This weekend’s shooting in a popular part of the Boise Foothills rattled a community with a great love of the outdoors. Now, trail users and Boise officials are trying to reclaim the recreation area’s sense of security and sanctity.
On Saturday morning, Benjamin Barnes, a homeless Boise man, threatened trail users and their pets in the Hulls Gulch area, ultimately shooting and killing one family’s dog before exchanging gunfire with police. Barnes died at the scene.
As the shooting unfolded, witnesses scrambled to point police in the right direction through the vast system of interconnected trails, which can be quite confusing. The Boise Fire Department was called in to help police officers reach the scene of the incident on 4-wheelers — about a mile up the Kestrel Trail, according to Boise Police Chief Bill Bones.
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Local law enforcement and Boise Parks and Recreation officials said the situation was unlike anything on record in the Treasure Valley. Statesman archives turned up little to compare it to, most similarly an incident on July 31, 1940, when police tried to evict a local miner and hermit from the Foothills shack where he lived. Pearl Hendrickson vowed to go “feet first and take some others with me” before shooting a police officer. Law enforcement descended on the area with bullets, tear gas bombs and dynamite, and Hendrickson was killed, according to research by columnist Tim Woodward.
“Of course, there’s been bodies found in the Foothills before, but as far as a shootout with somebody on trails? Not that we can remember,” said Ada County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Patrick Orr.
Doug Holloway, Boise Parks and Rec director, said that rarity is indicative of a very safe park and trail system.
“To keep it in perspective, we get more than a million visitors in the Foothills every year,” Holloway said. “So when you look at just the sheer number of people that use the system, it shows overall the system is really safe for people to use.”
Some trail users say they’re not sure how officials could make such a vast area more secure — or whether they should try to.
“I’d be wary about getting patrol out here. I mean, I like the solitude when I come out here. I like being amongst nature, and the police presence would sort of put a different spin on that kind of experience,” said Deborah Campbell, who was hiking with her two dogs along Kestrel Trail on Monday.
“I feel perfectly safe here,” Campbell continued. “I’m going on the assumption that there’s not a lot of people that are out here with firearms that are taking shots at people. I don’t want to let one instance ruin the experience of what it’s like to walk on these trails.”
Boise Police Department spokeswoman Haley Williams said the department doesn’t conduct special training for trail scenarios and doesn’t plan to beef up security in the area following the shooting. However, BPD does increase the number of bicycle cops on duty in the summertime, and those officers do make their way into the Hulls Gulch system as needed.
“We do take officers throughout the city and go through what is where and how you can access different areas,” Williams said, though she added she’s not aware of the extent to which that training includes the Foothills.
For its part, Parks and Rec already has volunteers patrolling the area. There are 17 of them for 200 miles of trails, and the rangers are not armed with any sort of protective gear or weapons.
“Their primary job is information and rule violations, so they’re more of ‘customer service’ than ‘rangers,’” Holloway said. “But they have the authority to uphold the policies we have.”
The rangers do not have the authority to arrest people, but Holloway said they work closely with local law enforcement (both BPD and ACSO have jurisdiction over various parts of the Foothills) to ensure trails are safe.
Holloway said rangers “frequently” find evidence of folks camping out in the Foothills and bring in law enforcement to ask them to leave. There’s been much online speculation about whether Barnes may have camped somewhere in the hills.
“The majority of the time we never catch up with whoever is using the campsite,” Holloway said.
Meanwhile, many of those who use the trails for the purposes of running, hiking and biking haven’t hesitated to head back to the area — even those who witnessed Barnes shooting and killing Moses, a Vizsla breed whose family has asked for privacy following his death.
One trail runner who saw the shooting said she went back out for a run — though not at Hulls Gulch — on Sunday “just to make sure I could do it.”
One hiker who was out on the Hulls Gulch trails Monday said she was hesitant to return and might consider carrying something like mace to protect herself.
Many of Boise’s trails bear signs barring firearms, though Holloway said Idaho’s open carry law trumps those rules, and his department has created adhesive stickers to cover the signs bearing that statement. Instead, officials ask that people refrain from discharging firearms on trails or in parks.
“So no target shooting, things like that. We ask that people don’t discharge weapons unless it’s a case of self-defense,” Holloway explained.
Witness Lisa Rogien said she often carries a safety whistle should she run into a mountain lion or other unfriendly animals, but she usually runs with little more than a bottle of water. The shooting has her rethinking that decision.
Ultimately, some feel there’s not much they can do but return to the wild areas they love and hope the Hulls Gulch shooting continues to be a very isolated incident.
“I’m out today because this is what we do,” said hiker Shauna Waller on Monday. “And unfortunately, I feel like it can happen anywhere.”