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Mom says son killed in Amtrak crash had 'turned his life completely around'

Benjamin Gran (Photo provided by Linda Daniels to SeattlePI){ }

Benjamin Gran was a train enthusiast, a beloved son and an autism success story. He was also a registered sex offender, having served nearly two years in federal prison for child pornography crimes.

On Wednesday, the world learned that he among the three men killed in the derailment of the Amtrak Cascades that crashed into Interstate 5 during an inaugural run.

Much was made at SeattlePI and elsewhere of Gran's criminal history in the hours after the 40-year-old's identity was released. Speaking by phone Wednesday evening, though, Gran's mother described her son as an autistic young man caught in a "witch hunt" after being duped by an unrepentant pedophile.

Linda Daniels said her son had recovered from his "little blip" and had made a life for himself.

"He'd pulled it together," Daniels said by phone.

“I am in huge grief,” she continued. “But Ben deserves the truth.”

Daniels described Gran as her “autistic, but awesomely autistic son” who loved trains. Gran, she said, “was an Amtrak fan to the max.”

The days since the deadly Amtrak derailment between Tacoma and Olympia have seen two of the three fatally injured victims, Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite, celebrated for their love of trains. Hamre, 61, and Willhoite, 35, were close friends and volunteers on the board of All Aboard Washington, a rail advocacy organization. Gran shared that love of trains.

"He lived, breathed Amtrak since he was 2," Daniels said by email.

Gran, Hamre and Willhoite died on the inaugural run on a faster train route between Seattle and Portland, Oregon. Authorities are investigating the wreck and have said that the train was going 80 mph in a 30 mph zone, derailing south of Seattle and toppling some cars on Interstate 5 below. Dozens of others were hurt, some seriously.

The Pierce County coroner's office said Wednesday that Gran, 40, died of multiple traumatic injuries sustained in Monday's crash.

His death came six years after child pornography investigators arrived at his door. Gran, who was caught in an investigation into an online forum dedicated to promoting the sexual abuse of children, served a 18 months of a federal prison term after he was caught with a collection of child pornography videos.

Agents visited Gran’s home in July 2011 after investigation launched in the Netherlands targeting “boylovers” identified him as a member of a pedophile group online. Dutch police and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security launched the investigation – dubbed “Operation Rescue” – in 2009 aimed at bringing down the forum. Investigators had by then arrested 12 suspected child abusers and rescued 100 children.

Robert Mikelsons, a Dutch man at the center of the ring and a fellow supporter of the movement to legitimize the sexual abuse of children, had corresponded with Gran directly as early as 2004, according to court papers. Mikelsons and the other forum members asserted molestation was healthy for the children they hurt.

Court papers that would describe Gran more completely remain sealed.

Gran was ultimately sentenced to two years in prison and placed under court supervision for the rest of his life. He was released from federal prison in 2015.

Before his death, he had been working as an accountant for a medical organization related to autism care. His death, Daniels said, “left his friends and family shattered beyond belief.”

In messages shared by Daniels with SeattlePI, Gran was described by one family friend as “a young man graced with a generous spirit and loving heart.” His Special Olympics coaches described him as “a dear sweet friend” who they considered family.

“This young man brought such joy and love to everyone he met,” they wrote in the message provided late Wednesday. “He was incredibly kindhearted and insightful.”

“His love of trains,” they added, “knew no bounds.”

“He made a mistake that he paid dearly for,” Daniels said. “Because of his optimism, a team of professionals and his best friends who believed in Ben, he turned his life completely around and was living his life in a mature, contributing manner, and was the happiest he had been in his life.”

An investigation into the wreck that killed Gran is ongoing.

This report contains information from The Associated Press.

SeattlePI.com is a KOMO News partner. You can read this story at SeattlePI.com here.

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