Mt. Rainier park closed as FBI tracks slaying suspect's final path
Mt. Rainier National Park remained closed for a third day Tuesday as forensics experts attempted to trace gunman Benjamin Colton Barnes' final flight through the snowy woods after the fatal shooting of a park ranger at a roadblock.
"We've been through a horrific experience here at Mt. Rainier National Park. It's nothing you ever hope to experience, but here it is," said Randy King, superintendent of the park in the Cascades Mountains of Washington state.
"This is not what happens typically in a national park. ... To lose one of your own is a terrible thing."
Park spokesman Greg Shine said the closure will also give staff an opportunity to come in from far-flung sectors of the 368-square-mile facility to discuss the death of ranger Margaret Anderson, a 34-year-old mother of two who was married to another park ranger.
"It provides an opportunity for gathering the employees from the various districts in the park so that everyone is equipped with the same information to openly discuss what lies ahead, and what teams are available to help with the process of grieving," Shine said in an interview.
He said administrators had not yet determined when the park, which annually hosts up to 1.7 million visitors, will reopen, but a park statement said it would remain closed at least through Tuesday.
FBI forensics teams are leading the investigation into how Barnes, a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran, fled the scene of Sunday's confrontation with Anderson and another park ranger who was not injured.
Searchers on Monday found Barnes' body, clad only in jeans, a T-shirt and a single athletic shoe, at the bottom of a snowy slope, partially immersed in an icy stream.
"He appears to have not been a victim of any kind of violence other than the weather," Pierce County Sheriff's Department spokesman Ed Troyer told reporters. "He put himself in a position he wasn't going to get out of. ... The condition he was in, the clothing he had on him, he was not equipped to make it a night or two in the conditions he had up there."
Troyer said FBI teams are using GPS coordinates, tracks and other information to precisely map Barnes' path from the point of the shooting, about a mile below the Paradise visitor's center, to the point near Narada Falls where his body was found. It appears that he "spun some circles and went across some rivers," he said.
Army officials confirmed Tuesday that Barnes deployed with the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to Iraq between 2007 and 2009; there, he was a signal support systems specialist with the headquarters company, responsible for operating and maintaining radio equipment.
Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Devine said in an interview that officials are still checking the records to determine whether Barnes had served one continuous deployment during that period or had deployed twice.
Barnes was given a general discharge under honorable conditions out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in November 2009 after being charged with driving under the influence and improper transportation of a civilian weapon. He had served two years and seven months of active duty at that point.
Steven Dean, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Seattle, told reporters that Barnes did not have any special forces commando training, and that he couldn't account for the photographs of Barnes, bare-chested, covered with tattoos and brandishing powerful-looking weapons, released by the Sheriff's Department after the shooting.
"I didn't see any of those weapons being U.S. military weapons that I saw," Dean said.
Authorities reportedly recovered two guns near where Barnes' body was found, and Troyer said police believe they have found all the weapons he brought with him to the park.
A new federal law that took effect early in 2010 allows loaded weapons to be taken legally into national parks, subject to state firearms laws.
Police have speculated that Barnes may have been attempting to hide out in the park after apparently leaving the scene of a 3 a.m. shootout a day earlier at a New Year's Eve party in Skyway, Wash.; the shootout left four people injured.
But Troyer said Barnes' aims remained unclear. "At this point, I'm kind of feeling a little bit like you guys are," he said. "I don't know what you're going to do at the top of a mountain with a car full of weapons and no winter gear. So I don't know. But it wasn't anything good."
Barnes' former girlfriend, Nicole Santos, declined to be interviewed, but she said in court papers filed in July that Barnes had been angry, depressed and sometimes suicidal. In an application for a restraining order, she said she believed he may have injured their then-8-month-old daughter, pointing to odd bruises found on the baby's back and calf.
On another occasion, she wrote, Barnes pulled a knife on her while she was driving with their daughter in the car, and that he tried to grab the steering wheel.
Shine said discussions are underway about the possibility of a memorial service for Anderson, a popular ranger and resident of Eatonville, Wash., who left behind two daughters, ages 1 and 3, along with her husband, Eric Anderson.
The couple met while both were working as rangers at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah and had worked as rangers at Mt. Rainier for the last three years.
"Our lives will be a little less bright without your trademark smile," Tony Campello, a park service employee who knew Anderson in Maryland, wrote on the Officer Down Memorial Page established to remember her.
Troyer said that from the moment Anderson encountered Barnes, her death was probably inevitable.
"If I was sitting in that car or any of us here, we’d be dead. There's nothing she could've done," he said. "That guy had some, I don't know enough about weapons, but high-powered enough from any amount of distance, nobody's going to win that gunfight. So through no fault of her own, she was a victim."
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: Ranger Matt Chalup is shown near a roadblock at the entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park. Credit: Ted S. Warren / Associated Press