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A 29-year-old man who was fatally struck when he walked in front of a SMART commuter train Thursday had moved to Sonoma County less than a year earlier from Round Rock, Texas, near Austin.

Joseph Jay De Frates relocated to Rohnert Park last November and worked at a gas station, his mother, Round Rock resident Nancy Kern, said late Friday.

She said her son had a seizure disorder that prevented him from driving and that he may have been walking home from where he worked when he was hit shortly before 5 p.m. Thursday.

Kern said reports De Frates was wearing earbuds and appeared to be listening to music meaning he probably didn’t hear the train coming until the last second.

And while the case — the third fatality on the SMART tracks in its first year of operation — remains under investigation, Kern said she believes her son’s death was accidental, not intentional. The two other deaths were ruled suicides.

Kern also said she was told by a Sonoma County sheriff’s representative that videotape of the incident shows her son looking up and trying to step out of the way of the fast-coming train in his last moments.

He “tried to step back and didn’t make it,” she said.

A Sonoma County sheriff’s spokesman was not available to confirm her account.

De Frates was walking east on Golf Course Drive when he approached the train track with his head down, apparently absorbed by his phone.

De Frates worked at a Shell gas station on Redwood Drive, west of Highway 101 and the SMART track, said Michael Gudis, who was working at the station Friday night. He said De Frates was homeless, but that he had friends that lived on Hacienda Circle, off Golf Course Drive to the east of the tracks.

“Joey was homeless,” Gudis said. “We hired him knowing that.

“We told him if he cleaned up, no problem.”

Gudis said the job at the gas station had been good for De Frates.

“He got himself a job; he was making some money. It gave him purpose,” Gudis said.

Another man at the gas station, who gave his name only as Buster, said De Frates was using the money he earned at work to improve his life. He had bought a new pair of shoes to replace donated shoes that didn’t fit well and hurt his feet.

Gudis said De Frates had told his employer about his traumatic brain injury, and that he suffered seizures when he didn’t take his medication. De Frates told his coworkers he had not had a seizure in a while.

De Frates had been due to work the graveyard shift at the Shell station, Gudis said, meaning he would have started work at 10 p.m. the night after he was hit by the train.

The northbound train was heading into a “quiet zone,” where the engineer is not required to sound the horn except for emergencies, but witnesses and the train engineer said he sounded it repeatedly as the pedestrian headed into his path.

The engineer also activated the emergency braking system but could not stop in time and struck the victim. De Frates was thrown about 10 yards. The train, with 84 passengers on board, came to a stop about 300 feet beyond the point of impact,

Fire coverage

To read all of the Press Democrat's fire coverage, click here.

It was not clear late Friday if the engineer would have blown the horn any earlier had the crossing not been in a quiet zone, but Kern said she thought the “silent zone” might have been a factor in her son’s death.

“I hope they make it an unsilent zone,” she said.

Broken headphones, as well as a cellphone, were found near De Frates’ body, Rohnert Park Public Safety Department Cmdr. Aaron Johnson said Friday.

The items were consistent with witness statements from the day before, which described the victim wearing headphones on his ears and walking down the sidewalk with his head down and with something in his hands.

“We take steps to figure out if this was an accident (or) if it was intentional,” Johnson said. “That takes a lot of time with the amount of layers in an investigation that has to happen.”

Gudis said that even when De Frates didn’t have his earbuds in, he could be really absorbed in what he was doing on his phone.

“I can picture Joey not looking up,” he said.

SMART Police Chief Jennifer Welch said Friday that the rail service expected to provide Rohnert Park police with the video footage and other train data by Saturday.

The train was traveling 66 mph when it struck De Frates, Welch said. The maximum speed in that area is 79 mph. The collision occurred just over a mile north of the train system’s Rohnert Park station.

Kern said De Frates suffered a traumatic brain injury two years ago and, for the most part, had recovered, though he still had seizures. Childhood friends from Texas had moved to Rohnert Park, prompting him to head toward the region last fall.

Though she had not seen him since his departure from Texas, she spoke with him a few days before his death.

“He was happier there, than here,” she said.

The train engineer is on leave from work and will undergo a mental health evaluation before returning to his post, Welch said.

The rail service will send a report about the crash to the Federal Railroad Administration after completing its own investigation into the collision, which will include some of the Rohnert Park department’s findings.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com, and Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com,

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