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Manhunt continues for armed murder suspect at Mt. Rainier National Park

January 2, 2012 |  8:28 am

More than 100 visitors were safely evacuated overnight from a visitor's center at Mt. Rainier National Park, where a manhunt continued Monday morning for a suspect armed with a shotgun and survival gear who shot and killed a national park ranger.

The "strong person of interest" identified in the case, Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, is also suspected in a shooting that broke out earlier at a New Years Eve party in Skyway, Wash., that left four people wounded, two of them critically.

"We still have a dangerous situation, where we have somebody with a high-powered weapon who's not afraid to use it," Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer told reporters.

"He obviously has some survival skills and he obviously has weapons, and from what we could tell of his car, he was probably there to hide out, given what happened earlier in the day," he said.

About 150 police officers and FBI agents were combing the park as an aircraft equipped with infrared heat-detection equipment flew overhead from the point where an abandoned blue Pontiac registered to Barnes was found, containing weapons, body armor and survival gear.

Authorities said that the incident began Sunday morning when the car failed to stop at a required tire chain checkpoint. Park ranger Margaret Anderson, 34, attempted to block the road ahead, at which point the assailant jumped from his car and opened fire on her vehicle before fleeing on foot into the woods.

"She didn't have a chance," Troyer said.

A special weapons and tactics team also was fired upon as it arrived on the scene and attempted to help Anderson, park officials said.

The 368-square-mile national park was placed on lockdown and remained closed Monday. As many as  125 visitors and 17 staff members spent all day Sunday and half the night held at the Paradise visitor's center, about a mile above where Anderson was shot, after park authorities determined it was too dangerous to let them leave.

Evacuations there began shortly after midnight, with visitors being escorted in small groups down to a fire station near park headquarters in Ashford, Wash., where they were questioned by the FBI.

Dinh Jackson, one of the evacuees, told the Associated Press that park visitors initially were ordered after the shooting to get on their knees with their hands behind their heads, as authorities attempted to determine whether the shooter was among them. "That was scary for the kids," she said.

Authorities said a SWAT team had begun to follow tracks through the snow believed to belong to the suspect, but they soon led through creeks and other hard-to-follow areas.

"The greatest concern at the moment is that the shooter may attempt to commandeer a vehicle," Mt. Rainier National Park spokesman Kevin Bacher told reporters.

Barnes, an Iraq war veteran, kept an arsenal of guns and knives at his home, his former partner, Nicole Santos, alleged in court documents obtained by The Times.

In an application for a restraining order seeking to keep Barnes away from their daughter, she said Barnes appeared to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his experiences in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 and had threatened suicide.

Police showed reporters photos of Barnes in which he posed with a pair of weapons and sported a tattoo with the words "Pride, Gluttony, Envy and Lust."

Flags were at half-staff in the nearby town of Eatonville, where Anderson lived with her husband, also a park ranger, and two young daughters.


Mt. Rainier park ranger shot to death; suspect sought

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Photo: More than 100 visitors detained at the Paradise visitors center at Mt. Rainier National Park were safely evacuated overnight. Credit: Ted S. Warren / Associated Press