SEATTLE (AP) — Staff at Mount Rainier National Park gathered Tuesday to grieve the loss of a ranger fatally shot on New Year's Day — and to wonder what led the gunman, heavily armed and carrying a bulletproof vest, to that rugged, remote spot as he fled another shooting 100 miles away.
Ranger Margaret Anderson, a 34-year-old mother of two who was married to another park ranger, was shot and killed Sunday by Benjamin Colton Barnes, a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran. After searching by plane and snowshoe, investigators found Barnes dead, apparently from the cold, in a snowy creek Monday. A handgun and a rifle were near his body.
The national park, which receives 1.5 million visitors a year, remained closed Tuesday and was not expected to reopen until at least Friday. Employees attended an all-staff meeting to begin dealing with Anderson's death. Her husband was on duty elsewhere in the park when she was killed.
"We've just been devastated by this horrific event, and we're just not ready to reopen quite yet," park spokesman Kevin Bacher said. "What happened here at Mount Rainier was unprecedented in the history of the park — unprecedented in the history of most national parks, which are intended to be a place of refuge. We hope we can get it back open soon so that people can return to that place of refuge."
The FBI continued processing vehicles at the crime scene Tuesday, about a mile down the road from the Paradise visitor center. Meanwhile, the King County sheriff's office was trying to pin down details about a shooting Barnes was involved in at a party in Skyway, south of Seattle.
Witnesses told investigators that about nine people attended the party, many of them armed, and some had a "show and tell" with their guns. Some fired shots in the air to celebrate the new year. At 3 a.m. Sunday, one partygoer asked to see another's gun and then refused to give it back.
At least two people drew their weapons — Barnes was one of them — and four people were injured in the shootout, two of them critically, the sheriff's office said Tuesday. It wasn't clear who fired first.
Barnes fled, along with two other people, investigators said.
About five hours later, he knocked on the door of an acquaintance named Rachel Austin, in the Tacoma suburb of Fife. Austin told a Seattle television station that when her husband answered the door, Barnes said he wanted to wish her a happy new year, then left.
About two hours later, Barnes blew through a checkpoint that Mount Rainier rangers use to determine whether vehicles are equipped with tire chains for winter driving. One ranger pursued him, while Anderson set up a roadblock up the road.
She didn't have a chance to get out of her car before she was shot. The ranger who had pursued him was not injured, but a photo of his vehicle released by authorities showed four bullet holes in the windshield.
Barnes headed into the woods, where he waded through chest-deep snow, though ill-equipped for the cold. Investigators in planes, equipped with thermal imaging technology, and on snowshoes pursued him.
The visitor center was locked down, with tourists finally being escorted out by armed guards after midnight. To warn one group of backcountry campers of the situation, authorities flew over by helicopter and dropped handwritten messages on paper coffee cups that a gunman was on the loose, according to postings and photographs on the nwhikers.net message board.
Barnes' body was found Monday morning, clothed in a T-shirt, a pair of jeans and one tennis shoe; it wasn't clear if he had removed some clothing, as hypothermia victims sometimes do. Investigators found several other weapons and body armor in his car.
According to police and court documents, Barnes had a troubled transition to civilian life, with his former girlfriend, Nicole Santos, saying in a custody dispute over their baby daughter that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was suicidal. Santos did not return an email from The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Santos alleged that Barnes was easily irritated, angry and depressed, and that he had an arsenal of weapons. She wrote that she feared for their daughter's safety. Undated photos provided by police showed a shirtless, tattooed Barnes brandishing two guns.
The Army said he joined in 2007, listing Temecula, Calif., as his hometown. He served in Iraq from November 2007 to June 2008 and received a less-than-honorable discharge in 2009 for a drunken-driving arrest and for improperly transporting a privately owned weapon.
It may never be known why Barnes drove to the park.
"He's heavily armed, he's got a bulletproof vest and he's driving up the road," said Pierce County sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer. "That may come to light in the future as (investigators) do interviews with people, but right now, we have nothing."
Anderson's parents, Paul and Dorothy Kritsch, of Scotch Plains, N.J., were devastated, said their next-door neighbor, Karen Johnsen.
"She was beautiful, she was well loved by everyone who knows her, a very soft-spoken, quiet, private individual," Johnsen said. "She knew what she wanted to do in life, and that's where she met her husband."
She said Anderson's parents came to her home after learning about their daughter's death.
Paul Kritsch, a pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church, was speechless, Johnsen said, and Dorothy Kritsch had one main question: "What could be that important that they had to kill our daughter?"
Associated Press writers Shannon Dininny in Yakima, Wash., and Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.