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Secret Service agent triggers scare aboard Metra train
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

An armed U.S. Secret Service agent apparently triggered a false alarm that halted a Metra train in Lisle this morning.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Metra commuters, including Brian Fitzgerald of Naperville, were asked to leave the train at the Lisle station.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Toting an AR15 rifle, Lisle police detective Justin Louis tells passengers that the train would be backed up and switched to the track by the platform so they could reboard after a search.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Police searching a Metra train in Lisle.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Police outside a Metra train in Lisle.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Authorities outside a Metra train in Lisle.

 

Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

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Published: 1/14/2009 9:03 AM | Updated: 1/14/2009 6:28 PM

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Numbered among the nation's crime-fighting elite, the actions of the U.S. Secret Service go unnoticed most of the time because they're, well, secret.

But a misunderstanding between a Secret Service agent and a Metra ticket seller got a very public airing Wednesday when it ended up delaying thousands and unnerving passengers whose train was searched by heavily armed police.

An eastbound train headed from Aurora to Chicago was stopped for nearly two hours around 8 a.m. in Lisle while authorities looked for a man reportedly carrying a gun.

It turned out to be the Secret Service agent who had spoken earlier with the ticket seller at Naperville's Fifth Avenue train station.

According to a government spokeswoman, the agent believed the Metra employee noticed his service weapon when he pulled out his wallet to buy a ticket.

To reassure the employee, he said, "'I am law enforcement, I am armed,'" said Kristina Schmidt, the assistant to the special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service's Chicago branch.

After the exchange, the ticket seller remarked that Metra did not have metal detectors and did not ask for further information, Schmidt said.

"He assumed the verbal comment was enough for the seller," she said.

Metra officials offered a different version of events. The Secret Service agent asked the ticket seller if there were metal detectors on the system, said he was carrying a gun and did not identify himself, Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said.

As a result, the ticket seller sounded the alarm, leading to DuPage County sheriff's deputies and Lisle police descending on the stopped train at 8:06 a.m.

Pardonnet said Metra was "very confident" in its employee's account of what happened and apologized to passengers for the inconvenience.

"We're very concerned something like this would happen. It shouldn't have come to this," she said.

The Secret Service, however, reviewed the incident and found the "agent acted according to the best of his knowledge," Schmidt said. "He rode in the train to work and discovered all the media were calling."

The agent was considered on duty and subsequently was wearing his weapon.

Authorities evacuated about three carloads of passengers and searched their bags. The agent identified himself and offered to assist and at some point officials put two and two together.

Lisle police Sgt. Ron Wilke said the agent was a certified law enforcement officer who had a legal right to carry a firearm.

"The law enforcement official obviously didn't explain himself as well as he probably could have," Wilke said.

He added no crime was committed and no charges were filed.

Commuters reboarded eastbound Burlington Northern Santa Fe train 1252 around 9:40 a.m. at the downtown Lisle station. It had been due in Chicago at 8:34 a.m.

Wednesday's snowfall and icy temperatures already had contributed to a trying morning when the advent of police with bulletproof vests and semi-automatic weapons put things into perspective, passengers said.

Roughly 1,000 people were on the train.

"I'm glad I'm off the train; it's frustrating," commuter Lloyd Mitchell of Sugar Grove said, as he stood shivering on the platform in Lisle. "We already had a 30-minute delay last night."

After serving in Iraq with the Marine Corps., Brian Fitzgerald took the disturbance in stride and took pictures with his cell phone but other passengers were frightened, he recalled.

"I'm angry, I was already running late for work," the Naperville man said.

Fitzgerald and others in his car were told to get out on the embankment by the train station and their bags were searched.

"It's a bad start to the day," Plainfield resident Waseem Nisar said wryly, "I'm already late."

After the double whammy of a snowstorm and false alarm, a number of commuters decided to call it a day.

"I'm going home, it's been a waste of a day," Susan Mlot of Naperville said.

Although it ended harmlessly, the experience was "pretty serious," she said. "I was on a car when the police came through with their weapons and asked us to put our hands up."

Biology student Izzy Fahd had missed his 9 a.m. class and also decided to return to Naperville.

"People weren't so much panicked as angry," he said. "It's frustrating."

The incident created a domino effect for other inbound and outbound trains on the BNSF line.

Daily Herald staff writers Lee Filas and Jake Griffin contributed to this report.