Nearly two weeks after National Park Service Ranger Margaret Anderson was gunned down in Mount Rainier National Park, her death still weighs heavily on the minds of our Fish and Wildlife Officers. While law enforcement officers who choose a career in policing the outdoors recognize the unique dangers that can present themselves while working alone in the isolated back country, Ranger Anderson’s death is yet another reminder of just how dangerous their job can be.
Following is a firsthand account of the roles of Fish and Wildlife Sergeant (Sgt.) Ted Holden and several other Fish and Wildlife Officers in the aftermath of Ranger Anderson’s shooting, and, in particular, in the manhunt for the lone gunman.
The remoteness of Washington State’s wild lands provides an attractive environment for those seeking a place to hide or conduct criminal activity. These remote areas also happen to be the Fish and Wildlife Officer’s patrol beat. The specialized skills and abilities that Fish and Wildlife Officers must possess to police the outdoors under challenging conditions are often sought by our law enforcement partners in times of need. The first day of the New Year was no exception.
“Rescuing a downed officer from a hostile scene is tough enough under the best of weather conditions, let alone near-zero temperatures, three feet of snow, and with a hell-bent gunman still hiding in the thick woods around you."
These are the words of Charles Remsberg, a Street Survival Instructor, addressing the challenges that confront officers who train in winter tactics through the Law Enforcement Mountain Operations School (LEMOS). And as reality would have it, that particular scene virtually mirrored what our Fish and Wildlife Officers faced as they joined other law enforcement agencies in the hunt for National Park Service Ranger Margaret Anderson’s murderer on New Year’s Day 2012.
Many of our officers are formally trained in mountain survival and operations tactics and man-tracking. In Fish and Wildlife Sergeant Holden’s case, the training didn’t come from field exercises, but from three decades of pursuing poachers in the outdoors. Those experiences became critical on Mount Rainier as eight Fish and Wildlife Police Officers responded to the national park with their 4x4 patrol vehicles to assist in any way that they could.
Sgt. Holden was at the command post at Longmire when Sgt. Carpenter, Pierce County SWAT member, arrived with two of his team’s negotiators. Sgt. Holden volunteered to transport the three team members up to Paradise in his 4x4 patrol vehicle, because their vehicles weren’t equipped to traverse the snowy roadway to the scene, more than seven miles away. As Sgt. Holden was driving the Pierce County SWAT members to the scene, he observed the trail made by the escaped gunman, just north of Paradise Creek on Paradise Longmire Rd.
According to Sgt. Carpenter, Sgt. Holden exclaimed, “There’s the suspect’s trail!” Sgt. Holden pointed out a snow trail leading southeast into the woods from the road. Sgt. Carpenter asked Sgt. Holden if he was sure about the trail. Sgt. Holden firmly said, “I’ve been doing this job for 30 years, this is what I do. That’s the suspect’s trail.”
In the words of Sgt. Carpenter: “Sgt. Holden was firm, steadfast and convincing - it was apparent to me that he knew his stuff and I shouldn’t doubt it. Sgt Holden recognized the suspect’s trail and we needed to follow it...”
Sgt. Carpenter called for additional SWAT members to assist. They threw up a quick security perimeter while Sgt. Holden assisted the team in gearing up with snow shoes, which some of the team members had never seen up close before. The team then began a grueling track into the timber through deep snow-covered terrain, determined to find Ranger Anderson’s murderer before he could harm anyone else.
Nightfall added to the tactical disadvantages of the pursuers, and the track was suspended until daylight after all possible escape routes had been covered. Sgt. Holden remained with the SWAT team until the early hours of the next day, when he was directed to return to the command post. At daylight, Sgt. Carpenter and his team found the suspect, Benjamin Colton Barnes, dead in Paradise Creek two-tenths of a mile from where the team had deployed to follow the track. Evidence at the scene suggested that the suspect was easily within earshot, and possibly sight, of the team when they deployed from Sergeant Holden’s truck. The gunman had a scoped rifle and armor piercing rounds with him.
FBI Agents were directed to the area, where they positively identified the suspect and took control of the scene.
Sgt. Carpenter captured it best in a letter to Fish and Wildlife Police Chief Bruce Bjork:
"Had Sgt. Holden not recognized the initial trail and directed the SWAT Team to this location, I believe that the suspect may not have been found by now. The FBI SRT Team did not arrive until the next day when weather conditions got increasingly worse. The suspect’s body was undetectable by thermal imaging by the time we found him because his core temperature was the same as the water. There was also evidence at the scene, which suggested that we were in very close proximity to the suspect when we started the initial search. The suspect fled downstream from us where he later collapsed from exhaustion, hypothermia and drowned. The suspect’s weapon was located approximately 30 yards from his final resting location."
In addition to Sgt. Holden’s role in shuttling SWAT members to the scene, and ultimately identifying the gunmen’s trail into the snow-covered timber, several other Fish and Wildlife personnel responded and provided support and assistance at the scene.
Officer James Sympson was the first Fish and Wildlife Officer to arrive, and provided a defensive perimeter around the fallen NPS Ranger, who had been relocated to a safer secondary location near the shooting scene. Officer Sympson remained at this post for over ten hours. Officer Schroeder transported another SWAT team up the mountain in his patrol truck, while Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Ted Jackson and Officer Tony Leonetti assisted the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office with evacuating visitors from the park. When evacuations were complete, fellow Fish and Wildlife Officers Chris Moszeter and Dustin Prater joined them in setting up a road block to stop the gunman from making it to Packwood, the nearest town. Officer Erik Olson covered the midnight shift at the roadblock. Police Chaplain Mike Neil also responded to the command post to be available to provide support and comfort to National Park Service personnel, visitors, and over 100 law enforcement officers who responded to the scene. He also served as a member of the National Park Service Critical Incident Team, and had the opportunity to meet with Ranger Anderson’s husband and parents privately.
While we mourn the loss of Ranger Margaret Anderson, we also must recognize the commitment, professionalism, and dedication of all of the law enforcement personnel who not only put their own lives on the line to capture her killer, but who protect the public each and every day. We can take comfort in knowing that this desperate gunman is no longer on the run, posing considerable risk to public and officer safety, and we can be extremely proud of our Fish and Wildlife Officers and their positive representation of WDFW Enforcement and the entire Department during this critical time.
“In winter, you not only have to worry about human adversaries, but the environment itself is your enemy. If they’re not managed right, either one can injure or kill you very quickly — or even worse, kill you very slowly.”
Steve Thomson, Director of Training
Law Enforcement Mountain Operations School