MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — Mount Rainier National Park remained closed Tuesday following the discovery of the body of the suspected gunman in the fatal shooting of a park ranger, who graduated from K-State in 1999, that has devastated the close-knit group of park workers.
The park, which sees more than 1.5 million visitors annually, has been off-limits since Margaret Anderson, who earned a bachelor of science degree in fisheries and wildlife biology from K-State, was killed Sunday morning. The body of the man suspected of killing her was found Monday morning by a plane searching the rugged, snowy area.
“We have been through a horrific experience,” said park superintendent Randy King. “We’re going to need a little time to regroup.”
Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, was lying partially submerged in a frigid mountain creek with snow banks standing several feet high on each side.
“He was wearing T-shirt, a pair of jeans and one tennis shoe. That was it,” said Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer.
Barnes, an Iraq War veteran, did not have any external wounds and appears to have died from the elements, Troyer said. It wasn’t clear whether Barnes had shed clothes before dying, as some hypothermia victims do.
Troyer said Barnes did not have sufficient outdoor gear, and that two weapons were recovered along with his body.
According to police and court documents, Barnes had a troubled transition to civilian life, with his former girlfriend saying in a custody dispute over their toddler daughter that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was suicidal.
Nicole Santos sought a temporary restraining order against Barnes, according to court documents.
Santos alleged that he got easily irritated, angry and depressed and kept an arsenal of weapons in his home. She wrote that she feared for their daughter’s safety. Undated photos provided by police showed a shirtless, tattooed Barnes brandishing two large weapons.
She told authorities Barnes’ troubles began after he returned from Iraq in 2008, and that he had once sent her a text message saying, “I want to die.”
In November 2011, a court official recommended parenting and communication classes for both parents as well as a visitation schedule for Barnes, pending domestic violence and mental health evaluations and potential treatment orders.
The Seattle Times reports that the Army confirmed Monday that Barnes had been a private first class whose service ended in 2009, when he received a misconduct discharge after being charged with driving under the influence and improperly transporting privately owned weapons.
Maj. Chris Ophardt, an Army spokesman, told The News Tribune that Barnes had been stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, and had served two years and seven months on active duty at the time of his discharge.
Barnes pleaded guilty to DUI in the March 2009 incident, according to the Times. The result of the weapons charge was unclear.
Authorities think Barnes fled to the park Sunday to hide after an early morning shooting at a New Year’s house party near Seattle that wounded four, two critically.
King County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Cindi West said Barnes is a suspect in that shooting, as well. West said the shots were fired around 3 a.m. after a dispute over a gun. However, further details, including the victims’ identities, were not immediately available.
Parks spokesman Kevin Bacher said: “The speculation is that he may have come up here, specifically for that reason, to get away. The speculation is he threw some stuff in the car and headed up here to hide out.”
Authorities think Barnes encountered the 34-year-old Anderson, who was born near Toronto and grew up in Connecticut and Westfield, N.J., where she graduated from high school in 1995, at a roadblock after blowing through a checkpoint rangers use to establish whether vehicles have tire chains for winter conditions.
The gunman who killed Anderson got out of his vehicle and fired at her and a ranger trailing him, but only Anderson, who also earned her masters from Fort Hays State in 2004, was hit.
Anderson would have been armed, as she was one of the rangers tasked with law enforcement, Bacher said. But she was shot before she got out of her vehicle, Troyer said.
Police immediately began a manhunt. Park officials fearing that tourists could be caught in the crossfire of a potential shootout held more than 100 people at the visitors’ center before evacuating them early Monday.
King, the park superintendent, said Anderson had served as a park ranger for about four years and was married to another ranger who was working elsewhere in the park at the time of the shooting. The couple has two young daughters.
The shooting renewed debate about a federal law that made it legal 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.
Calls and emails to the National Rifle Association requesting comment were not immediately returned Monday.
The NRA has said media fears of gun violence in parks were unlikely to be realized.
“The new law affects firearms possession, not use,” the association said in a statement written after the law went into effect.
The group pushed for the law, saying people have a right to defend themselves against park animals and other people.