Photo, whiff of smoke were clues to North Bend survivalist's bunker
About four dozen SWAT team members have surrounded a makeshift bunker on Rattlesnake Ridge where they believe Peter Keller, wanted in connection with the shooting deaths of his wife and daughter, is holed up.
Seattle Times staff reporter
NORTH BEND — A fuzzy photograph, an observant hiker and a whiff of wood smoke led King County sheriff's deputies Friday to a camouflaged and fortified bunker carved into a wooded hillside where they believe a survivalist suspected of killing his family is holed up.
The bunker was found by deputies creeping foot by foot through heavy undergrowth on Rattlesnake Ridge, not far from the home in North Bend where Peter Keller, 41, is believed to have shot and killed his wife and 19-year-old daughter as they slept, before setting fire to the home Sunday.
The area had been identified by detectives working off evidence Keller had apparently intended to burn in the fire, but nobody knew the exact location of the bunker, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Law-enforcement officers used extreme caution, believing Keller to be a self-trained survivalist who apparently had spent the past eight years digging, fortifying and stockpiling the bunker in preparation for "the end of the world."
Detectives believe Keller is heavily armed, with large-caliber scoped rifles, and that eight years was plenty of time for him to rig routes of escape and booby-traps.
"It could very well be that he's waiting for us to come in and get him. This is a very fluid and dangerous situation," said King County Sheriff Steve Strachan.
For several hours Friday afternoon, about four dozen SWAT officers from the Sheriff's Office and Seattle Police Department fired and dropped tear gas into the log-lined opening of the bunker.
Sheriff's Sgt. Cindi West, the department spokeswoman, said the team had managed to remove a front hatch Friday afternoon, but that whoever was inside was not responding to the gas or pleas to give up.
Late Friday there was also discussion about possibly flooding the bunker with water, and the teams had asked for chain saws, West said.
Strachan said the teams saw and heard movement in the bunker earlier in the day. One deputy thought he saw a generator inside. Strachan said they had pinpointed its location when someone smelled smoke — apparently from a woodstove in the bunker.
With the concern that Keller may be waiting for deputies to enter, Strachan said it could take days for the situation to play out.
The bunker is dug into a hillside near the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail near North Bend. It has several entryways and ladders and is apparently shored up by logs and dirt, according to the Sheriff's Office.
"This isn't a hole in the ground. It's an elaborate structure," Strachan said.
The bunker is not far from where the bodies of Keller's wife of 21 years, Lynnettee, 41, and daughter Kaylene were found Sunday by firefighters responding to a house fire. Both had been shot in the head while they slept, authorities said.
King County prosecutors say Keller set the fire by placing a gas can on a hot stove in an attempt to cover up the killings. Several additional gas cans with varying amounts of gasoline were scattered throughout the house, court documents say.
Keller was charged Wednesday in King County Superior Court with two counts of first-degree murder and a single count of arson.
According to court documents, Keller's daughter told her boyfriend that her father was preparing for "the end of the world" and stockpiling items in the woods. Those who know Keller say he has a fascination with guns, a survivalist mentality and a "distaste for authority," court documents say.
One of Keller's co-workers at a Preston company that refurbishes computers told detectives that Keller owned handguns, high-caliber rifles, scopes, silencers and body armor. Detectives say that April 20, two days before the fire, Keller turned his cellphone off and withdrew $6,200 from his bank account.
Photo was a clue
Detectives believe Keller had been building the bunker for at least eight years, based on photos found on a hard drive recovered from his home. The photos reportedly document the construction of the bunker and helped deputies pinpoint its location. It was apparent from where the computer and disk were found in the house that Keller had intended them to be destroyed in the fire. A quick response by the Fire Department, however, saved the evidence.
Among the photographs was a fuzzy picture that had been taken from the bunker, looking out over the area, said West, the spokeswoman. Through enhancements, the detectives were able to recognize buildings and the North Bend outlet mall, and determine the general direction from which the photo had been taken.
Power lines in the photo allowed them to figure out that the bunker was 1,000 feet above sea level, Strachan said.
The Sheriff's Office got its next break in the case when a hiker reported seeing Keller's red Toyota pickup parked at the Rattlesnake Ridge trailhead in past weeks.
On Thursday, a pair of trained trackers — West called them "manhunters" — headed up the Rattlesnake Ridge trail, dressed inconspicuously as hikers. They found footprints of someone who had apparently been carrying a heavy load.
Before the sun rose Friday, teams gathered at the trailhead and began a careful hike up the mountainside. In the late morning, a team member caught a whiff of smoke.
A while later, deputies saw smoke and came upon the entrance to the bunker.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com
Seattle Times staff reporter Craig Welch contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.