Eduardo Moreno of San Pedro, 45, entered his plea to a charge of committing a terrorist attack and other violence against railroad carriers and mass transportation systems, which carries a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years and lifetime supervised release, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
However, Moreno's plea agreement states that the government intends to seek a sentence of about six-and-a-half years and restitution of $700,000 to be paid to Pacific Harbor Line, the railroad company at the port.
A sentencing hearing was set for March 11.
No one was injured in the March 31, 2020, incident and the USNS Mercy was not damaged. The train leaked fuel that required a hazardous-materials cleanup.
In an interview with FBI agents, Moreno stated that he ran the train off the track out of a desire to wake people up'' because the Mercy was "suspicious'' and not what they say it's for,'' according to documents filed in Los Angeles federal court.
The train crash was witnessed by a California Highway Patrol officer, who took Moreno into custody as he fled the scene, federal prosecutors said.
The officer reported seeing the train smash into a concrete barrier at the end of the track, smash into a steel barrier, smash into a chain-link fence, slide through a parking lot, slide across another lot filled with gravel and smash into a second chain-link fence,'' according to court papers.
When the CHP officer contacted Moreno, he made a series of spontaneous statements, including, "You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching. I had to. People don't know what's going on here. Now they will,'' according to court filings.
In his first interview with port police, Moreno admitted crashing the train, saying he was suspicious of the Mercy and believed it had an alternate purpose related to COVID-19, such as a "government takeover,'' prosecutors said.
Moreno stated that he acted alone and had not pre-planned the attack. While admitting to intentionally derailing and crashing the train, he said he knew it would bring media attention and "people could see for themselves,'' referring to the Mercy, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The L.A. Port Police reviewed video recorded from the locomotive's cab, officials said. One video shows the train clearly moving at a high rate of speed before crashing through various barriers and coming into close proximity to three occupied vehicles. A second video shows Moreno in the cab holding a lighted flare, according to prosecutors.
The Mercy docked at the port on March 27, 2020. Its 1,000 hospital beds were used as a relief valve for Southland hospitals overrun with coronavirus patients. The hospital ship did not treat any COVID-19 patients.