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Chief's debriefing: Cool equipment, combination effort lead to murder suspect's capture
Luck, skill, and community support led police to the hideout of suspected murderer Peter Keller, North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner said Tuesday.
"The community did a fantastic job. We had a lot of tips, and I don't recall anybody who was in a panic," Toner said, in a report to the North Bend City Council about the events of the past week
Although the investigation of the murders and fire that Keller is charged with is still open, Toner was able to offer some details on the investigation, and the police work that led to Keller's capture Saturday.
"There was a lot of luck and a lot of skill involved," he said.
A lot of officers as well. Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cindi West estimated there were "about three dozen" members of various SWAT and tactical teams on the site Friday morning, as they began the search for the bunker.
The Snoqualmie Point trail and road were closed around 5 a.m. that day. Members of the Sheriff's SWAT team hit the trail by 8 a.m. Toner said, and by 1 p.m., following the smell of the woodsmoke they'd spotted from the Valley floor, they had located and surrounded the bunker, Seattle SWAT teams approaching from below, and Sheriff's staff approaching from above.
"We made several attempts to contact him, hailing him, 'this is the police, it's time to come out,'" Toner said. When that didn't work, "We introduced some different gasses into the bunker, CS gas, tear gas, that kind of thing."
Later, Toner said, they thought they might have heard a muffled voice, as if Keller were speaking through a gas mask. By 8 p.m., a few team members had settled in for a long night of waiting.
"Based on the pictures we had, we knew this was a fortified bunker. Picture a log cabin built inside a hole," Toner said.
Because there had been booby traps set at the home, officers were also cautious about traps at the bunker. They used robotic cameras to look inside the door and when there was no movement, determined to enter it. Demolitions officers cautiously set charges to blow the roof off, and saw a pool of blood on the floor. Once inside, they found Keller, dead, lying next to the handgun he apparently used to kill himself.
Toner commended everyone involved in the operation, from the citizens who phoned in sightings or suggestions for flushing Keller out of the bunker, to the many law enforcement agencies involved, such as the Department of Homeland Security.
"Homeland Security was great. They came up and loaned us some pretty cool equipment," he said.
"It was a huge combination effort," he added.
Skilled police work was essential to Keller's capture, but Toner noted that luck played a large part in leading officers to him.
The luck began with a neighbor's quick action in reporting the fire, at 8:43 a.m. Deputies from the North Bend substation were dispatched, along with Eastside Fire & Rescue, and were on-site within eight minutes, fast enough to stop the deliberately-set fire from destroying all the evidence in the home.
The kitchen was fully involved, and the fire had spread to the attic, causing it to flare up several times in the next day and a half Toner said. Firefighters balanced the need for controlling the flames with investigators' need to preserve evidence in the home, that might otherwise have been destroyed. Toner said they began to suspect foul play when firefighters recovered the bodies of Lynnettee and Kaylene Keller, and found several booby traps in the home.
Evidence teams were assembled, one for the house, one to investigate the family, and one to process all the evidence, Toner said. Before the end of the day, there were 26 officers at the home, including arson investigators and bomb squad personnel.
A laptop computer recovered was the next bit of luck. Its hard drive contained photos of the bunker Keller had apparently been building for eight years, and photos that enabled police to close in on the location of the bunker.
"Our belief is that the computer was supposed to be destroyed in the fire," Toner said.
Instead, it went to a computer forensics specialist with the King County Sheriff's Office, who found the photos and with her computer skills, enhanced them enough to identify the North Bend outlet mall in the distance. She was also able to calculate the angles of several pillars in the image, to determine the vantage point of the photographer, on Rattlesnake Ridge. Power lines visible in the distance also helped.
Keller had taken a series of photos for a panoramic view, from exactly the right spot, as far as Toner was concerned.
"If you stood at the front door of the bunker and took those shots, you wouldn't have seen the mall. If you were inside the bunker and took those shots out, to see what my view was, you wouldn't have seen the mall… around this entire bunker, I found one location where you could stand and get that shot," he said.
By Thursday, "we are pretty confident that we have the location," Toner said. However, the Sheriff's Office kept helicopters searching, and continued reporting that they were searching various areas, to prevent Keller from finding out what they knew.
At the same time, deputies were also searching for reports on the license plate of Keller's red pickup truck, which several citizens had reported seeing at various trailheads. Police officers had, too.
"Officers, both Snoqualmie and our own, had run that plate in several locations," Toner said, and "the David-1 car on Thursday, so four days before the event, had run the license plate while it was sitting up at the Snoqualmie Point trailhead. It turns out that's the majority of locations where he had been.
Friday morning, Seattle and KCSO SWAT teams assembled early to find the bunker, which was a half-hour of "extremely difficult walking" from the nearest parking spot, Toner said.
Having visited the site several times in the last few days, Toner said it was still difficult to find when he went there Tuesday to see the demolition. "Knowing where it was, and following the trail of hundreds of cops going in and out, I can't imagine how they located it," he said.
Now that it's been found, and demolished -- DNR crews were cutting timbers inside the structure yesterday to collapse it, and all planting restoration work is expected to be done by today.
"The majority of the work from here on out is going to be figuring out why he did what he did," Toner said.