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Iraq vet sought in killing of Rainier ranger is found dead

Police say Benjamin Colton Barnes left behind a trail of victims, starting with four shot at a house party south of Seattle on Sunday. NBC's Kristen Dahlgren reports.

Updated at 5:20 p.m. ET: Officials confirm that a body found earlier Monday is that of Benjamin Colton Barnes, the suspect in the killing of Mount Rainier National Park Ranger Margaret Anderson. Two weapons were found with the body.

No wounds were found on the body, suggesting he perished from the cold overnight. Barnes, an Iraq War veteran, was wearing just a T-shirt and jeans when his body was found in a river.

Updated at 2:20 p.m. ET: A body was spotted by aircraft in a remote area and there's a strong probability it is Barnes, a sheriff's spokesman says.

"One of the air units and some of the FBI SWAT team members and sheriff’s SWAT team members have found a body," said Pierce County Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer. "We have not gotten to it, we are nowhere near it, it’s still buried in the snow."


Updated at 2:05 p.m. ET: A body believed to be that of Barnes has been found, the Washington State Patrol tweets.

Law enforcement authorities discuss the recovery of the body of the man suspected of killing Mount Rainier National Park Ranger Margaret Anderson.

Updated at 1:40 p.m. ET: A Pierce County source says a body thought to be that of Barnes has been found in a ditch, KING5 TV reports.

AP

Park Ranger Margaret Anderson, 34, was fatally shot Sunday.

Updated at 12:25 p.m. ET: Some 200 SWAT officers, police and rangers at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state were searching Monday for an Iraq War veteran suspected in the killing on Sunday of a ranger. Highlights from a news conference that just wrapped up:

  • Rangers are trying to reach two people camping at a remote lake near the area that Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, fled to so that they can be escorted out;
  • Barnes is in an area of deep snow and 6-10 miles from any inhabited area;
  • Margaret Anderson, the ranger killed on Sunday, could not be reached by park staff for 90 minutes because the gunman was shooting at them before he fled into the woods;
  • An aircraft with heat-sensing capabilities, as well as dogs and trackers in snowshoes are looking for Barnes;
  • It's possible that Barnes had sufficient all-weather gear to survive overnight in the park's cold temperatures.

Updated at 11:35 a.m. ET: Barnes possibly suffers from post-traumatic stress following his deployments to Iraq, the mother of his child alleged in court documents. 

NBC's Natalie Swaby reports on the tragedy and manhunt at Mount Rainier National Park.

Barnes was involved in a custody dispute in Tacoma in July 2011, during which the toddler's mother sought a temporary restraining order against him, according to the documents. In an affidavit, the woman wrote that Barnes was suicidal and possibly suffered from PTSD after deploying to Iraq in 2007-2008. She said he gets easily irritated, angry and depressed and keeps an arsenal of weapons in his home.

Overnight, dozens of people were evacuated from the visitor's center and a small lodge.

Mount Rainier National Park spokesman Kevin Bacher says Ranger Margaret Anderson was "shot as she was in the car."

Evacuee Dinh Jackson, a mother from Olympia, Wash., who came to Mount Rainier to sled with family and friends Sunday, said officials ordered people to hurry into the lodge after the shooting that killed a park ranger.

Officials had everyone get on their knees and place hands behind their heads as they went through the building, looking at faces to make sure the gunman was not among them, Jackson said.

"That was scary for the kids," she said.

Updated at 9:20 a.m. ET: About 125 people have been evacuated from the visitors center at Mount Rainier as authorities search for a gunman suspected of killing a park ranger.

Pierce County Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer says the visitors were transferred from the park overnight in groups of vehicles over the span of a few hours.

He says teams looking for the suspect were assessing new tactical plans that they planned to put into place at daylight. About 150 officers converged on the park after ranger Margaret Anderson was shot to death Sunday morning.

Troyer says Barnes was a "strong person of interest" in the slaying. He's believed to be well armed and have survivalist skills.

Updated at 4:40 a.m. ET: Tourists stranded in Mount Rainier National Park amid the search for a gunman who shot dead a park ranger have begun to leave Paradise Lodge, NBC News reports. 

Five cars at a time were leaving with an armed escort. The evacuations were due to continue through the night.


Updated at 11:54 p.m. ET:
A Mount Rainier National Park ranger was fatally shot following a New Year's Day traffic stop, and the 368-square-mile park in Washington state was closed as dozens of officers searched for the armed gunman over snowy and rugged terrain.

AP

Benjamin Coulton Barnes is seen in this undated photo provided by the Pierce County Sheriff's Dept.

Pierce County Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said late Sunday afternoon that Benjamin Colton Barnes, a 24-year-old believed to have survivalist skills, was a "strong person of interest" in the slaying of Margaret Anderson.

A parks spokesman said Barnes was an Iraq war veteran. Authorities recovered his vehicle, which had weapons and body armor inside, Troyer said.

Barnes was also a suspect in the early Sunday morning shooting of four people at a house party south of Seattle, police said.

Authorities believed the gunman was still in the woods, with weapons. They asked people to stay away from the park, and for those already inside to leave.

"We do have a very hot and dangerous situation," Troyer said.

Tracks in snow
Troyer said authorities were following tracks in the snow they believe are from the gunman, and crews planned to bring an airplane through the area with heat-seeking capabilities.

"We believe we have a good track on him, but he's way ahead of us," Troyer said.

Kevin Bacher, a spokesman for the park, said about 125 people would spend Sunday night in the visitor center basement along with five law enforcement officers protecting the facility.

He said crews had considered removing them in armored vehicles, but decided not to take any risk. There was enough food at the center, but Bacher said diapers were running in short supply.

The park would remain closed Monday, officials announced late Sunday.

Jason Simpson, 29, of Kent, said his parents were still trapped at the visitor's center after traveling to the mountain for a day hike. His parents were able to make a call explaining their situation, and Simpson drove to the park entrance to wait.

"It's very distressing," Simpson said.

Sgt. Cindi West, King County Sheriff's spokesperson, said late Sunday that Barnes was connected to an early-morning shooting at a New Year's house party in Skyway, Wash., south of Seattle that left four people injured, two critically. That incident happened about 3 a.m., and stemmed from an argument over a gun.

West said three people fled the scene. Two were located, and West said authorities were trying to find Barnes and had been in contact with his family, trying to have them convince him to "come to the police and tell his side of the story" in the Skyway shooting.

At Mount Rainier around 10:20 a.m. Sunday, the gunman sped past a checkpoint, park spokesman Kevin Bacher said. One ranger began following him while Anderson eventually blocked the road to stop the driver.

Before fleeing, the gunman fired shots at both Anderson and the ranger that trailed him, but only Anderson was hit, Bacher said.

Ed Troyer / AP

In this pool photo provided by the Pierce Co. Sheriff's Dept., a police officer examines a car on a road at Mount Rainier National Park, Jan. 1. The car is believed to have been driven by Benjamin Colton Barnes, who officials say is a person of interest in the fatal shooting of a park ranger at the park Sunday morning.

Park superintendent Randy King said Anderson was a mother of two young daughters. She 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.

"It's just a huge tragedy — for the family, the park and the park service," he said.

Adam Norton, a neighbor of Anderson's in the small town of Eatonville, Wash., said the ranger's family moved in about a year ago. He said they were not around much, but when they were Norton would see Anderson outside with her girls.

"They just seemed like the perfect family," he said.

The town of about 3,000 residents, which is a logging community near Rainier, is very close knit, he said.

"It's really sad right now," Norton said. "We take care of each other."

The shooting occurred on an unseasonably sunny and mild day. The park, which offers miles of wooded trails and spectacular vistas from which to see 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, draws between 1.5 million and 2 million visitors each year.

The Longmire station served as headquarters when the national park was established in 1899. Park headquarters have moved but the site still contains a museum, a hotel, restaurant and gift shop, which are open year-round.

Anderson was just the eighth national park ranger to be shot dead in the park system's history, the website Officer Down Memorial Page stated. A ninth was killed in a vehicle pursuit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.