the victims still inside.

It was later discovered that the victims, ranging in ages from 18 to 40, were unable to release the hatch inside the rail car, leading to their deaths by dehydration and hyperthermia.

The victims were identified with help from DNA test and the FBI and returned to their home countries.

Nearly a year after the remains were found, charges were brought against two of the four persons believed to have connections to the smuggling ring.

Juan Fernando Licea-Cedillo, of Mexico, was sentenced to 292 months imprisonment.

Former train conductor Arnulfo Flores, of Kingsville, Texas, was sentenced to 41 months behind bars for providing train schedules to the smugglers.

Rogelio Hernandez Ramos, of Mexico, was found in his home country, but Krantz said, before he’s extradited, Mexico wants assurance Ramos won’t receive the death penalty.

Only Guillermo Madrigal Ballesteros, of Mexico, remains a fugitive in the case, she said.

Krantz did nab an interview with Flores, following his early release from prison.

“He was a little reluctant to do the interview, but we went to Texas to talk to him, and I wasn’t even sure it would happen until we sat down with him,” she said.

Krantz said Flores doesn’t blame himself for the 11 deaths, but she thinks his coming forward about it was his way of reaching out.

“He says in the documentary that he doesn’t feel responsible for what happened because he didn’t load the victims in the railcar, but I think part of his willingness to be in the documentary was a way of giving something to the families,” she said.

But the story doesn’t end there.

An interview with a Mexican-American immigration agent explains the criminal investigation that ensued.

But it’s interviews with the family of victim Byron Acevedo, 18, of Guatemala, that Krantz said humanizes this story of inhumane treatment.

She said Acevedo’s brother, Eliseo, a New York resident and one-time undocumented worker, explains the heartbreak he still suffers because of his brother’s death.

“Eliseo talks about the months he couldn’t find his brother, and he tears up when he talks about eventually having to bring his brother’s body home,” she said. “He had promised his mother that he would bring his little brother home to Guatemala, and he still struggles with the fact that he could only bring his body.”

Immigration isn’t a cut-and-dry issue, as Krantz learned during the film’s production. She hopes viewers understand both sides of the debate by the time the credits roll.

“When people watch films on something that is so politically hot, I think they tend to watch it to see which side the producers are on, and turn it off when it’s not on their side,” she said. “We wanted to tell the story in way that people on either side would not turn away, and I think we did that.

“And maybe, if people watch the whole thing, it will open up their minds and allow them to learn something about why the other side feels the way it does about immigration issues. There is no simple answer to immigration.”