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Mt. Rainier rangers try to warn hikers about fleeing murder suspect

January 2, 2012 | 10:44 am

Searchers began looking for several visitors who were camping unawares in the backcountry at Mt. Rainier National Park Monday to warn them about an armed murder suspect who has become the target of a massive manhunt across the steep, snowy slopes of Washington's Cascades Mountains.

"Certainly that's a concern, that he might be violent toward anyone who might approach him," park spokesman Kevin Bacher said at a press conference Monday morning as search dogs, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters fanned out across the park where ranger Margaret Anderson was shot to death near a routine safety checkpoint a day earlier.

New details of the shooting emerged Monday as authorities revealed that a second park ranger also had been fired upon during the Sunday morning incident; the shooting suspect held off rangers and police for 90 minutes, firing as they tried to approach the vehicle where Anderson lay wounded or dead to help her.

Park officials said Anderson was on patrol in the park's Paradise sector when she was called to establish a roadblock to halt a suspect who had blown through a tire chain safety checkpoint.

As she placed her vehicle across the road about a mile below the Paradise visitor's center, park ranger Dan Camiccia drove in to join her from another location. The suspect approached the roadblock, swept into a U-turn and emerged firing at both ranger vehicles. Anderson was fatally wounded, but Camiccia was able to escape, though his vehicle was shot through the windshield.

"I know that when he was fired upon, I have heard that he put his vehicle in reverse and backed out of there," Bacher said. As for Anderson, he said, "She was shot in her vehicle before she even had a chance to get out."

The suspect, he said, "left his vehicle there and fled into the snowy forest."

Other rangers and a Pierce County Sheriff's Department special weapons and tactics team soon arrived but were prevented from approaching Anderson's vehicle. "It took them about 90 minutes to secure the situation enough to get Margaret out," Bacher said. "The shooter was up there still and was firing on the people who were attempting to get to ranger Anderson and help her."

Police have identified Benjamin Colton Barnes, a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran, as a person of interest in the case. Barnes' blue Pontiac, containing assault weapons, body armor and survival gear, was found abandoned near the scene of the shooting.

Authorities already had been looking for Barnes in connection with a shooting at a New Years Eve party in Skyway, Wash., that left four people injured, two of them critically.

His former domestic partner said in court documents seeking a restraining order that Barnes kept an arsenal of guns and knives and had been suicidal.

"If you come home don't be surprised to find my brains splattered all over the walls," the woman, Nicole Santos, said Barnes texted her when she tried to leave him in January. In July, she said, he texted her: "I want to die."

"He gets easily irritated, depressed, angry and frustrated" and has no local support because his family lives in California, she said in her affidavit, filed in July. "I am fearful of what Benjamin is capable of."

Barnes had a previous arrest for driving under the influence and hitting an unattended vehicle, according to various local media reports.

Park officials said one of their immediate concerns Monday morning was warning several park guests who were camping in the backcountry and probably unaware of the manhunt. Three cars belonging to the campers were located in the parking lot of the park -- otherwise closed to the public -- and rangers were headed to the locations registered in their backcountry permits to evacuate them.

"We're definitely concerned about the safety of the individuals that are out there at Reflection Lake, because there's definitely a possibility that they could be in the area where Mr. Barnes might end up," Bacher said. "We're going out there to find them."

Park officials said it was not clear whether the suspect had been able to take with him the necessary gear to survive the frigid temperatures and snow, which in some places is 70 inches deep.

"I wouldn't want to speculate on whether he had survived the night without knowing what kind of gear he happened to have with him," Bacher said. "If he had some of that training and he had the right gear, he could be very comfortable last night. I think most of us are hoping that is not the case," he said.

The area where the suspect is believed to be is bounded by Mt. Rainier on one side and a smaller range of 6,000-foot mountains to the south, surrounded by many miles of wilderness on either side.

"He'd have to travel six or 10 miles on foot through, at least at higher elevations, deep snow to get back out into any populated areas," Bacher said. "The concern is that we know where he is and to make sure that he does not escape into an area where he can cause more harm to people," he said.


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

Man arrested with explosives at Texas airport

-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: An undated photo of Benjamin Colton Barnes. Credit: Pierce County Sheriff's Department / Associated Press