NORTH BEND, Wash. (AP) — Peter Keller had put bullets in his wife and his daughter, his cat and his dog. He didn’t want to be found.
But Troy Chaffee knew where to look for him. From photos discovered at Keller’s home, King County sheriff’s detectives deduced that he probably headed into the Cascade Mountains, to Rattlesnake Ridge, a tall hump of forested rock where he’d spent the past eight years building a remote bunker, an emergency shelter in the event of who knows what.
Chaffee, an experienced tracker and bomb technician with the sheriff’s office, figured that just maybe Keller entered the woods near a water tower by North Bend. No trails there, but it seemed a likely spot.
It was last Thursday, four days after Keller’s wife, Lynnettee, and 18-year-old daughter, Kaylene, were found shot dead in their burning home. The 41-year-old Keller, a survivalist, hadn’t been seen since. He was on the loose, and — judging by the rifles missing from his home — heavily armed.
Chaffee had little interest in getting picked off, or in tipping the hand of detectives. He and another deputy, a woman with tracking experience, decided to go incognito. They dressed like any Seattleites out for a day trip. Red backpack, light hiking pants, rain hat. The only differences were the handcuffs and extra ammunition tucked away in the backpack.
Heading into the woods by the water tower, they knew they wouldn’t be able to track the way they usually do, on hands and knees, examining every boot print and twig. Somewhere above them was Keller, with a high-powered rifle, scope and binoculars. Instead, they’d observe the ground while walking and standing, and chat as any couple might.
One step into the woods, Chaffee knew someone had been there. Recently. By his fourth step, he knew it was Keller. There were small leaves in the dimpled, muddy earth. They were torn, but the tears were fresh: They hadn’t browned or healed. On the leaves were specks of dirt: They hadn’t been washed off, so must have been left before the last rain — sometime overnight or early that morning. The prints appeared to come from military-style boots.
“Four steps in, we’re going up a creek, up an area no one else would go up,” Chaffee recalled Monday. “It’s steep, it’s treacherous, the footing is dangerous, there’s no trails, it’s at night. That’s somebody who’s hiding, who doesn’t want to be seen. Makes sense that it’s him.”
He relayed the information back to the detectives using his cellphone. Keller probably had a scanner — can’t risk using the radio.
It was the final confirmation the detectives needed. They already had the photo, taken from the bunker, showing the North Bend outlet stores in the distance, and reports from hikers who remembered seeing Keller’s faded red pickup truck at the Rattlesnake Ridge trail head. With the tracks, they knew for sure he was somewhere in the area of this creek, swollen with early spring rains.
At daybreak the next morning, dozens of SWAT officers from Seattle and King County swarmed the mountainside, their faces streaked with camouflage paint. They slogged for seven hours, sometimes on hands and knees through steep, muddy terrain, thick with cedars, spruce, ferns and salal. They could smell the smoke from the bunker’s woodstove, a converted aluminum trash can, before they could see it.
Keller was inside.
Down below, reporters drove to Rattlesnake Ridge and found the trails closed. Sheriff’s officials asked them not to broadcast news of the search: Keller certainly had a radio, and if he knew officers were closing in, he might get out his scope and start shooting. The reporters kept quiet.
The SWAT officers fired in tear gas but failed to flush the 41-year-old Keller.
His bunker — toured by a reporter and photographer from The Associated Press on Monday — comprised 2 1/2 levels. Remnants of tear gas, along with bleach used to clean up the blood, stung the throat.
Keller had excavated a giant horseshoe-shaped gash in the side of the ravine, hacking into the bedrock in some places. He downed trees, 15 inches in diameter, that had been growing for half a century, skinned them of bark and split them lengthwise, apparently using a chainsaw. With 18-inch lag screws and 10-inch nails, he fashioned a sort of underground log cabin, surrounded by emerald ferns and whips of spruce trailing their needles overhead.
The bunker’s lower level was a long, narrow hall, the width of his wingspan, where he stashed bottles of water and Coke, lined neatly on shelves. There was a clear plastic jug of beans; a sealed bucket of barley, with silicone packets to suck out unwanted moisture; a bucket of candy — 100 Grand bars were a favorite. There was a generator, PVC pipe for water, and extra Ziploc bags for keeping supplies dry. Boxes of ammo, for example.
A second shift of SWAT officers arrived as night approached. They settled in, confident in knowing they had Keller surrounded but knowing he could start firing any time.
Saturday morning arrived. The first shift, the King County sheriff’s officers, came back on duty. Time for action.
They turned once again to Chaffee, this time for his expertise in explosives. He and another bomb tech were hoisted down to the bunker by helicopter, long cords of explosives in a bag between his legs — like explosive garden hose, he said. Officers had heard a pop during the night, and thought Keller might be dead. They weren’t sure.
Chaffee helped calculate how much explosives would be needed to blow the log roof enough to loosen it from the nails and lag bolts, without caving the structure in. As he and his colleagues laid the cord, they worried about how exposed they were. But SWAT officers who snaked a camera into the bunker saw that the danger had passed: Keller was in a pool of blood.
They blew the top, then pried away the logs. The blood evidence told the tale: Keller had shot himself on the top level with a Glock pistol. His body plunged nearly 30 feet down, past his makeshift ladder, and landed on the bottom floor. His hand, under his contorted frame, clutched an AM-FM radio buzzing with white noise.
His blood splattered on a shelf and dripped down, collecting on a June 19, 2010, sports section of The Seattle Times.
Detectives are studying more than 120 pieces of evidence collected from the bunker in hopes of learning what motivated the murders and his survivalist philosophy.
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.