A troubled veteran of the war in Iraq suspected in the fatal shooting of a park ranger was found dead Monday near a steep, snowy slope not far from Mt. Rainier, ending an intense, 24-hour manhunt that left tourists locked down in fear at a visitors center while 200 law enforcement officers combed the wilderness with dogs and planes.
“They believe it was one person, and that one person has been found dead. So as far as that goes, it’s over,” Mt. Rainier National Park spokeswoman Lee Snook said.
The dramatic standoff during the height of the region’s busy holiday ski season concluded when authorities confirmed that Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, whose abandoned car was found near the scene of Sunday’s fatal shooting of park ranger Margaret Anderson, had been found near Narada Falls, not far from where the original shots were fired.
But Anderson’s killing was probably not the beginning of Barnes’ deadly odyssey: Authorities think the former Army private may have been headed into the wilderness to evade capture after a shootout at a New Year’s Eve party several hours earlier in which four people were injured.
He was wearing only jeans, a T-shirt and one shoe, and probably died of exposure, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer said.
Park guests were evacuated or put on lockdown while more than 100 tourists at the park’s Paradise visitors center were herded inside and ordered to kneel with their hands behind their heads to confirm the gunman was not among them before being sequestered in the center until the early hours of Monday morning.
They were evacuated under cover of darkness, hours before Barnes’ body was discovered by an aircraft equipped with thermal detection equipment.
Park officials said Anderson, a 34-year-old mother of two, was on patrol when she was called to establish a roadblock to halt a man who had blown through a safety checkpoint.
As she placed her vehicle across the road about a mile below the visitors center, park ranger Dan Camiccia drove in to join her from another location. A man, whom authorities now are confident was Barnes, approached the roadblock, swept into a U-turn and emerged firing at both ranger vehicles. Anderson was fatally wounded, but Camiccia escaped, though his vehicle was shot through the windshield.
“He put his vehicle in reverse and backed out of there,” park spokesman Kevin Bacher said. As for Anderson, he said, “She was shot in her vehicle before she even had a chance to get out.”
Barnes, he said, left his car and fled into the forest.
Other rangers and a Pierce County Sheriff’s Department special weapons and tactics team soon arrived, but were prevented from approaching Anderson’s vehicle. “It took them about 90 minutes to secure the situation enough to get Margaret out,” Bacher said. “The shooter was up there still and was firing on the people who were attempting to get Ranger Anderson and help her.”
On Monday flags at the park flew at half-staff, and federal officials extended condolences to the family of Anderson, whose husband is also a ranger.
“The FBI and the law enforcement community want Ranger Anderson’s family to know we honor her for making the ultimate sacrifice in her effort to enable the public to enjoy the beauty of Mt. Rainier and the environment she was sworn to protect,” Laura Laughlin, head of the FBI’s Seattle office, said in a statement.
King County Sheriff’s Department officials said Barnes first came to the attention of law enforcement officials in the wake of a New Year’s Eve party in Skyway, Wash., in which several party guests were apparently showing off their weapons before a shootout broke out.
Three people left the scene; two of those, interviewed by police, said Barnes was the third, and sheriff’s officials were attempting to find him when his car was identified at the scene of Anderson’s shooting.
Barnes’ former girlfriend, Nicole Santos, had sought protection from him in 2011 for the couple’s young daughter. She said Barnes suffered from stress after his deployment to Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
The Army’s human resources command said Barnes served with the 2nd Infantry Division in Iraq and was granted a general discharge under honorable conditions in November 2009 after facing charges for driving under the influence and transporting a privately owned weapon improperly.
An undated photo released by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department shows a strapping Barnes, bare-chested and covered with tattoos, posing with firearms. He stares sternly at the camera.
Santos said in court papers that Barnes kept a small arsenal of guns and knives at his home and had been suicidal. “If you come home don’t be surprised to find my brains splattered all over the walls,” Barnes texted her when she tried to leave him last January. In July, Santos said, he texted her: “I want to die.”
“He gets easily irritated, depressed, angry and frustrated,” she wrote. “I am fearful of what Benjamin is capable of.”