MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. - 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 could not, however, escape the cold.
A plane searching the remote wilderness for Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, yesterday discovered his body lying face down on the mountain, hours from where authorities could get to him.
Barnes is believed to have fled to the remote park on Sunday to hide after an earlier shooting at a New Year’s house party near Seattle that wounded four, two critically. Authorities suspect he shot ranger Margaret Anderson later Sunday.
Barnes’s body was found partly submerged in a mountainside creek.
“He was wearing a 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, Troyer said. A medical examiner was to determine the cause of death.
SWAT teams more accustomed to urban standoffs trekked deep into the backcountry, unfamiliar territory for them.
“We have SWAT team members with snowshoes on the side of a mountain,’’ Troyer said. “This has never happened before.’’
Immediately after Sunday’s shooting, police cleared the park of visitors and mounted a major search.
Fear that tourists could be caught in the crossfire in a shootout with Barnes, who had survivalist training and was believed to be carrying a cache of weapons, prompted officials to hold more than a 100 people at the visitors’ center before evacuating them in the middle of the night.
Barnes was involved in a custody dispute in July, during which his toddler daughter’s mother sought a temporary restraining order against him, according to court documents.
The woman told authorities that he was suicidal and possibly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after deploying to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 and had once sent her a text message saying “I want to die.’’
She alleged that Barnes got angry and depressed easily 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.
In November 2011, a guardian ad litem recommended parenting and communication classes for both parents and that Barnes be allowed to continue supervised visits with the child, two days a week.
That visitation schedule was to continue until he completed a domestic violence evaluation and mental health evaluation and complied with all treatment recommendations.
Late Sunday, police said Barnes was a suspect in another shooting.
On New Year’s, there was an argument at a house party in Skyway, south of Seattle, and gunfire erupted, police said.
Barnes was connected to the shooting, said Sergeant Cindi West, King County sheriff’s spokeswoman.
Police believe Barnes headed to the remote park wilderness after the Skyway shooting.
Anderson had set up a roadblock Sunday morning to stop a man who had blown through a checkpoint rangers use to see if vehicles have tire chains for winter conditions.
A gunman opened fire on her before she was able to exit her vehicle, authorities say.
The gunman fired shots at both Anderson and another ranger before fleeing, but only Anderson was hit.
Anderson would have been armed, as she was one of the rangers tasked with law enforcement, parks spokesman Kevin Bacher said. Troyer said she was shot before she got out of the vehicle.
Park superintendent Randy King said Anderson, 34, a mother of two girls who was married to another Rainier ranger, had served as a park ranger for about four years.
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 chairman 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,’’ said Wade.
Wade called the fatal shooting a tragedy that could have been prevented. He hopes Congress will reconsider the law, which took effect in early 2010, but doubts that will happen in today’s political climate.
Calls and e-mails to the National Rifle Association requesting comment were not immediately returned.
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.
Bacher said surviving overnight in the open on Rainier is difficult, but not impossible for a person with gear and skills.