Mount Rainier National Park will remain closed today as a major manhunt continues for the man suspected of shooting and killing a ranger Sunday after a routine traffic stop. Bystanders who spent a long day locked down at a park visitor center were evacuated overnight.
Authorities said Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, is a “strong person of interest” in the slaying of 34-year-old Margaret Anderson, believed to be the first Mount Rainier National Park ranger shot and killed while on duty in the park.
The King County Sheriff’s Office said Barnes also is being sought after in connection with a shooting at a house party in Skyway near Renton early Sunday when a man and woman were critically injured and two men were wounded. Deputies declined to comment on Barnes other than to confirm that he was a person of interest in Sunday’s two shootings.
“The assassination of the park ranger is extremely tragic and is the top priority right now,” sheriff’s Sgt. Cindy West said.
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Barnes is believed armed with a shotgun and is thought to be the gunman seen running from where the ranger was shot, an area known as Barn Flats, about a mile below Paradise. Weapons and body armor were found inside Barnes’ car at the shooting scene. He has military experience and is believed to possess skills to survive in the wild.
Authorities were searching through the night, using fixed-wing aircraft with an infra-red device to scan the ground.
Evacuations wrapped up overnight of about 125 visitors and 17 staff members who were holed up at the Jackson Visitors' Center in Paradise. They were brought to fire station in Ashford, where they were interviewed by FBI.
Crews had initially planned to keep everyone in a basement with guards. But it was determined to be "better to do it (evacuate) under the cover of darkness than daylight," Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said.
Evacuee Dinh Jackson, a mother from Olympia, who came to the mountain to sled with family and friends, told The Associated Press that officials ordered people to hurry into the lodge after the shooting.
Jackson said officials had everyone get on their knees and place hands behind their heads as they went through the building, looking at faces to make sure the gunman was not among them.
"That was scary for the kids," she said.
Anderson's body was brought out of the park overnight by law enforcement.
Anderson was married to a fellow ranger and had two daughters, who are approximately 2 and 4. She lived in Eatonville and began working at Mount Rainier four years ago. Park Superintendent Randy King said her death was weighing on rangers and visitors alike.
“She was a wonderful person, a very pleasant person and an excellent ranger,” King said. “She was one of those all-around rangers.”
Anderson was the first law enforcement ranger killed on-duty on Mount Rainier since climbing rangers Phil Otis and Sean Ryan fell to their deaths in 1995 while trying to rescue a man with a broken ankle on the mountain’s east side.
When she was killed she was wearing a black bar over her badge in honor of U.S. Park Police Sgt. Michael Boehm, who died Dec. 16 in Washington, D.C., while helping another officer with a critically injured person.
Sunday’s incident started shortly after 10 a.m. when a ranger stopped a blue Pontiac driving past Longmire. The car had failed to stop at a tire chain checkpoint.
The Pontiac took off and when rangers radioed ahead what had happened, Anderson pulled her car across the road in the Barn Flats area to act as a roadblock, park spokesman Kevin Bacher said. The driver is believed to have jumped from his car and shot Anderson before running into the woods, authorities said.
It took nearly 90 minutes for help to reach Anderson because the gunman kept firing at law enforcement officers as they arrived, authorities said.
A maintenance worker and his colleague told The Seattle Times they 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. They pulled over and let the car and a 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 first ranger’s vehicle 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 the road.
“His windows were shot out,” Young said by phone from Longmire.
The shooting brought more than 100 law enforcement personnel from agencies including Sheriff’s Department, the FBI, the Washington State Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service to the park to help with the search. A tactical team was trying to track the gunman and a Pierce County sheriff’s SWAT team and a U.S. Border Patrol Black Hawk helicopter were deployed.
“We’re working to keep everybody safe,” Troyer said.
Armored vehicles were brought in to remove visitors who were hunkered down in the park, he said.
Melinda Simpson, operations manager for the park’s guest services, said the Jackson Visitor Center went into lockdown at 11:30 a.m. and the National Park Inn at Longmire at 1 p.m. The Paradise Inn has not yet opened for the season.
Simpson said she got her guests together at the inn and tried to keep the mood “rational and sane.” Many others were hiking or snowshoeing in the park at the time of the shooting. Officers searching for the shooter asked them to return to the lodge or to their cars.
Dozens of others hoping to spend the first day of the year at Mount Rainier were turned away at the Nisqually Entrance with no explanation as to why. Roy residents Ken and Melody Loney tried to enter the park about 11:30 a.m. but were turned back. They spent several hours sitting in their Jeep in the parking lot of the Gateway Inn just outside the park entrance.
“We’re just hanging out,” Ken Loney said. “We have the day off.”
Jessica Provines, 23, of Tacoma also was headed to Rainier to play in the snow and was rerouted. Sunday “was our last chance to get out and play around, but we were in it for the drive,” she said, adding that her disappointment paled in relation to Anderson’s death.
King County sheriff’s detectives were working Sunday with Barnes’ family in hopes he would turn himself in and tell his side of the story about the Skyway shooting. Two others who fled the house party are in custody.
Witnesses said several people at the party were armed and playing “show and tell” with their guns when an argument over a firearm broke out about 3 a.m. and the four people were shot.
News Tribune staff writers Craig Hill and Jeffrey P. Mayor and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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