Helicopter dropped coffee cups to warn campers

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.

Paz’s group, which included her partner, Brian Vogt, noticed 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, Chris Rosen and David Simeur, said 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 alive.

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.”

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