In Mt. Rainier air search for gunman, coffee cups held a warning
In Seattle — where no one goes anywhere without a hometown Starbucks or Tully’s cup in hand — it can sometimes seem as if it’s raining coffee. But for four hikers at nearby Mount Rainier National Park last week, the coffee cup that fell from the sky was intended as a potential life-saver.
“A ranger has been shot, shooter at large,” said the message, scrawled on the side of a Cruisin Coffee cup that had just dropped from the helicopter hovering over their camp site. “Call on cell if able to Pierce Co sheriffs.”
“They got the message and gave us a thumbs up,” said Chris Rosen, who was piloting the U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter. The aircraft was flying over the park in search of a gunman who the previous day had shot a park ranger to death and fled into the snow-covered hills.
The unsuspecting campers — nearly the only visitors left at the evacuated park, which was by then crawling with police and search dogs — quickly packed up their gear and headed for safety, with the helicopter as an escort.
“When I spoke with the chopper pilot who was signaling us, he said he was worried when we didn't immediately come out of the tents this morning, since they thought he might have gotten up the trail far enough to find our camp, kill us and take our gear,” one of the hikers, Natalia Martinez Paz, wrote in an account posted later on the Northwest Hikers forum.
“It was memorable, to say the least.”
The body of the gunman, Benjamin Colton Barnes, was found the same day in a shallow stream, along with two weapons he had apparently used to fire at ranger Margaret Anderson. The 34-year-old mother of two had tried to stop Barnes after he bolted through a safety checkpoint.
Rosen, a former Marine Corps combat pilot, works as an air interdiction agent for the border patrol’s Office of Air and Marine in Bellingham, Wash. He often gets called on missions to help law enforcement officers from other agencies track down drug smugglers, make high-risk arrests, mount airspace security missions and swoop in on suspected infiltrators across the Canadian border.
On Jan. 2, he was called to join fellow pilot David Simeur in helping track down Barnes, an Iraq War veteran. Barnes was under investigation in the shooting of four people at a New Year’s Eve party near Seattle when he blew through a tire chain checkpoint at Mt. Rainier and opened fire on Anderson when she tried to set up a roadblock.
Pilots already had been able to follow Barnes’ tracks through the deep snow into a wooded ravine; Rosen and Simeur were running scout operations for ground searchers, trying to spot Barnes from the air. They had help from the AS 350 helicopter’s infrared sensor, capable of detecting heat signatures from living creatures below.
The two were also trying to find the four hikers who were known to be on a long New Year’s weekend snow camp at Reflection Lake, not far away.
“Because Dave had been there the day before, he had a pretty good idea of where they were. He’d seen the campsite,” Rosen said in an interview.
Sure enough, they flew over the snow-covered, frozen lake, and there were the two tents, with a food tarp between them. The pilots were worried that Barnes may have gotten to the campers first. “Our thought was, 'Hey, we hope he doesn’t hurt somebody and take their equipment,'” Rosen said. “Because if he’s looking for equipment, that was an obvious place to get it.”
They pointed the infrared sensor at the tents — live bodies inside — and circled about 70 feet overhead until the campers emerged.
What to do then? “We tried to talk to them on our loudspeaker. We’ve got a hailer, it’s good for making basic commands like, ‘Stop! Don’t move!’ — those kind of law enforcement commands. But to give a detailed message is kind of tough. There’s helicopter noise, we’re in a canyon, it’s just not a good system for detailed instruction,” Rosen said.
They couldn’t land: the snow was too deep. They couldn’t write a note on a piece of paper: it would flutter away. They couldn’t write a note on a heavy object: it would sink in the snow.
Then Simeur said: “Hey, hand me your coffee cup.”
After reading and acknowledging the first coffee message, the campers began quickly packing up their equipment. But Rosen and Simeur feared they might head right toward the gunman; they dropped another coffee cup.
“Take road to falls and sheriff deputies. We will keep an eye on you,” it said. “Do not drive from Paradise w/o armed escort.”
Rosen, who flew combat missions in Somalia, wasn’t only worried about the hikers — he spent much of the morning dipping up and down below ridges to avoid giving Barnes, who had shot at rangers and police for 90 minutes before disappearing into the woods, the opportunity to take a shot at the chopper.
As the campers moved back toward civilization, Rosen and Simeur flew escort a little way ahead. “We were going to make sure the gunman wasn’t between where they were and where they needed to go. We said, ‘We’re going to watch over you,’” Rosen said.
The party of four Seattle-area campers was soon met by a federal tactical team, equipped with full camo gear and assault rifles, who got them out of the park safely. Before they left, however, Barnes’ body was found partly submerged in Paradise Creek, dead of drowning and exposure almost certainly brought on by the frigid conditions on the snowy mountainside.
Paz wrote on the hikers’ forum -- in a post that also included photos of the message-on-a-cup -- that the group had assumed from the helicopters circling the previous day that something was afoot, possibly a lost hiker. They never dreamed, before Barnes' and Simeur’s arrival at their camp, that they might be in danger.
“We still have no idea what’s going on, so we continue drinking our champagne and enjoying a beautiful night out,” she wrote. “In some ways, it was much better to NOT know about this Sunday night, as we one, would’ve not been able to sleep AT ALL, and two, might have tried to hike out while he was still active and probably in our path.”
Only later did the campers learn the fate of Anderson, for whom a memorial service has been scheduled Tuesday at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.
“RIP to all those involved, we are still processing it,” she wrote. “Truly tragic.”
Photo: This photo provided by Jen Berthiaume shows the message scrawled onto a coffee cup that was dropped to a group of campers Jan. 2 during a search for an armed suspect in Mt. Rainier National Park. Credit: Jen Berthiaume / Associated Press