Park Ranger Margaret Anderson, a mother of two who was married to another ranger at the park, was shot about 10:30 a.m. Sunday after setting up a roadblock to stop a car that was fleeing another officer.
UPDATE 12:30 PM MONDAY: The body of a man believed responsible for fatally shooting a ranger in Mount Rainier National Park on Sunday has been found in a ditch in the snow, law enforcement sources said Monday. Updates in The Today File.
ORIGINAL STORY: A man who was being sought in the shooting of four people at a New Year’s party in South King County early Sunday is suspected in the fatal shooting of a park ranger in Mount Rainier National Park later in the morning.
Park Ranger Margaret Anderson, a mother of two who was married to another ranger at the park, was shot about 10:30 a.m. after setting up a roadblock to stop a car that was fleeing another officer.
She was shot when the driver apparently stepped out of the vehicle with a shotgun and opened fire. It took authorities nearly 90 minutes to get to her because the assailant continued to fire an assault rifle at Pierce County SWAT team officers as they tried to assist the injured ranger, officials said.
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Anderson was the first park ranger shot and killed in the line of duty at Mount Rainier.
Nearly eight hours earlier, King County sheriff’s deputies responded to shots fired at a party in Skyway, where an early-morning session of “show and tell” with guns among several armed partygoers devolved into a shootout, according to detectives.
Four people were shot, and three people fled the scene. One of them was identified as Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24.
Kevin Bacher, a spokesman for Mount Rainier National Park, said the vehicle recovered at the scene of Anderson’s shooting was registered to Barnes. Authorities say they found weapons, body armor and survivalist gear in the vehicle.
Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said they know the suspect is carrying an assault rifle because shell casings were found at the scene, but no assault rifle was found in the car. Troyer displayed photos of Barnes, including one showing him holding two assault-style rifles.
“He had come up here fully armed with equipment to hide out,” Troyer said.
The manhunt Sunday resulted in the shutdown of the park, and 125 visitors and 17 staff members were held in lockdown at the park’s Jackson Visitor Center.
Authorities late Sunday night had planned to keep the visitors in lockdown until at least Monday morning, but actually started an evacuation at midnight.
“The brought people out in their own vehicles, in small sets accompanied by law enforcement vehicles,” Spokesman Lee Taylor said. “It took a couple of hours, but by 3:30 a.m. they had evacuated all 125 and another 25 who were still at Longmire.”
Taylor said there was a plan at some point yesterday to use an armored vehicle to evacuate people, but authorities instead let visitors drive their own cars under escort.
The park would remain closed Monday, officials announced.
Searchers flew over the park Sunday night in a plane with infrared equipment that picks up signs of body heat.
Meanwhile, a tactical team was trying to track the assailant through nearly 2 feet of fresh snow as temperatures fell. More than 100 law-enforcement officers from the National Park Service, FBI, Pierce County and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife were on the scene.
“We believe we have a good track on him,” Troyer said. “But he’s way out ahead of us.”
The gunman’s tracks went into creeks and other waterways, making it more difficult for crews to follow. “He’s intentionally trying to get out of the snow,” Troyer said.
FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo-Dietrich said the bureau has dedicated “considerable resources” to the shooting, which involves the death of a federal officer in a national park, meaning any prosecution will likely wind up in federal court.
“We’re talking about a subject that has an advantage,” State Patrol spokesman Guy Gill said. “He’s barricaded down in the woods, armed. It puts officers at a disadvantage. It requires a lot of planning.”
Barnes is the father of a 1-year-old daughter, and custody documents filed in Pierce County Superior Court by the child’s mother describe him as an Iraq war veteran plagued by anger and depression who was hospitalized after threatening suicide last January.
In July, the mother, Nicole Santos, petitioned the court for an amended parenting plan and restraining order, citing threats of violence by Barnes.
“I just feel there is so much instability,” Santos wrote in a July 19 petition seeking to restrict Barnes’ access to the child.
“I think it is important for the court to know that Benjamin was also deployed to Iraq in 2007-2008 and has possible PTSD issues,” she wrote, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “He gets easily irritated, angry, depressed and frustrated.
“Benjamin also has a lot of weapons in his home, such as, firearms and knives,” Santos wrote. “I am fearful of what Benjamin is capable of with the small arsenal he has in his home and his recent threats of suicide.”
Attempts to contact Barnes’ family were unsuccessful. A man who answered the phone at a number associated with his parents in California said he had no comment and hung up.
The incident at Mount Rainier started about 10:15 a.m., Taylor said, when park rangers attempted to pull over a vehicle on the road just above Longmire after it blew past a tire-chain checkpoint. Pursuing officers radioed ahead for backup.
In response, Anderson drove to an area known as Barn Flats, about a mile or so south of Paradise, and used her cruiser to block the road.
When the fleeing car approached, according to Taylor, the driver stopped.
“He just jumped out and shot her,” Taylor said.
A maintenance worker and his colleague had been driving up the road toward Paradise when they heard on the park’s radio system that rangers were chasing what appeared to be a blue Pontiac in the same direction. They pulled over and let the car and law-enforcement officer pass them, the worker said.
“As soon as they went by, we pulled out and started to follow,” said Steve Young, who was in the passenger seat. “At that point we heard they had an officer who was coming down who was going to try and stop the vehicle from above.”
Young said the ranger’s vehicle that they were following was around a corner about 100 yards ahead of them, when he heard at least five shots. Suddenly, the ranger’s vehicle started backing down.
“His windows were shot out,” Young said by phone from Longmire.
Lisa Pyle, from Auburn, said she and her husband, Derek Pyle, were on their way up because their daughter had been camping at Paradise, but a ranger turned them away. They saw a ranger’s car near the visitor center with three bullet holes through the windshield. Their daughter and other guests were locked down inside the park.
Authorities think the ambush at Mount Rainier had its beginnings at the house party in Skyway, where deputies responded to a 911 call of a shooting, according to King County sheriff’s Sgt. Cindi West, spokeswoman for the department.
Deputies arrived to find three men and a woman shot. All were taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where two were listed in critical condition late Sunday. All four are in their 20s.
Deputies say witnesses told them that a man — now believed to be Barnes — had been at the party and got into an argument.
West said at least one person at the party appears to have returned fire, although it was not believed that the assailant was injured, she said. The man left the scene afterward.
West said numerous rounds were fired: “It was quite a shootout,” she said.
She said three children were in the home and that none of the victims had a significant criminal history.
Anderson and her husband, Eric Anderson, had both worked at Rainier for about four years. They have two daughters, ages 3 and 1.
“Margaret is a wonderful, wonderful young lady,” said her mother-in-law, Cynthia Anderson, of Hanson, Mass.
Margaret Anderson was born near Toronto and grew up in Connecticut and Westfield, N.J.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, in a statement Sunday night, said: “We are grateful for her service and for the service of the community of park rangers and employees who are no doubt impacted by this senseless tragedy.”
Congress lifted a ban on carrying loaded guns in national parks in February 2010 amid warnings by critics that the action would lead to gun violence and poaching.
Rangers have one of the most widely varying jobs at Mount Rainier. As the park’s front-line law-enforcement officers, they drive lonely rural roads by themselves and do everything from issue speeding tickets to respond to car accidents to arrest lawbreakers. But they also hike trails, respond to fires and are some of the first called out to search for lost or injured visitors. During winter, rangers also help set up signs and prepare recreation spots for snowshoers.
The park has about 15 law-enforcement officers at this time of year, Snook said.
Staff reporters Jack Broom and Carol Pucci contributed to this report from Mount Rainier National Park. News researcher David Turim also contributed, and material from The Associated Press was included. Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @craigawelch.