MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK — An armed Iraq War veteran suspected of killing a Mount Rainier National Park ranger managed to evade snowshoe-wearing SWAT teams and dogs on his trail for nearly a day. He couldn’t, however, escape the cold.
A plane searching the remote wilderness for Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, on Monday discovered his body lying partially submerged in an icy, snowy mountain creek with snow banks standing several feet high on either side.
“He was wearing T-shirt, a pair of jeans and one tennis shoe. That was it,” Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said.
Barnes did not have any external wounds and appears to have died due to the elements, he said. A medical examiner was at the scene to determine the cause of death. Troyer said two weapons were recovered, but he declined to say where they were located.
According to police and court documents, Barnes had a troubled transition to civilian life, with accusations in a child custody dispute that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following his Iraq deployments and was suicidal.
The mother of his toddler daughter sought a temporary restraining order against him, according to court documents.
She alleged that he got easily irritated, angry and depressed and kept an arsenal of weapons in his home. She wrote that she feared for the child’s safety. Undated photos provided by police showed a shirtless, tattooed Barnes brandishing two large weapons.
The woman told authorities Barnes was suicidal and possibly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after deploying to Iraq in 2007-2008, and had once sent her a text message saying, “I want to die.”
In November, a guardian ad litem recommended parenting and communication classes for both parents, as well as a visitation schedule for Barnes until he completed evaluations for domestic violence and mental health and complied with treatment recommendations.
Maj. Chris Ophardt, an Army spokesman, told The News Tribune that Barnes had been stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, and was released from the Army in November 2009 following two years and seven months on active duty after being charged with driving under the influence and improperly transporting privately owned weapons.
Steven Dean, FBI special agent, said Barnes worked in communications.
Fear that tourists could be caught in the crossfire in a shootout with Barnes prompted officials to hold more than a 100 people at the visitors’ center before evacuating them in the middle of the night.
Late Sunday, police said Barnes was a suspect in another shooting incident.
On New Year’s, there was an argument at a house party in Skyway, south of Seattle, and gunfire erupted, police said. Four people were wounded, two critically. Barnes was connected to the shooting, said Sgt. Cindi West, King County Sheriff’s spokeswoman.
Police believe Barnes headed to the remote park wilderness to “hide out” following the Skyway shooting.
“The speculation is that he may have come up here specifically for that reason, to get away,” parks spokesman Kevin Bacher told reporters early Monday. “The speculation is he threw some stuff in the car and headed up here to hide out.”
Authorities suspect he then fatally shot ranger Margaret Anderson.
Anderson had set up a roadblock Sunday morning to stop a man who had blown through a checkpoint rangers use to check if vehicles have tire chains for winter conditions. A gunman opened fire on her before she was able to exit her vehicle, authorities say.
Before fleeing, the gunman fired shots at both Anderson and the ranger that trailed him, but only Anderson was hit.
Anderson would have been armed, as she was one of the rangers tasked with law enforcement, Bacher said.
Park superintendent Randy King said Anderson, a 34-year-old mother of two young girls who was married to another Rainier ranger, had served as a park ranger for about four years.
King said Anderson’s husband also was working as a ranger elsewhere in the park at the time of the shooting.
The shooting renewed debate about a federal law that made it legal for people to take loaded weapons into national parks. The 2010 law made possession of firearms subject to state gun laws.
Bill Wade, the outgoing chair of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said Congress should be regretting its decision.
“The many congressmen and senators that voted for the legislation that allowed loaded weapons to be brought into the parks ought to be feeling pretty bad right now,” Wade said.
Wade called Sunday’s fatal shooting a tragedy that could have been prevented. He hopes Congress will reconsider the law that took effect in early 2010, but doubts that will happen in today’s political climate.
Calls and emails to the National Rifle Association requesting comment were not immediately returned on Monday.
Media fears of gun violence in parks were unlikely to be realized, the NRA wrote in a statement about the law after it went into effect. “The new law affects firearms possession, not use,” it said.
The group pushed for the law, saying people have a right to defend themselves against park animals and other people.
King said the park would remain closed Tuesday as the investigation continued and the rangers grieve the loss of their colleague.
“We have been through a horrific experience,” King said. “We’re going to need a little time to regroup.”