Exclusive: The mantracker who found a murder suspect’s bunker
Disguised as a couple of lost hikers on Rattlesnake Mountain, two King County Sheriff’s deputies found footprints, an energy bar wrapper, and other clues that led them to a suspected double murderer.
“I was highly aware the whole time he could be watching us. That was always in the front of my mind,” says Deputy Troy Chaffee as he describes the search for Peter Keller.
“He had high-powered scopes, he had high-powered binoculars. I had to assume he watching anyone who could be in his area.”
Detectives believe Keller killed his wife and daughter – 41-year-Lynnettee and 18-year-old Kaylene. They say he set their home on fire April 23 and took off to a bunker he’d been building for about eight years.
The plan for Chaffee, and a female King County deputy mantracker, was to look for Keller while acting like they were hiking.
“If he came out we were going to tell him we got lost, and then ask if he could point us in the direction of the quickest way out of there?” says Chaffee. “Fortunately we never saw him.”
Chaffee had his service weapon and a backpack with “a lot of ammo” as they looked for clues of Keller’s hiding place last Thursday.
An enhanced photograph from Keller’s computer gave them a general area to begin their search. Chaffee, a former criminal investigator for the U.S. Army and 12-year veteran of the King County Sheriff’s Department, saw what appeared to be a military-style boot print. One print lead to another, and another.
Photograph from King County Sheriff’s Deputy Troy Chaffee, a certified mantracker, who says the footprint from a military-style boot was clear to him. Look for the broken twig in the center of the print.
The footprints made a path “straight down the terrain and straight back up.” The tracks were in a remote area following a creek bed, were made at night, and were made “very carefully.”
“There was no name in that footprint that said Peter Keller, but the totality of the circumstances told me it’s him,” says Chaffee. “We know he’s up there, this is a clandestine route. No one else in their right mind would go straight up that mountain. There’s no paths. It’s absolutely brutal walking up there. It took close to an hour to go straight up that hill.”
Although Chaffee was a lead deputy on the case because of his mantracking skills, close to 100 officers were being mobilized to close in on Keller.
Friday, SWAT teams were dropped in from above the area where they believed Keller was hiding out. Detectives pulled pictures off Keller’s computer and emailed them to the team in the field as they moved closer, using GPS to find his hidden bunker.
The smell of wood smoke and a fresh Power Bar wrapper were the final clues that led King County and Seattle Police Department SWAT teams to Keller’s bunker.
“It was right where the computer work, the photograph work, the tracker work, everything came together and it was right on,” says Chaffee.
He believes Keller “never knew we were there” until the SWAT team tried to make contact with him, asking him to surrender, and then proceeding with a “gas plan” to try to force Keller out of the bunker.
Saturday, the decision was made to move in on Keller.
“There was a high threat to our officers. It was extremely dangerous and treacherous terrain. The longer we were out there the more likely one of us was going to get hurt, either by him or by pure accident,” Chaffee says.
The SWAT team had given Chaffee, who is also a bomb expert, information about what the bunker was made of. They wanted to lift the roof of the bunker in a way that would not cause it to collapse.
“Myself and another bomb tech went in by helicopter, strapped on a bunch of explosives and were lowered down to the bunker,” he says.
Can you imagine being Chaffee’s wife, knowing this is what her husband was up to Saturday? The Chaffees are apparently used to this kind of thing. She was in the military and was with the Seattle Police Department. Now she’s a federal agent.
Once the roof was removed, a SWAT team member reported seeing blood and verified Keller was dead. He said he could see one hand, the other was tucked under his body leading some to believe he could have an explosive device in it.
“I entered the bunker, cleared all three levels going down to his body and when I got down there I could hear a strange noise,” says Chaffee. “I carefully examined the body and was able to move it enough to see that he was holding a radio – an AM/FM radio that had been on.”
The King County Medical Examiner’s office ruled Keller died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Chaffee says the only question that remains for him, is the one we’re all asking – why?
“Why did this guy do what he did? One of the reasons we wanted him in custody was to answer that question,” he says. “We’ll never know now. There’s 50 different opinions now that everyone comes up with. Is he just a crazy guy? We’ll never know.”
By LINDA THOMAS
Wednesday, a closer look at the job “mantrackers” do. There are only three certified mantrackers with the King County Sheriff’s Department. I’ll introduce you to the county’s first, Kathleen Decker, who says it’s crucial that more police agencies learn mantracking skills.