By Mike Baker
MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — A plane searching the slopes of Mount Rainier National Park for an Iraq War veteran suspected in the slaying of a park ranger found a body believed to be his lying face down in chest-deep snow Monday, authorities said.
It could be several hours before authorities reach the body. While they haven't identified the body, they believe it is that of 24-year-old Benjamin Colton Barnes.
"Obviously the strong probability is that it is" the gunman, Pierce County Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said.
Barnes is believed to have fled to the remote park 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.
Police cleared out the park of visitors and mounted a manhunt for Barnes, who was believed to have weapons and survivalist training. The body was found face down, Washington State Patrol spokesman Guy Gill said.
Barnes has had a troubled transition to civilian life, with accusations he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is suicidal.
He 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 he was suicidal and possibly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after deploying to Iraq in 2007-2008, and had once sent her a text message saying "I want to die."
She alleged that he gets easily irritated, angry and depressed and keeps 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 recommending 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.
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 Sgt. Cindi West, King County Sheriff's spokeswoman.
Two of the three people who fled the scene were located. West said authorities were trying to find Barnes and had been in contact with his family to ask them to convince him to step forward and "tell his side of the story."
At Mount Rainier around 10:20 a.m. Sunday, the gunman had sped past a checkpoint to make sure vehicles have tire chains, which are sometimes necessary in snowy conditions, Bacher said.
One ranger began following him while Anderson, a 34-year-old mother of two young children who was married to another Mount Rainier park ranger, eventually blocked the road to stop the driver. Before fleeing, the gunman fired shots at both Anderson and the ranger that trailed him, 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 had even got out of the vehicle.
Park superintendent Randy King said Anderson had served as a park ranger for about four years. King said Anderson's husband also was working as a ranger elsewhere in the park at the time of the shooting.
"It's just a huge tragedy _ for the family, the park and the park service," he said.
Adam Norton, a neighbor of Anderson's in the small town of Eatonville, said the ranger's family moved in about a year ago. He said they were not around much, but when they were, Norton would see Anderson outside with her girls.
"They just seemed like the perfect family," he said.
The shooting renewed debate about a federal law that made it legal for people to take loaded weapons into Mount Rainier. The 2010 law made possession of firearms in national parks 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 to allow loaded weapons in national parks.
He called Sunday's fatal shooting a tragedy that could have been prevented. He hopes Congress will reconsider the law that took effect in early 2010, but doubts that will happen in today's political climate.
Associated Press writer Donna Gordon Blankinship contributed from Seattle.
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press