Mount Rainier shooting drew a strong, many-pronged response

Staff writersJanuary 7, 2012 

Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012: Sirens interrupted the sermon.

The Rev. Galen Gallimore, pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church in Spanaway, paused and listened. Outside, the long noise passed, a howl that rose and fell.

“Prayers for whoever that siren is going for,” Gallimore said, and resumed.

Kevin Bacher, a park ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, sat among the parishioners. It was his day off, a holiday down from the mountain, the morning of a new year.

More sirens followed. Bacher wondered what was happening.

He didn’t know yet, but the sirens were for his colleague and friend. On the mountain, 50 miles away, ranger Margaret Anderson was dying, fatally shot by a gunman who had fled into the park, near an area called Paradise.

A swarm of law enforcement officers, searchers and, later, Bacher himself, would converge on the mountain in the hard hours that followed.

NASCAR PIT STOP

Pierce County sheriff’s deputy Brian Coburn was wrapping up an arrest when his radio crackled sometime after 10 a.m.

Shots fired. Officer down. Mount Rainier National Park.

Coburn works out of the Sheriff’s Department’s Mountain Detachment in Eatonville. He jumped into his patrol SUV and sped off, lights and sirens blazing. He gassed up at a station in Elbe – “It was like a NASCAR pit stop” – and reached the park in about 40 minutes, slaloming over snow and ice.

“The roads were treacherous,” he said.

As he drove toward Paradise, Coburn didn’t know what he faced or who he was looking for. Deputies had few details about what happened, and no description of the suspected shooter.

“Basically, you are racing and you’re blind,” Coburn said. “We were told they were attempting a felony stop and shots were fired and an officer was down.”

RESPONDING TO ALERT

Kevin Bacher, worried by the continuing sirens, stepped out to the entrance hall of the church and pulled out his phone. A breaking news alert from The News Tribune flashed on the little screen: Ranger shot at Mount Rainier.

“My heart dropped through my stomach,” Bacher said.

He showed the message to his wife, Kelli. They’d driven separate cars that morning, a piece of grim luck. Bacher rushed home, driving too fast, changed into uniform and rushed out again, heading for the mountain. On the drive, he listened to the radio. The news reports jumbled. A park ranger shot – a forest ranger shot. Who was it?

POSSIBLE MANHUNT

Sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Berry was enjoying a lazy New Year’s Day morning at home with family and friends when his pager hummed at 10:55 a.m.

An officer had been shot at Mount Rainier National Park. Berry, 39-year-old commander of the Sheriff’s Department’s SWAT team, called dispatch to find out more.

No one knew much. Berry changed clothes and headed for the park.

Scenarios raced through his head. A shooter on the loose would mean a manhunt. Innocent citizens out camping or hiking would be in danger.

Maybe someone would catch the shooter before Berry arrived. If so, he could turn around – but not yet.

RESCUE ATTEMPT

A sense of purpose propelled Nick Hausner past the park entrance and up a windy mountain road.

The sheriff’s sergeant couldn’t reach park rangers on his radio channels, so he focused on what he knew: A ranger had been shot by a gunman who had bolted into the heavy forest.

Hausner knew about shooters. In December 2009, a drunken man had seriously wounded him and killed his partner, deputy Kent Mundell, when they responded to a domestic call in Eatonville.

Nearing the scene, Hausner saw a bullet-riddled pickup truck, two rangers and four fellow deputies. Brian Coburn arrived around the same time.

The pickup truck belonged to ranger Daniel Camiccia, who’d faced fire from the gunman but backed out of the scene, escaping injury.

It was pushing noon. The deputies took stock. No radio contact from ranger Margaret Anderson for more than an hour. The gunman could be anywhere. Camiccia had seen him fire repeatedly at Anderson’s SUV.

Anderson needed help. Her status was unclear. Her vehicle was out of sight range.

“We assumed at this point she was injured,” Hausner said. “Our intent was to rescue Ranger Anderson.”

They grabbed rifles, emptied the bed of the pickup and piled in the back, hunkering down. They wedged a bulletproof vest in the windshield and shoved a ballistic shield next to the driver’s door. Another ranger arrived and got behind the wheel.

“We understood there was significant risk going up there to recover her,” Hausner said. “We didn’t think it prudent to wait.”

The truck started rolling.

Gunshots echoed from the mountain. The deputies couldn’t tell where they came from. Coburn called dispatchers on his radio: Shots fired.

“All that confirmed for us was that he is still in the area, he is still armed and he is still firing,” Coburn said. “And that is how we approached it going up there.”

FULL SWAT TEAM CALLED

Mark Berry, still racing toward the mountain, called for the SWAT team’s armored vehicle, stationed at the South Hill Precinct.

Over his car radio, he heard the deputies on the mountain forming a rescue team for Anderson.

“Really hairy what those guys did,” Berry said.

Coburn’s voice crackled over the airwaves: Shots fired. Berry called dispatch again and asked for a full SWAT team callout.

Still a distance from the scene, Berry had to assume the worst. Perhaps the gunman was shooting at officers or at campers. He could be headed to the Jackson Visitor Center, where visitors were romping in the snow. None of the possibilities looked good.

“Everything is going through your mind,” Berry said.

‘WE HAVE HER’

The deputies in the bed of the pickup truck crouched down, pointing their rifles toward the sides of the road, scanning for movement.

No other cars were on the road. No other people were in sight.

“Tense is not the word,” Coburn said. “It was one of those moments where you prayed that you survived this call.”

The truck rounded a bend. The deputies spotted the suspect’s blue Pontiac sedan. The driver’s side doors were open. No one was around the car.

About 100 yards from the Pontiac, Anderson’s SUV, the engine still running, pointed into a snowy embankment. The deputies saw her sitting inside.

Coburn and deputy Frank Brown raced to Anderson.

Hausner and the others stood guard in case the gunman returned or fired at them from the trees.

Brown opened the driver’s door, turned off the engine and unbuckled the wounded ranger. Coburn carried her to the bed of the pickup truck.

“We have her,” Coburn told dispatchers at 12:02 p.m.

Anderson wasn’t breathing. One of the deputies checked for a pulse. Someone said she was gone.

EVERYBODY RESPONDS

Kevin Bacher reached the park office at 12:12 p.m. and learned that Margaret Anderson had been shot – Margaret – a parishioner at Bacher’s church, a 34-year-old mother of two, a friend and neighbor who babysat his kids.

Margaret shot, the gunman loose.

“It was nuts,” Bacher said, his voice quavering. “Everybody was responding. They were closing roads, evacuating visitors.”

Was Margaret all right? The question flooded his mind.

A TERRIBLE MOMENT

The pickup truck, carrying Anderson and the deputies, drove back down to a growing cluster of patrol cars, the deputies still watching for any sign of the gunman.

“We were considered at a very hot scene,” Coburn said. “He could have come down the mountain at any moment.”

Within 30 minutes, a medic rig reached the scene and checked Anderson. Paramedics confirmed she had died.

Over the radio, Bacher heard the emergency medical team was standing down – a bad sign. The final word soon followed.

“That was a terrible moment,” Bacher said. “And then somebody had to tell Eric.”

Eric Anderson, also a law enforcement ranger at Rainier, was Margaret’s husband. He’d been waiting for word. Randy King, the park’s new superintendent, broke the news. Margaret was gone.

Law enforcement officers drove Eric Anderson home to Eatonville to be with his family.

“After that it was chaos,” Bacher said. “We were in emergency mode.”

MORE TO DO

The deputies covered Anderson’s body in the back of the pickup truck.

The weight of the moment fell on the first responders, but Hausner knew there was more to do. The shooter was still on the run and 100 or so people were frolicking in Paradise, unaware of the danger.

Protecting park visitors was a priority, but the team wasn’t equipped to hunt the shooter. Hausner decided not to send the deputies up the mountain – better to wait for the SWAT team and the armored vehicle.

From their vantage point, the deputies watched and waited. They took turns tromping through the snow to nearby ridges to survey the surrounding area.

COMMAND POST

Berry pulled into the park and stopped at Longmire, the headquarters. His rig lacked four-wheel drive, which he needed to reach the rescue team at Paradise.

After setting up a command post at Longmire, he jumped in the back of a pickup truck with a SWAT marksman and hitched a ride.

He carried his rifle and a backpack filled with extra clothes and supplies. Reaching the rescue team, Berry set up a forward command post. The situation was still fluid, the shooter’s name and movements unknown.

He felt sure the gunman was on the mountain somewhere. Roadblocks barred the main escape routes.

From a sheriff’s search and rescue truck, he set up camp and first priorities: Locate the gunman. Contain the crime scene, including the suspect’s car. Locate and protect innocent citizens in the park.

Ranger Kraig Snure told Berry where people were. About 100 people had been shuffled inside the Jackson Visitor Center after the shooting. The building was locked down, but there were no armed officers there.

Berry sent the SWAT team’s armored vehicle, loaded with six SWAT members and five rangers, to Jackson. Perhaps the gunman would shoot at the vehicle and give his location away. Perhaps he was inside the center, hiding in the crowd.

By now, the responders knew the suspect’s name and what he looked like, based on a state Department of Licensing photo tied to the Pontiac’s registration.

The owner was Benjamin Colton Barnes, a 24-year-old ex-soldier.

The crew went into the building and scanned the crowd. The shooter wasn’t there. Five armed rangers stayed behind. The SWAT team returned to the shooting scene. They combed through the Pontiac, finding weapons and body armor. They disabled the vehicle; if the shooter came back, he couldn’t drive away.

DEALING WITH THE MEDIA

At 1:07 p.m., Bacher posted an audio message on the park’s media update message phone confirming Margaret Anderson’s death. His voice cracked with emotion, but he needed just one take.

“In a crisis you have to step up and deliver,” Bacher said. “You just do what you have to do – the same with every part of an emergency response team. Everybody has to do what they have to do. You don’t think about how hard it is or how much it hurts.”

Minutes later, Bacher’s wife, Kelli, called. She was a former Rainier ranger, wedded to the park as well as her husband. Bacher had proposed to Kelli in the park. She asked if she could help. Bacher asked her to help answer the constantly ringing phones. The media were closing in.

Reporters were gathering at the Nisqually entrance to the park. Bacher drove down, greeted by TV cameras and Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department.

Bacher, not a full-time media spokesman, got a crash course in crisis communications from Troyer, a veteran of breaking incidents.

“He was coaching me,” Bacher said. “He’d say, ‘This is what they are going to ask. Be prepared for this. Say this and don’t say this.’ ”

TRACKS SPOTTED

Meanwhile, Sgt. Ted Holden, a veteran state Fish and Wildlife agent, was shuttling SWAT team members from Longmire to the shooting scene.

On his third trip, Holden spotted “man tracks” off the roadway in the snow. The 30-year veteran hadn’t seen them on his previous two rounds.

The tracks were in the deep snow. Not typical, not an animal.

“You wouldn’t see bear in snow like that,” Holden said. “It might have been moose, but we don’t have moose on Mount Rainier.”

Holden and two SWAT officers climbed into the bed of the truck and looked at the tracks.

“We could see clearly that they came right up to the road,” Holden said. “They were very fresh tracks, and they were leading away from the road.”

Holden figured someone had climbed the steep berm, jumped into the waist-deep snow and run into the timber.

The three set up a defensive perimeter and waited for two more SWAT officers to arrive. Holden decoded the tracks for Mark Berry.

Rangers brought snowshoes to the command post. A team of SWAT members laced up and followed the tracks. They moved slowly, methodically. At each stage, a marksman provided cover as the team moved along.

“You are looking at his tracks and checking every tree for him,” Berry said. “Because, again, the only way you are going to find him is when he shoots you.”

Berry leaned on Kraig Snure’s knowledge of the terrain. The ranger suspected the gunman had headed for Paradise Creek. The tracks went about 50 yards from the road to the chilly water, then stopped.

Holden held his rifle as the SWAT team investigated.

“It was a heavily wooded area,” Holden said. “We were concerned about them getting sniped off.”

SEARCH CONTINUES

A U.S. Border Patrol plane flew into the area and soared above the tracking teams. The plane followed the tracks back to the suspect’s Pontiac. The SWAT team was on the right path.

“Now, we know we are on this guy’s tracks but we don’t know the timeline,” Berry said. “Are they an hour old or 10 minutes old?”

Snure again chimed in. The tracks were at the top of Narada Falls. Climbing down the falls was impossible. That said something about the gunman’s likely direction.

The gunman had two options: Cross the road and hike up the edge of the mountain, or cross Paradise Creek before Narada Falls and go down. The latter path led to open areas. Berry set up officers to watch the routes.

“We are hoping we can kind of keep him locked in,” Berry said.

Conditions favored the searchers. It wasn’t snowing, and it was still daylight.

Berry figured the gunman was moving in and out of the creek to hide his tracks, but freezing, possibly looking for shelter.

Members of the Tacoma police SWAT Team and the FBI’s regional SWAT team joined the manhunt and brought armored vehicles. The FBI, leading the investigation, took charge of Anderson’s body.

Hours slipped by. Day passed into night.

The Tacoma SWAT team cleared outbuildings that dotted the area. The tracks had led around a sewage treatment plant. The gunman wasn’t there.

The teams checked other buildings where the shooter might take cover, including a public restroom and a plow-melting shop.

The buildings were heated – and empty.

HELP FROM PORTLAND

Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Josh Goldschmidt was having coffee with a friend when his cellphone rang about 4 p.m.

A park ranger had been killed on Mount Rainier, and a major manhunt was under way for the shooter. Authorities needed an airplane equipped with an infrared camera to help the effort. Planes in the Puget Sound area were unavailable.

Goldschmidt, chief pilot for the Police Bureau’s Air Support Unit, had two aircraft with infrared gear. At 5:30 p.m., he and Clark County sheriff’s deputy Duncan Hoss took off from Portland in a Cessna 182.

By 7 p.m., after gearing up and refueling at Thun Field on South Hill, they were flying over the mountain.

Night had fallen, but the infrared camera could spot heat signatures. Goldschmidt flew above 9,500 feet, aided by moonlight and mild weather, making circle after circle over the area where the gunman was thought to be.

The team spotted a heat source in the area and guided SWAT team members to the location.

They found snow campers, but no gunman.

WHERE IS THE KILLER GOING?

On Sunday night, Kevin Bacher monitored his radio and worked the phones at a ranger post near the park entrance. He tried to figure where the killer might be going.

With the right gear and preparation, the shooter could survive for days or longer. If he knew the park, he could move quickly, even in the snow – a lot of ifs, nothing sure.

“The sum total of what we didn’t know vastly outweighed what we did,” Bacher said. “But we knew from what he had already done that he was dangerous.”

After an 8 p.m. press briefing, Troyer told Bacher to go home. Troyer stayed all night.

Bacher arrived home at 9:15. His two boys, 11 and 14, were waiting for him. He hugged them. Sleep was calling, but he and Kelli stayed up until midnight.

BODY SPOTTED

At the Jackson center, after hours of waiting, the visitors were led under armed guard to their cars and escorted in small caravans down the mountain. The slow process would continue for several hours.

At 2 a.m., the ground teams shut down their search. Officers kept watch and tried to catch a few hours of sleep.

“The team gets to a point where they can’t track anymore,” Mark Berry said. “There are vision issues, and you are working around this creek. It’s not safe anymore.”

Wake-up time was 5:30 a.m. By 7, SWAT searchers were pulling their gear back on. The weather was sharper – colder, windier.

The teams started from Barnes’ Pontiac, FBI SWAT members going in one direction, Pierce County SWAT members in another.

Berry’s team broke into three groups. At the bottom of Narada Falls, they found nothing. Another team worked the upper part of Paradise Creek.

One team member looking down the creekline spotted a blue shirt. The team slowly moved closer, and saw a prone figure in the water.

“They could see him laying down in the creek,” Berry said.

Water rushed over the body. The man was dead.

A closer look told the searchers they had their man: Benjamin Colton Barnes.

“We’ve got the suspect and he’s down,” one member said over the radio. “He’s face down in the river.”

The teams guarded the body. The plane from Portland, returning for morning reconnaissance, was called to the area. Searchers eventually found Barnes’ rifle downriver, and tracks in the snow on either side.

The Portland plane had flown over the same area the previous day, but spotted nothing – possibly because Barnes was already dead, as cold as the creekwater.

“By the time we got there, he was probably the same temperature as the environment around him,” Goldschmidt said.

The SWAT team was finished. Members headed to Longmire, ate lunch and called home. They debriefed and repacked their gear, readying it for the next call.

Berry didn’t rush home. For a while, he sat in his car, letting the heat surround him.

“I went home and hugged my kids for a long time,” he said.

DEFEATED BY THE MOUNTAIN

By Monday morning, Kevin Bacher was back on duty, answering questions from eager reporters.

Word of the discovered gunman soon arrived. The search was over.

Bacher was still grieving for Margaret, but he found a measure of comfort in the way Barnes had fallen, defeated by the mountain.

“It just feels right that the mountain took him,” Bacher said. “The mountain is so much bigger than us. People go up on the mountain and get caught in a snowstorm or fall in a crevasse and die and it’s terrible, but the mountain is dispassionate; there is no malice.

“(Barnes) came up here with malice in his heart and met the mountain. The mountain was just the mountain and took care of him like he was insignificant.”

As one duty ended, another began.

“None of this, responding to the crisis, had anything to do with Margaret,” Bacher said. “We were trying to help other people and keep the casualties to one and do it safely. But once the incident was over, everything shifted. And it shifted to Margaret and her family.

“And that’s where it’s been ever since.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

Stacey Mulick: 253-597-8268
stacey.mulick@thenewstribune.com

Craig Hill: 253-307-5373
craig.hill@thenewstribune.com

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653
stacia.glenn@thenewstribune.com

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service