Suspect in ranger's slaying found dead in creek
Benjamin Colton Barnes, sought in a massive manhunt in Mount Rainier National Park, apparently died from exposure barely a mile from where he had fled into the woods a day earlier.
The slaying of a Mount Rainier National Park ranger is the latest in a series of high-profile crimes linked to soldiers or veterans who recently served at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Others implicated in or convicted of serious crimes:
Pfc. Dakota Wolf, 19, is charged in the stabbing death of Scarlett Paxton, 19, in Kirkland on Nov. 30 while Wolf was AWOL. He has been in the Army less than a year and never deployed abroad.
Sgt. David Stewart, 38, an active-duty Army medic, led law-enforcement officers on a high-speed chase down Interstate 5 in April. Stewart killed himself and his wife, who was found in the car dead of a gunshot wound. Their 5-year-old son also was found dead in the family's home.
Ivette Gonzalez Davis, then a 24-year-old Army specialist, was sentenced to life in prison in August 2010 for shooting two fellow soldiers and kidnapping their baby.
Sgt. Sheldon Plummer, an active-duty soldier, pleaded guilty to strangling his wife in February 2010 in their Thurston County home. He received a 14-year sentence.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Driven relentlessly through chest-deep snow by his pursuers and unprepared for bitter, freezing temperatures, the suspect in the Sunday slaying of a Mount Rainier National Park ranger died cold and wet overnight — lying half-submerged in Paradise Creek and wearing one tennis shoe, a T-shirt and jeans, barely one mile from where he had fled into the woods.
Indications are that Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, died from exposure. His body showed no sign of injuries, and he was carrying a handgun, a magazine of ammunition and a knife, said Sgt. Ed Troyer of the Pierce County Sheriff's Department.
"The manhunt has been concluded," announced Steven Dean, FBI assistant special agent in charge, at a news conference outside the park's main gate Monday afternoon.
The FBI recovered another ammunition magazine near Barnes' body, and the sheriff's Swift Water Rescue Team found an assault-style rifle about 50 yards upstream.
Officials said Barnes had left survival gear in his car, which he fled after firing on rangers Sunday.
Killed was 34-year-old Ranger Margaret Anderson, the mother of two young children, who was gunned down after she had set a roadblock to stop a car being pursued after failing to stop at a chain-up checkpoint. A cruiser being driven by Ranger Dan Camiccia, who was in pursuit of Barnes, also was peppered with gunfire as it approached. Camiccia was not injured.
A Pierce County SWAT unit, sent to render aid to Anderson, also came under fire, according to law-enforcement officers, delaying efforts to reach the injured park ranger. Officials say Anderson was shot while still in her vehicle and never had a chance to return fire.
What Anderson and the others couldn't have known Sunday when they attempted to stop Barnes' blue Pontiac was that he apparently had been involved in a shootout eight hours earlier at a Skyway home where four people were injured, two critically. King County sheriff's Sgt. Cindi West said Barnes and several other armed individuals were having a "show and tell" with their guns when an argument devolved into a gunfight.
Whether Barnes had additional gear and weapons in his car when he fled the Skyway home shortly after 3 a.m., or whether he retrieved them from elsewhere, he was heavily armed and equipped to survive in the wilderness when he arrived at the national park about 10 a.m.
Authorities quickly identified him as a "person of interest" in Anderson's shooting because the abandoned Pontiac was registered in his name.
After Anderson was shot, Barnes fled into heavy woods and deep snow, where a surveillance plane using heat-tracking equipment charted his meandering path overnight. While his body was found about a mile from the shooting site, Barnes had traveled much farther, crisscrossing Paradise Creek several times, apparently in hopes of eluding his trackers, Troyer said. The body was found partially in the creek, just above Narada Falls.
Barnes, who served in Iraq, had been a private first class. His military service ended in the fall of 2009. He received a misconduct discharge at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) after he was charged with DUI and improper transport of a privately owned weapon. By then, he had served two years and seven months of active duty, according to Army Human Resources Command information cited by Maj. Chris Ophardt, a spokesman for Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Barnes served with the Fourth Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, a unit that deployed to Iraq in 2007 with 8-wheeled Stryker vehicles.
It's unclear if Barnes ever came under fire. Military records do not include a Combat Action Badge, which is typically awarded to soldiers who come under enemy attack, according to Ophardt.
In Iraq, Barnes' job involved helping to install, maintain and troubleshoot communications equipment, a duty that could involve heading out on patrols, but also might largely confine a soldier to a base, according to Ophardt. Army records indicate that Barnes was assigned to a headquarter's unit.
He had struggled after returning from Iraq. In July, Nicole Santos, the mother of his 1-year-old daughter, obtained a protection order and curtailed his visits with his daughter because of angry, erratic and sometimes suicidal behavior, according to child-custody documents filed in Pierce County Superior Court.
"I just feel there is so much instability," Santos wrote in a July 19 petition seeking to restrict Barnes' access to the child.
Barnes had "deployed to Iraq in 2007-2008 and has possible PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues," she wrote. "He gets easily irritated, angry, depressed and frustrated."
A relative of the 25-year-old woman said Santos was in hiding from "this nightmare." The relative, who asked not to be named, said Santos had a "very short" relationship with Barnes in which they had a child but never married. The relative said Santos has not had anything to do with Barnes since obtaining the restraining order in July.
"It's sad for everybody," said the relative, adding that she did not know Barnes well.
Barnes was 21 and still in the Army in March 2009, when he was cited for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs after being stopped about 4 a.m. by a state trooper on Interstate 5 in South Seattle, according to court records. On the citation, Barnes gave an address in Adamsville, Tenn.
While the case was pending, Barnes was ordered by a judge to remain on his military base, except for off-post military purposes.
Barnes, charged in King County, pleaded guilty to the DUI charge on Aug. 10, 2009. On the plea form, he listed his education as General Educational Development (GED), the equivalent of a high-school diploma.
On Feb. 24, 2010, Barnes was sentenced to one day in jail, with credit for a day already served; placed on supervised probation for six months; and ordered to pay a $350 fine. He also was ordered to use no alcoholic beverages or nonprescribed drugs and to complete alcohol-education programs, according to court records.
In June 2010, Barnes was cited for unlawful recreational fishing in the Snoqualmie River, including possession of an undersized trout and the use of an improper hook.
Anderson's slaying has stunned her colleagues and the National Park Service, which has seen only eight other rangers murdered in the line of duty in the past century.
"We have never had an incident like that at Mount Rainier National Park," park spokesman Kevin Bacher said Monday morning.
This was the first slaying of a ranger in the park, although rangers have died on the mountain itself.
"Our rangers are very much in shock this morning," Bacher said. "We ... absolutely take it personally. Everybody knew Margaret. Everybody was friends with Margaret. She didn't have an enemy in the world."
Anderson and her husband, Eric Anderson, had worked at Rainier for about four years. They have two daughters, ages 3 and 1.
The manhunt resulted in a shutdown of the park, and 125 visitors and 17 staff members were held in lockdown at the park's Jackson Visitor Center until midnight, when they were brought out in small groups accompanied by law-enforcement officials, spokesman Lee Taylor said. An additional 25 people were safely evacuated from Longmire. All civilians were out of the park by 3:30 a.m., Taylor said.
Rangers have one of the most widely varying jobs at Mount Rainier. As the park's front-line law-enforcement officers, they drive lonely rural roads by themselves and do everything from issuing speeding tickets to responding to car accidents to arresting lawbreakers. They also hike trails, respond to fires and are some of the first called out to search for lost or injured visitors.
Staff reporters Jack Broom, Mike Carter, Craig Welch, Steve Miletich and Hal Bernton contributed to this report. Seattle Times news researcher David Turim also contributed, and material from The Associated Press was included.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706