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Mount Rainier National Park closed; manhunt on for gunman who killed ranger

A massive manhunt is under way Monday in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, as authorities track a gunman wanted for killing a park ranger on New Year's Day.

By Dave CookStaff writer / January 2, 2012

The west entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, where rangers are searching outgoing cars and stopping visitors from entering because a shooter is believed to be at large in the park.

Ted S. Warren/AP

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A massive manhunt is under way in snow-covered Mount Rainier National Park as an estimated 150 officers from a variety of police agencies seek a gunman who shot and killed park ranger Margaret Anderson Sunday morning.   

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Early Monday morning, police began escorting about 125 park visitors off the mountain, after they had been quarantined in the park’s primary visitor center after the shooting, which occurred at about 10:20 a.m. Sunday, local time. “All known civilians” have been evacuated, Washington State Patrol spokesman Richard Warren told CNN.

The search for the gunman continued overnight using helicopters with infrared cameras and aircraft armed with flares. Officers from the National Park Service, Washington State Patrol, the FBI, and local agencies are involved in the search, a Park Service statement said. The shooter is believed to still be in the park, which will remain closed Monday.

The manhunt is complicated by presence of four to five feet of snow on the ground and the park’s vast size. Mount Ranier National Park, located about 50 miles southeast of Seattle, covers 368 square miles, of which 97 percent is congressionally designated as wilderness. 

Park ranger Anderson was killed by an assailant who fired at her when she tried to pull over his car at a required tire chain checkpoint. When the car failed to stop, Anderson used her car to block the road. Park service spokesman Lee Taylor said in a statement that “the assailant jumped from his car and opened fire with a shotgun,” fatally wounding Anderson before she left her vehicle. Anderson, the mother of two young children, was married to another ranger at Mount Rainier.

Benjamin Colton Barnes is “a strong person of interest” in the killing, Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer told the Associated Press. Mr. Barnes is a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran who is believed to have survivalist skills. Police said he fled into creeks and other waterways in the park, making it more difficult to find him. Police said Barnes also is a suspect in a shooting early Sunday at a house party in Skyway, south of Seattle, in which four people were injured.

There were no apparent signs early in the investigation that the shooting was politically motivated. The Associated Press reported that Barnes was involved in a July custody dispute during which the mother of his child sought a temporary restraining order alleging that he was suicidal and possibly suffered from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result of his deployment in Iraq in 2007-08.

Shootings of park rangers are relatively rare. The website Officer Down reports that Anderson was the eighth to be killed by gunfire since 1927. The most recent shooting before Anderson's occurred in August 2002, when Kristopher William Eggle was shot and killed while he and several US border patrol agents attempted to apprehend two armed illegal aliens at Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona.   

The 14,410-foot-high Mount Rainier and the surrounding park attract between 1.5 million and 2 million visitors a year. In 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, some 10,643 people tried to climb the mountain and 4,020 succeeded.

IN PICTURES: National parks in winter 

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