It began as a sunny, Sunday morning jog through Snoqualmie Ridge. Half way into my much-needed run, a text came in alerting me to a fire in North Bend. Who knew that what first seemed like an accidental house fire would end in a SWAT team mission in the woods of Rattlesnake Ridge – and the national media spotlight focused on the quiet Snoqualmie Valley.
As the story progressed it became harder and harder to report. It was easier to copy and paste the press releases from the King County Sheriff’s Office. I am not a seasoned news writer. I am not numb to the local heartache that accompanies a story like this. Two lives were taken too soon and the answers as to why may never be known. As the media spotlight dims on the valley, there are still memorial services left to plan. Community members are still hurting for the friends they’ve lost. And almost everyone in the valley is asking why.
It’s not very often a valley event becomes a national news story. The measures taken to end this sad and dramatic tv show-type story were all the hard work of local fire and police enforcement. The tactical meaures and execution are not something often witnessed first-hand. Watching helicopters fly SWAT teams and supplies into rugged mountain terrain isn’t your normal weekend activity. Yet it was for those living in the North Bend areas surrounding the survivalist’s Rattlesnake Ridge forest bunker.
This was a week-long chain of events where residents witnessed first-hand the amazing work of the Snoqualmie Fire Department, Eastside Fire and Rescue and the King County Sheriff’s Office. With quick fire response on April 22nd, the Keller home was spared complete destruction. The murder and arson suspect had left gasoline to ignite on the kitchen stove and to then explode numerous other full gas cans left throughout the one-level home; a fire presumably intended to destroy evidence of a horrific double-murder. The family safe was even left open to burn any remaining evidence of the suspect’s whereabouts. A fast fire response kept this from happening.
A neighbor spotted the fire early on. He alerted fire crews who responded quickly and extinguished the blaze before it could spread too far past the kitchen. Fire crews quickly alerted the local sheriff’s office that the fire looked intentional and that the victims did not appear to have died of smoke inhalation. The fire was extinguished and bomb destruction robots were used to clear the home, allowing investigators to quickly and effectively do their work to put the clues together.
The professional work done by the King County Sheriff’s Office and spokesperson, Cindi West, in this case are admirable. By the evening of the fire, deputies appeared to understand the severity of the crime. The community was alerted and asked to help with tips, but at the same time was not completely paralyzed with fear. It was made clear the suspect was heading to the woods – to some type of fort. With local hikers’ tips and the meticulous forensic work of investigators (work only made possible because the fire didn’t completely destroy the crime scene) the location of the suspect’s bunker only took about three days to discover.
Early Friday morning it was apparent a major break in the case had occurred. Expert trackers were used to pinpoint the bunker’s exact location east of a popular hiking trail. Local trailheads were closed, police barricades blocked park access. News outlets were kept at bay, asked to keep quiet so as not to alert the suspect who might be monitoring police activity with a computer. News coverage was quiet until multiple tactical teams were in place; some entering from the Rattlesnake Ridge trailhead in North Bend, some through the Snoqualmie Point trailhead and others dropped into the forest by helicopter. All teams withstood and navigated the rugged mountain terrain of the popular Cascade Foothills hiking area.
Friday night Seattle Police Department Tactical Teams were brought in for relief and monitored the bunker overnight, battling cold temperatures. Numerous contact attempts were made with the suspect to no avail. By Saturday morning tactical teams used explosives to expose a large enough hole in the bunker’s roof to enter the fortified structure. They found what was presumed to be the suspect, deceased of a self-inflicted wound.
Law enforcement work did not end there. Nearly a day was spent clearing the bunker of ammunition and possible booby traps; bomb destruction robots used again. As the King County Sheriff’s Office warned earlier in the week, multiple fire arms were found in the 20-foot survival bunker. Also found were gun scopes, bullet-proof vests, binoculars, a portable generator, propane tanks, stove, food, gas mask and other supplies. The bunker even had its own ventilation and plumbing system. This survivalist bunker was built over eight-years near a popular hiking trail – and went unnoticed.
SWAT Teams performed some 50 different helicopter missions over the weekend to end the manhunt and clear the bunker of all its contents. It is reported five tactical team members were hospitalized with dehydration, exhaustion and hypothermia. One member also suffered a broken ankle. With the bunker now cleared, it is in the hands of the Parks Department and Department of Natural Resources, who say they do not want to leave it intact and plan to destroy it in the very near future.
It is expected the King County Medical Examiner will release autopsy results today, positively identifying the suspect and the cause of death. A computer was also recovered from the bunker. Investigators will examine it to hopefully answer why the tragic chain of events unfolded; what happened to spark this tragedy that ended with the loss of an innocent mother and daughter – and the husband and father who presumably took his own life before police could question him.
I think I speak for many in the valley when I say thank you to local fire crews and to law enforcement who worked tirelessly for days locating the suspect and ending the standoff. They hiked for miles, dropped in by air, flew multiple helicopter missions, went hours without sleep; all while fielding non-stop media questions and keeping a small community informed and safe.