Tactical teams searched Mount Rainier National Park’s snowy terrain through the night, as other officers used the darkness to evacuate dozens of tourists who had been held at a visitors centre amid safety fears.
About 150 officers converged on the mountain park after Margaret Anderson was shot dead on Sunday morning. Searchers used an aircraft with heat-sensing capabilities to hunt from the skies.
Authorities believe the gunman is still in the woods and has weapons.
Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said that Benjamin Colton Barnes, a 24-year-old believed to have survival skills, was a “strong person of interest” in the killing.
“We do have a very hot and dangerous situation,” he said.
Safety concerns prompted authorities to keep about 125 tourists at a visitors centre. Early this morning, officers began escorting them in their cars out of the park.
Crews had planned to keep everyone in a basement with guards. But Troyer said it was determined to be “better to do it (evacuate) under the cover of darkness than daylight”.
Evacuee Dinh Jackson, a mother from Olympia, Washington, said officials made everyone get on their knees with their hands behind their heads as they went through the building, checking to make sure the gunman was not there.
“That was scary for the kids,” she said.
A parks spokesman said Barnes was an Iraq war veteran and the mother of his child had alleged he suffered from post-traumatic stress following his deployments.
He was involved in a custody dispute in Tacoma in July 2011, during which the toddler’s mother sought a temporary restraining order, according to court documents.
In an affidavit, the woman wrote that Barnes was suicidal and possibly suffered from PTSD after deploying to Iraq in 2007-2008. She said he gets easily irritated, angry and depressed and keeps an arsenal of weapons in his home.
Barnes is also a suspect over a shooting early on Sunday morning in which four people were injured at a house party south of Seattle, police said.
Park spokesman Kevin Bacher said the gunman had sped past a checkpoint where staff make sure vehicles have tire chains for snowy conditions.
A ranger followed him while Anderson, a 34-year-old mother-of-two married to another Mount Rainier park ranger, eventually blocked the road to stop the driver.
Before fleeing, the gunman fired at both rangers, hitting Anderson, Bacher said. She would have been armed, as she was one of the rangers tasked with law enforcement, Bacher said. Troyer said she was shot before she had left the vehicle.
About 150 officers, including officials from the Washington State Patrol, US Forest Service and FBI, are on the mountain.
Tactical responders wearing crampons and snowshoes pursued what appeared to be the gunman’s tracks in the snow, Troyer said. They went into creeks and other waterways, making them more difficult to follow.
“He’s intentionally trying to get out of the snow,” Troyer said.
Authorities recovered a vehicle, which had weapons and body armour inside, Troyer said.
A SWAT team was able to remove Anderson’s body from the mountain late on Sunday night, with a procession of law enforcement vehicles escorting her remains away.