Special Reports

Law enforcement rangers serve as park’s cops

A single park ranger making a traffic stop is one of the most intense situations rangers face while working at Mount Rainier National Park.

“You never know who you are going to deal with,” said John Wilcox, a former ranger who worked at the park for 28 years, including as a law enforcement ranger.

“You’re all alone, miles from any kind of backup. It would take a long time for any backup to reach you. Your only connection is that person in the communication center.”

Wilcox, who retired in 2000, talked about the situations faced by the park’s small cadre of law enforcement rangers after Sunday’s shooting death of law enforcement ranger Margaret Anderson.

“It just shocks,” he said of the killing. “I’m just having trouble understanding this.”

The role of law enforcement rangers differs from interpretive rangers found working at visitor centers or leading hikes. The park typically has 12 to 15 law enforcement rangers on staff, plus additional seasonal help during the summer.

Serving as the park’s police force, law enforcement rangers patrol almost 150 miles of roads and enforce the laws within the 368-square-mile park. But they also fill roles such as first responders, emergency medical technicians and climbing rescue rangers.

Beyond basic ranger training, the National Park Service sends all law enforcement rangers to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Ga. There they go through 17 weeks of training, following a Park Service-specific curriculum. They also must go through annual refresher training and twice annual firearms qualifications.

Looking back on his experiences, Wilcox recalled the stress that came while simply patrolling the road from Paradise to Longmire after it had been closed for the night. Occasionally people would drive around the half-closed gate at Longmire, still thinking the road was open.

“As you’re coming down, all of a sudden you see headlights coming at you and you find yourself in a traffic stop,” Wilcox said. “You never know what type of person you were going to deal with.

National parks see every type of crime and misdemeanor you see in the big city, just less of it, he said. “Of all the years I worked there and the years before that,” Wilcox said, “I can’t think of anything this serious happening at Mount Rainier.”

As a park superintendent, Dave Uberuaga said managers and rangers always discussed this type of incident. Uberuaga was superintendent at Mount Rainier for more than eight years before leaving in May to take the same position at Grand Canyon National Park.

“We talked about this a lot,” he said Sunday. “It may not happen, but it might. You have to have that heavy vigilance because you never know what might happen. The intenseness of what they deal with is something we sometimes forget. The thousands and thousands of stops they make, they have to be ready.”

Neither Wilcox nor Uberuaga could recall an incident in which a Mount Rainier ranger was threatened with a gun or shot at.

Eight National Park Sevice rangers have been slain in the line of duty, according to National Park Service spokesman Bill Halainen.

Before Sunday, the most recent park ranger to be shot and killed on duty was Kristopher W. Eggle, who died Aug. 9, 2002 in Arizona, Halainen said.

In 2008, U.S. Forest Service officer Kristine Fairbanks was shot and killed while on duty in the Olympic National Forest after she pulled over a van without license plates. The driver of the van, 36-year-old Shawn Roe, was killed several hours later in a shoot-out with police officers at a gas station near Sequim.

The Eggle shooting took place while he and several U.S. Border Patrol agents tried to apprehend two armed, illegal aliens in Arizona. The suspects had fled from Mexican authorities into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Mexican authorities called the Border Patrol and notified them of the suspects.

A Border Patrol helicopter in the area spotted the suspects and directed Eggle and the Border Patrol agents to the area. One suspect was apprehended without incident, but the second opened fire with an AK-47 rifle. Eggle was hit below his vest, causing a fatal wound.

The website Officer Down Memorial Page reports that 28 rangers have died in the line of duty. By 5:30 p.m. Sunday, there were more than 140 reflections on the website’s entry of Anderson’s death.

The last time rangers died at Mount Rainier was in 1995, when climbing rangers Phil Otis and Sean Ryan fell to their deaths trying to rescue a man with a broken ankle on the 14,411-foot mountain’s east side.

Jeffrey P. Mayor:253-597-8640jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.comblog.thenewstribune.com/adventure