SEATTLE — As scores of heavily armed officers scoured the woods south of Mount Rainier, hunting for the man who gunned down a national park ranger on New Year's Day, Natalia Martinez Paz and three friends were enjoying a glorious long weekend of snowshoeing and camping.
It wasn't until coffee cups dropped out of the blue Monday morning sky that they realized the danger they'd been in.
A Bellingham-based U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter crew searching for 24-year-old Benjamin Colton Barnes spotted the campers as they slept under their tarp near Reflection Lakes, not far from where Barnes headed into the woods after killing Ranger Margaret Anderson. Unsure whether the group could understand what they said over a loudspeaker, one of the pilots reached for a paper cup from a drive-thru espresso stand, swilled the rest of his coffee, scribbled a message and dropped it down.
"A ranger has been shot. Shooter at large," it read. "Call on cell if able to Pierce Co sheriff."
As the campers gathered their gear, the chopper dropped another cup: "Take road to falls and sheriff deputies. We will keep an eye on you. Do not drive from Paradise w/o armed escort."
As promised, the helicopter escorted them down a road — flying just ahead of them — to a team of camouflaged searchers armed with assault rifles. Just as Paz's group arrived, the search team received a radio call: Barnes had been found dead, face-down in a stream, Paz wrote in a posting on the nwhikers.net message board.
Barnes, an Iraq war veteran who was kicked out of the Army following a drunken-driving arrest and other issues, headed for Mount Rainier National Park early Sunday after fleeing the scene of a shooting that wounded four people 100 miles away, near Seattle. He had several guns and a bulletproof vest in the car, authorities said.
Barnes blew through a checkpoint used by rangers to ensure cars are equipped with chains for winter driving. Anderson, a 34-year-old mother of two who was married to another ranger at the park, then set up a road block to stop him.
She didn't have a chance to get out of her sport-utility vehicle before she was shot to death.
Barnes also fired on a ranger who tailed him — putting four bullets through the ranger's windshield — and on other law enforcement officials who arrived at the scene. No one else was injured, and Barnes fled on foot into the woods, prompting a massive manhunt.
Paz's group, which included her partner, Brian Vogt, noticed a number of planes and helicopters flying over the area Sunday afternoon, including one that hovered over their tarp. They figured someone was missing.
But the next morning, while they were still in their tents, another helicopter came just overhead — and stayed. A garbled message came through a loudspeaker, and the group thought they heard it say "ranger shot and killed, shooter at large," Paz wrote.
The helicopter's pilots, CBP air interdiction agents Chris Rosen and David Simeur, told The Associated Press on Thursday that they had been concerned the gunman might make a target of the campers because of the survival gear they carried. When they flew over the campers' tarp using their heat-sensing technology, they knew the campers were OK.
"This is kind of creepy, but we knew they were alive because they were warm," Simeur said.
The pilots also knew Barnes had made no tracks leading toward the campsite.
Vogt released a statement on behalf of the campers, thanking law enforcement and noting the tragedy of Anderson not only being killed, but being killed in a place that carried so much meaning for Anderson and her husband.
"We were shocked to find out the full extent of this tragedy once we were out of the park," the statement said. "It wasn't clear to us at the time how much had been done to keep an eye on us and protect us."
After escorting the campers to safety, one of the pilots, Rosen, shook their hands and spoke with them briefly.
"I asked them, 'Hey, did you guys pack out our trash?'" Rosen said.
Indeed, the campers kept the coffee cups. They told him they would plant seedlings in them, and return the trees to the park as a memorial to the murdered ranger.
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle