By Mike Baker
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. – A Mount Rainier National Park ranger was fatally shot following a New Year’s Day traffic stop, and the 368-square-mile park in Washington state was closed as dozens of officers searched for the armed gunman over snowy and rugged terrain.
Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said late Sunday afternoon that Benjamin Colton Barnes, a 24-year-old believed to have survivalist skills, was a “strong person of interest” in the slaying of Margaret Anderson. A parks spokesman said Barnes was an Iraq war veteran.
Authorities recovered his vehicle, which had weapons and body armor inside, Troyer said.
Barnes was also a suspect in the early Sunday morning shooting of four people at a house party south of Seattle, police said.
Authorities believed the gunman was still in the woods with weapons. They asked people to stay away from the park, and for those already inside to leave.
“We do have a very hot and dangerous situation,” Troyer said.
Troyer said authorities were following tracks in the snow they believe are from the gunman, and crews planned to bring an airplane through the area with heat-seeking capabilities.
“We believe we have a good track on him, but he’s way ahead of us,” Troyer said.
Kevin Bacher, a spokesman for the park, said about 125 people would spend Sunday night in the visitors center basement along with five law enforcement officers protecting the facility. He said crews had considered removing them in armored vehicles, but decided not to take any risk. There was enough food at the center, but Bacher said diapers were running in short supply.
The park would remain closed today, officials announced late Sunday.
Jason Simpson, 29, of Kent, said his parents were still trapped at the visitors center after traveling to the mountain for a day hike. His parents were able to make a call explaining their situation, and Simpson drove to the park entrance to wait.
“It’s very distressing,” Simpson said.
Sgt. Cindi West, King County sheriff’s spokesperson, said late Sunday that Barnes was connected to an early-morning shooting at a New Year’s house party in Skyway, Wash., south of Seattle that left four people injured, two critically. That incident happened about 3 a.m., and stemmed from an argument over a gun.
West said three people fled the scene. Two were located, and West said authorities were trying to find Barnes and had been in contact with his family, trying to have them convince him to “come to the police and tell his side of the story” in the Skyway shooting.
At Mount Rainier around 10:20 a.m. Sunday, Bacher said, the gunman had sped past a checkpoint. One ranger began following him while Anderson eventually blocked the road to stop the driver.
Before fleeing, the gunman fired shots at both Anderson and the ranger that trailed him, but only Anderson was hit, Bacher said.
It was possible that searchers may wait until morning to continue the effort.
“We do not know what resources the shooter has. We’re not sure what we’re up against,” Bacher said. “We know that he has a weapon, but we don’t know how many.”
About 150 officers, including officials from the Washington State Patrol, U.S. Forest Service and FBI, were on the mountain.
An FBI SWAT team was working to remove Anderson’s body from the mountain Sunday night.
Mount Rainier has never had an officer shot and killed in the line of duty, said Lee Snook, a public information officer with the Park Service.
Park superintendent Randy King said Anderson is a mother of two young daughters who has served as a park ranger for about four years. King said Anderson’s husband, Eric, also was working as a ranger elsewhere in the park at the time of the shooting.
“It’s just a huge tragedy – for the family, the park and the park service,” he said.
Margaret Anderson’s mother-in-law said her oldest daughter, Anna, was born on Feb. 14, 2008, making her 3. The youngest, Katie, will turn 2 in May.
Eric Anderson has been left “devastated” by his wife’s slaying, Cynthia Anderson said in the telephone interview.
The couple met when both worked as park rangers at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Anderson said, her voice choking with emotion.
They then moved to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where they worked nearby in different parks, Anderson said.
About four years ago, they got the opportunity to work in the same park at Mount Rainier, Anderson said.
“That is why they decided to go out there,” Anderson said. “It’s beautiful out there.”
Their dream was to work together and raise a family, Anderson said.
“They’re both very outdoorsy,” Anderson said. “And very religious, too,” Anderson said, explaining that both are Lutherans and that Margaret Anderson is the daughter of a Lutheran minister.
It has been legal for people to take loaded firearms into Mount Rainier since 2010, when a controversial federal law went into effect that made possession of firearms in national parks subject to state gun laws.
The shooting occurred on an unseasonably sunny and mild day. The park, which offers miles of wooded trails and spectacular vistas from which to see 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, draws between 1.5 million and 2 million visitors each year.
The Longmire station served as headquarters when the national park was established in 1899. Park headquarters have moved but the site still contains a museum, a hotel, restaurant and gift shop, which are open year-round.
The Seattle Times contributed to this report.