The Roadblock

On New Year’s Day in 2012 park ranger Margaret Anderson encountered a violent man on an icy roadway in Mount Rainier National Park. The aftermath of their confrontation led authorities on a park-wide manhunt that sent questions flying as to how a predator carrying so much firepower made it through the gates.

The Episode

Hi park enthusiasts,

I’m your host Delia D’Ambra and the case I’m going to tell you about today happened not that long ago…in January 2012.

Technically that was a decade ago, but for so many people who are a part of this story, they remember it like it was yesterday.

It takes place in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

The first thing you need to know about Mount Rainier is that it is spectacularly beautiful and at the same time…an eruption waiting to happen.

No, like seriously…Mount Rainier is an active volcano according the National Park Service. It might be icy and covered with snow a lot of the time, but it is still considered a volcanic feature.

At more than 14-thousand feet above sea level the glaciated peak is surrounded by five major rivers and what are known as subalpine meadows full of wildflowers.

The weather patterns in the park are predominantly dictated by the Pacific Ocean and for the most part the climate is cool and rainy. Every now and then though in the summer the temperatures get up to the 60s or 70’s on a good day.

A big piece of advice that rangers tell all visitors is to pay attention to weather forecasts. The weather can change drastically in the park at any time and from November through May it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll run into road closures or treacherous areas that no one can survive crossing.

On New Year’s Day in 2012…a female park ranger named Margaret Anderson found herself face-to-face with an unanticipated scenario on a road way in the park…the result of which was the end of her life and a lengthy investigation to determine if the National Park Service could have prevented her death.

This is Park Predators.

In the early morning hours of January 1st, 2012…911 dispatchers in King County, Washington received an alarming call around 3 a-m.

The person on the other end of the line was panicked and shouting that they’d witnessed a violent shooting in the 6200 block of South 117th Place in Southeast Seattle. The caller claimed that three men and woman were in a house at that address and needed medical attention right away.

King County deputies rushed to the scene and sure enough, they found four people…three men and a woman bleeding extensively from gunshot wounds. Ambulances rushed the victims to Harborview Medical Center…but things were not looking good.

When deputies interviewed witnesses in the area and the 911 caller, they learned that a New Year’s Eve house party had been in full swing inside the home when the shooting took place.

According to KOMO News, people who attended told investigators that around midnight several people had shown up armed with guns and had a quote — “show and tell” —end quote with their guns. By three o’clock the partying had escalated and an argument over a firearm broke out.

According to ABC News’s reporting, at least one guy was asked to leave but not long after, he returned and that’s when shots had rung out. Before anyone knew what had happened, four people were laying on the ground bleeding from bullet wounds.

None of the witnesses knew who had pulled the trigger or if there were multiple shooters who’d fired their weapons. And to make matters worse, authorities couldn’t get any useful information from the four victims themselves because they were all in really bad shape. Two of them were reported as being in critical condition…just barely clinging to life.

What detectives did determine was that at least three people had been seen fleeing the scene right after the shooting. Including the man who’d been asked to leave but then returned, So, obviously those three folks were who authorities wanted to speak to right away.

Within an hour or so, deputies had tracked down two of the people they needed to interview and made contact with family members of the third. That last person of interest’s name was Benjamin Barnes, but when officers asked his family where he was…they said they didn’t know. At the time, they were living in Southern California and said Benjamin had been staying in Seattle for the last few years.

Unfortunately, deputies would have to wait for more clarity with their current shooting investigation, because just as they were working to get some answers and more information…another violent event erupted two hours away inside Mount Rainier National Park that prompted law enforcement in King and other surrounding counties to drop what they were doing and scramble to assist the National Park Service.

Around 10:00am, a veteran volunteer park ranger named Bill Marsh was working inside the Longmire Museum at Mount Rainier National Park when he caught a glimpse of a passing park ranger.

Inside the vehicle he saw the face of 34-year-old Margaret Anderson…an 11-year veteran of NPS who frequently slowed down to wave, honk her horn and smile at Bill as he geared up for a busy day of visitors to the Longmire Historic District.

After their brief non-verbal exchange, Bill watched Margaret drive her government-issued SUV up the mountain on Paradise Valley Road. Bill knew Margaret was likely headed to check in at the Jackson Memorial Visitor Center about 11 miles up the mountain.

Roughly 35 minutes later, he heard a distress call come over his radio that made his stop dead in his tracks.

A female voice on the other end shouted…“Ranger 741 down”

Those three words told Bill everything he needed to know. Margaret Anderson’s badge number was 1-0-7-4…Bill knew she was in danger and needed backup immediately.

Right away Bill and other rangers in the park’s radios went wild and communications started to get tangled.

All they knew was that somewhere in the 11 miles between Longmire Ranger Station and the main visitor’s center up the mountain, something had happened to Margaret.

The squawking chatter over the radio frequency channels quickly cleared up. Bill and dozens of other rangers on duty learned that minutes before Margaret’s distress call had come in… another ranger driving up the mountain had initiated a routine traffic stop on a blue Pontiac sedan—some sources say Impala– that had blown through a tire chain checkpoint.

In the winter when weather conditions are at their worst, NPS requires vehicles driving up the mountain be outfitted with snow chains on their tires to avoid accidents. In the days leading up to January first the weather had been icy and snowy in the park, so, when this mystery vehicle had failed to stop…the ranger that spotted it had immediately gotten behind it to tail it.

Once the ranger’s lights and siren started up, the driver of the Pontiac totally ignored the attempted traffic stop and led the officer on a slow but steady chase up the mountain.

It was clear to Bill and everyone else what had happened…Margaret had likely heard her fellow ranger’s radio announcement that he was in pursuit of a car up the mountain and she’d turned around to set up a roadblock…a standard procedure for any law enforcement officer who knows a car chase is headed in the direction of innocent civilians.

Bill’s heart sank…because he knew without a doubt that Margaret had been headed up the mountain just a few minutes earlier and just based on how well he knew her, he knew there was no way she would have just ignored the dispatch. She would have taken every opportunity to prevent whoever was in the rogue fleeing car from coming in contact with droves of tourists at the visitor’s center.

And Bill’s fears were right…

According to a news release from the National Park Service, Margaret Anderson had heard the commotion on the scanners about the car chase and radioed in that she would turn her SUV sideways on Paradise Road to try and intercept the driver and ensure whoever was behind the wheel DID NOT make it up the mountain to the Jackson Visitor’s Center.

That one decision, proved to be fatal though…because within seconds of the rogue car’s driver coming in contact with Margaret…he made an abrupt U-turn, got out of his driver’s side door and opened fire on her with an AR-15 rifle. The shooter’s round hit Margaret at close range while she still sitting in her SUV.

According to NPS, authorities believed that Margaret likely died shortly after being shot. A report from the agency states that she was able to reverse her Chevy Tahoe into a snowbank and drive about 100 yards up the mountain while getting one last radio call out. She stated she needed help and warned her co-workers that the man who’d shot her was armed had taken off on foot with a rifle, extra ammunition and a knife…but after that, no one spoke with her again which indicated she likely bled out fast.

Margaret was armed with a service weapon, but had been unable to reach for it or fire it before being shot herself.

The NPS’s release on the incident stated that after shooting Margaret, the gunman fired at other responding rangers who were enroute driving up the mountain, including the ranger who’d initiated the original traffic stop. That officer took several rounds to his windshield and a bullet even went through his seatbelt, but miraculously he was unharmed.

After sending a barrage of bullets towards other first responders, the gunman took off further into the snowy tree line and was presumed to be high tailing it into the wilderness. The only glimpse anyone got of the man was that he was a younger looking white guy who and had at least some belongings with him.

Minutes after the shooting call came in, more than 200 park staff who were on-duty as well as droves of officers from surrounding law enforcement agencies responded to the scene.

The main investigating entities that spearhead getting to Margaret and launching a search for the gunman were the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol and the FBI.

The problem they faced was that somewhere hidden in the thick forest near the scene…the shooter was STILL firing at law enforcement. According to NPS’s documents on the was too dangerous for anyone to get close to Margaret’s vehicle or her body.

Meanwhile, visitors and park staff were trapped several miles away at the Jackson Visitor’s Center.

Authorities worked quickly to evacuate everyone they could from trails and nature areas around the building and get them inside the facility. The NPS closed all entrances to the park and reported that in total there were 125 visitors and 17 park staff members housed under armed guard at the Jackson visitor’s center while other first responders further down the mountain tried to assemble a manhunt for the gunman.

The first group of officers to attempt to get to Margaret came from the Pierce County SWAT team…but within minutes of launching an initial push up the mountain they were batted back down by gunfire.

For 90 minutes, Margaret’s fellow rangers and her husband Eric, who was also a park ranger but was working on-duty in another section of the park that day…had to watch from a distance as officer after officer attempted to retrieve Margaret’s body from her SUV but every time…they failed.

Eventually, after what felt like hours but was actually about two, SWAT teams members were finally able to get to Margaret and confirm she was dead. The Seattle Times reported that she’d died from gunshot wounds to head and torso while still buckled into her seat. She’d had no time to react to her attacker or draw her service weapon. SWAT teams also examined the suspect’s sedan and found lots of rounds of rifle ammunition, a ballistics vest and several other high-powered firearms inside of it.

Throughout Sunday night, law enforcement agencies used aircraft equipped with infrared ground scanning technology to try and locate the shooter. More than 100 officers from neighboring county sheriff’s office and police department joined in the effort to find Margaret’s killer. But the task proved to be tough.

That area of Mount Rainier is vast and although at the time of the shooting the weather was unusually clear and sunny…those conditions were not guaranteed to hold up and searching hundreds of square miles for one lone gunman was going to be difficult. Not to mention dangerous. Authorities had no idea how many weapons the guy had on him or how much ammunition he had to be able to fight fire with fire.

As soon as they could, law enforcement officer with dogs began to hike on foot following what they believed to be boot tracks in the snow to try and get a better idea of where to begin searching for their suspect.

The source material differs a little bit on exactly how investigators determined who they thought the shooter was but by Sunday afternoon, the FBI and NPS announced that 24-year-old Benjamin Colton Barnes from Seattle was a “strong person of interest” in the case and the person they believed was on the run.

Like I said, the reporting on this isn’t super detailed but I think what happened was that the King County Sheriff’s Office, that had been investigating the quadruple shooting in South Seattle from New Year’s Eve, connected with federal investigators and shared their information.

I also read in an article by Outside Magazine that when investigators ran the license plate and information for the suspect’s blue sedan, it came back to Benjamin Colton Barnes.

Either way, by Monday afternoon, all of the different agencies had gotten on the same page and realized that the main suspect in the house party shooting in South Seattle was also the prime suspect in the murder of Margaret Anderson.

What was REALLY NOT good was that he was still on the loose.

As authorities looked into Benjamin’s life and background… what they found was… disturbing.

According to the News Tribune, Benjamin Barnes was an Iraq war veteran who’d served a tour overseas in the Middle East and came from a military family.

The Seattle Times reported that Benjamin had struggled socially and academically in high school and been in and out of courses for troubled students who faced repeated expulsion. After getting his GED, he enlisted in the United States Army in 2007, but only served 2 years and 7 months before being dishonorably discharged in 2009.

According to a spokesman for the Army who interviewed with The Seattle Times, Benjamin had displayed one too many bouts of threatening behavior while enlisted, some of which may have stemmed from the loss of a close Army friend who’d chosen to take his own life in 2011. The ultimate reason for Benjamin’s dismissal from the Army though was because he’d been arrested for driving under the influence and illegally transporting a private weapon while off base.

After being discharged, Benjamin’s friends and family who lived in Riverside County in Southern California said he became increasingly obsessed with guns and the idea of survivalism. When investigators searched his social media accounts, they located disturbing images of him posing with automatic and semi-automatic weapons. The captions of those photos intimated threatening language and behaviors.

Benjamin had also spent a lot of time camping and fishing in and around Mount Rainier National Park. Sometimes he’d go by himself and other times, he’d taken his young daughter.

When authorities tracked down and spoke with his former girlfriend who was the mother of his child, they learned that Benjamin had a history of domestic violence and substance use issues. The girlfriend told police that throughout their relationship Benjamin had claimed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder–a condition he said he’d been diagnosed with after serving overseas.

Court records cited by The Oregonian state that in July of 2011—roughly six months before the deadly shooting—Benjamin’s former girlfriend had sought a temporary restraining order against him. In an affidavit included in that filing, she described Benjamin as someone who would become irritated easily, get angry without provocation and displayed telltale signs of depression. She said that on more than one occasion during their relationship he’d verbalized thoughts of self-harm and she found him storing large quantities of firearms and ammunition in their home. These behaviors eventually led them to split up but before they parted ways for good, she’d noticed him

Reporters for the Seattle Times wrote that as 2011 came to a close Benjamin’s conversations with friends grew more and more dark. He told one friend he felt like he had no friends, no money and the world was against him. And to some extent, Benjamin was right…reports show that by New Year’s Eve of 2011 he’d lost his job, his relationship, was only allowed to see his daughter during supervised visits, had been kicked out of his apartment and was sleeping in his car at casinos.

The 24-year-old was not headed in a good direction…

With all of the information in mind, authorities issued an all-points bulletin about Benjamin that warned anyone who came in contact with him to not approach him and consider him armed and dangerous. They specifically wanted people camping or hiking in the back country of Mount Rainier near an area known as Reflection Lakes to be cautious. Reflection Lakes was sort of smack dab in the middle of the area of the park where authorities were tracking or at least trying to track Benjamin.

From one A-M until around four A-M, early Monday morning, authorities used several armored vehicles to evacuate civilians and staff from the Jackson Visitor’s Center and get them out of the park. Investigators felt that Benjamin posed too much of a threat to let innocent people and police officers be out in the open as these covert escorts were underway. They figured that unless Benjamin had night vision, it would be impossible for him to see the evacuees in the cover of darkness.

When sunrise came on Monday morning, the National Park Service held a press conference and announced that they believed Benjamin had come up to Mount Rainier to flee from whatever crimes he may have committed in Seattle.  They speculated that he’d likely thrown stuff into his car and taken off to hide out in the wilderness of the park, an area he was familiar with and could survive in.

They knew he’d had brief contact with his family in between fleeing the house party in Seattle around 3 A-M and entering the park on Sunday morning.

As authorities searched tirelessly for him Sunday night and into the early hours of Monday morning, they realized he was not a typical fugitive who was going to come in willingly or without some kind of stand off.

According to an article in the Oregonian, he had extensive survival skills, likely from his time serving in the military, and he utilized tactics to avoid law enforcement as they tracked him in the park. A spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s office named Ed Troyer told the newspaper quote— “his tracks went into creeks and other waterways…he’s intentionally trying to get out of the snow.”— end quote.

National Park service rangers knew Benjamin’s skills were going to be a challenge but they were confident he’d make a mistake. In fact, in their eyes he already had.

You see– according to a press conference held by the NPS, rangers said that the area of the park they believed Benjamin was hiding out in was blocked on the North side by Mount Rainier itself. On the South side was a range of horseshoe-shaped mountains that were nearly impossible to cross on foot. To the East was about 10 miles of rugged wilderness and a canyon and to the West, he’d be heading back in the direction of law enforcement.

So, essentially, he was trapped.

The temperatures in the park were also reported to have plunged into the upper 20’s overnight on Sunday. Law enforcement hoped those freezing conditions would flush Benjamin out at least cause him to stay in one place long enough for SWAT team members to catch up to him.

NPS investigators felt confident that unless Benjamin had the ability and supplies to realistically traverse six to ten miles over brutal terrain, he’d be unable to escape or punch through the park’s natural barriers and reach nearby highways and communities.

There was also ZERO cell service in that area. So, in the event Benjamin was using a cell phone to guide him…he’d be out of luck.

The no cell service thing kind of was a double-edged sword though because rangers knew that meant anyone else in that area who needed to be alerted to Benjamin’s presence likely would never have gotten their all-points bulletin message about the deadly shooting or even know there was a wanted fugitive on the loose.

The News Tribune reported that not long after the official manhunt got underway park officials became aware of a group of four hikers who’d registered with NPS before New Year’s and were scheduled to be camping at Reflection Lakes for three days. Those people were in extreme danger if they came across Benjamin.

As a way to get an emergency message to them, first responders dropped paper coffee cups from a helicopter with a handwritten warnings scribbled on them. The notes said quote— “a ranger has been shot. Shooter at large. Call on cell if able to Pierce Co Sheriff….and Take road to falls and sheriff deputies. We will keep an eye on you. Do not drive from Paradise without armed escort.”— end quote.

Thanks to those messages, the hikers did get out of Reflection Lakes safely with law enforcement escorting them to the Jackson Visitor’s Center.

Going to lengths like this just shows you how high the stakes were in this situation and the sense of urgency that law enforcement felt to locate Benjamin and arrest him.

But there would be no gunfire show down between police and their fugitive.

As it turned out…the weather of Mount Rainier had caught up to Benjamin Barnes…

Around 11am on Monday, authorities circling in an airplane over the search grid they believed Benjamin was hiding out in in caught a glimpse of a man’s body face down in a snow drift near the base of a waterfall.

Officers in the airplane radioed to ground searchers who spent several more hours hiking to the spot.

According to reporting by the News Tribune and CNN, when SWAT teams arrived to the area just after one o’clock, they found a young man’s lifeless body partially submerged in a stream of water called Paradise Creek.

It was a popular area for hikers and campers but at the time was covered with several feet of snow that came all the way up to searchers’ chests in some parts. The spot they found the body in was a slushy, frozen hole in the snow near the base of a waterfall.

News reports state that the young man was dressed in only a t-shirt, jeans and one shoe. NPS officials said that all signs pointed to him dying from exposure to the elements.

After calling in the Pierce County medical examiner it was determined that the dead man was Benjamin Barnes. The M-E found that he had no signs of trauma on his body…which meant he’d not attempted to take his own life. The official findings were that he’d become so hypothermic that he became unconscious and drowned in the creek. It was estimated that he’d died within a matter of hours after the shooting.

In his pockets authorities found a handgun and magazines with bullets in them. About 100 yards away from his body, sitting in the water, investigators found a stash of ammunition and two high-powered firearms, including the rifle they believed he’d used to shoot Margaret.

At two o’clock on Monday afternoon, the FBI, NPS and local authorities held a press conference and officially confirmed Benjamin’s ID to the public and called off the be on the lookout alert. All of the hundreds of men and women who’d come to help in the manhunt were both relieved and saddened that Margaret’s killer had been found…but unable to be brought in alive.

Mount Rainier’s superintendent at the time told reporters with The Oregonian, quote— “We’ve been through a horrific experience here at Mount Ranier National Park. It’s nothing you ever hope to experience but here it is. This is not what happens typically in a national park. It’s a tragedy here, it’s a tragedy anywhere. To lose one of your own is a terrible thing.”–end quote.

Though so many people knew Margaret as an exemplary park service ranger…she was also a mother of two young girls. She’d spent most of her adult life working in law enforcement in one way of the other to provide for them and set a good example.

According to her obituary published by the News Tribune, Margaret graduated high school in 1995 and immediately went to college to study wildlife biology. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree and eventually went on to earn a master’s in biology from Fort Hays State University.

After taking a job with the park service in 2000, she started working as a ranger in Bryce Canyon Park in Utah and it was there that she met her husband, Eric. By 2004 the couple had moved to Washington D.C. to work as rangers and by 2005 they were married. After the birth of their first daughter in 2008, the Anderson’s moved back West to work as rangers in Mount Rainier.

While still working full time and balancing a lot of new things, Margaret gave birth to the couple’s second daughter in May 2010—just a year and half before she was murdered.

Margaret was the youngest of three children and a beloved member of a big immediate family. She had six nieces and nephews whom she doted on and loved like they were her own.

One way I consistently saw her described by friends and family was that she was loving and caring for most people she met. She loved the outdoors and was always ready with a smile to greet someone interested in learning about nature or the national parks.

Right before Margaret responded to the set up her roadblock, she’d been working in the nearby town of Eatonville, which is actually where she and her family lived. She’d been at the local fire department brainstorming with other emergency personnel trying to come up with plans on how to improve emergency medical treatment access for people in surrounding communities and within the boundary of the park.

According to KOMO news, Margaret’s husband Eric was scheduled to start as a part-time volunteer firefighter at the Eatonville Fire Department the second week of January. I can’t tell from the source material if this meant Eric wasn’t going to be a full-time park ranger anymore, but just based on the fact that very few other reports mention it, I kind of think that probably wasn’t going to be the case.

The fire chief in Eatonville told the KOMO reporter that Margaret quote– “recognized there was an issue with how people were getting emergency medical service in the park in a timely manner and she was just one of those people trying to do her part to be a part of the community and help the community.”–end quote.

Probably the most heartbreaking detail that I learned from reading an article by the Behind The Badge Foundation about Margaret was the fact that in 2011—just months before her death—she was actually considering changing career or at least alternate duties with her job. She lived by the motto ‘family first’ and after the birth of her second daughter was thinking of ways to better balance family life and work.

If that is true, its devastating to know she did not live to see that dream become a reality.

In the aftermath of Margaret’s murder people who visited the park and those living in nearby towns left flowers and memorials for her near the Longmire ranger’s station. One week after the shooting, thousands of people attended a candle light vigil for her in Eatonville.

Her funeral service was televised and more than 3,700 people attended in-person.

At the time of her death, it was completely legal in the state of Washington to take a loaded firearm into Mount Rainier National Park.

According to multiple news reports, a federal law had gone into effect just two years earlier– in 2010– that made firearm possession in national parklands subject to state laws and in Washington…the state law allowed a person to carry, so people freely carried guns on federal land.

The legality of firearms in parks and the NPS as a whole came under scrutiny in the aftermath of the shooting.

The Oregonian reported that state legislators and activists who supported gun restrictions and were not fans of the federal law Congress had passed, spoke out about the tragedy.

Bill Wade, a man who’d chaired the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees told the newspaper quote— “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”--end quote.

The National Rifle Association chimed in too, stating that it supported the new federal law, despite the horrible tragedy that happened to Margaret. In its statement, the organization said citizens had the right to bear arms in national parks as a means to protect themselves against any threat…most commonly wild animals.

In the weeks following the tragedy and the stirring gun debate, people wanted to know if there could have been anything done to prevent the events from happening like they did.

Reporters from outlets all over the state and country, peppered NPS with questions wanting to know if the law enforcement agencies that had been involved had been efficient enough with their communications in between the time the shooting happened in King County at the house party and when Benjamin Barnes had entered the national park on Sunday morning.

The NPS’s initial response was no. The agency said that rangers in the park did not have any indication that Benjamin was headed their way when he left Seattle. NPS vowed to conduct a thorough internal review of the incident…but the results of that would take a long time to come in.

While everyone waited to see what the findings would be, winter turned to spring and in April two fellow rangers who’d been the first to respond to Margaret’s call were honored with medals of valor. In May, Pierce County honored Margaret’s sacrifice in a special ceremony hosted by the Police Family Association.

The News Tribune reported that around that same time Eric Anderson, Margaret’s husband, announced he would not return to work in Mount Rainier. He kept his job as a park ranger but transferred to the NPS’s training facility for fire and aviation management in Boise, Idaho.

A lengthy 2-year investigative probe conducted by the FBI explored the NPS’s handling of Margaret’s death and how the agency prepared rangers for the scenario she was put into on New Year’s Day. In March of 2014—two years after the shooting—the findings came in.

It recommended that the National Park Service provide formal tactical training and practical training exercises involving high-risk encounters. Something they’d not provided before. The report also said the agency should evaluate the personal protective equipment rangers carried as well as improve standard operating procedures across the board.

The report read that those actions would be taken seriously and implemented quickly.

According to an article by Olympian, all of the victims Benjamin shot at the Seattle house party survived their injuries.

Margaret was the only person whom he killed during his violent rampage.

The explanation or rather series of events that led him to pull the trigger that New Year’s Day and forever steal the rest of the years of the young mother’s life seems clear enough…but truly, only he will ever know the ‘why’ behind his actions.

What I do know for sure is that Margaret Anderson is a hero and she should always be remembered as one.

A park visitor who was housed inside the Jackson Visitor’s Center and had asked Margaret for parking directions minutes before she was killed was later interviewed by the News Tribune...and I think he sums it up best with this quote…

“I’m positive she saved my life. I was talking to her just minutes before it happened. If that car came up the road, if he had an automatic weapon, I wouldn’t be here. I just thank her. She was completely selfless.” — end quote.

Park Predators is an audiochuck original.

So, what do you think Chuck, do you approve? *howl*