For a week, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies led a vast manhunt scouring Southern California for 33-year-old Christopher Dorner, the fugitive former police officer suspected of killing at least three people in a shooting spree. It now appears he spent most of that time in the heart of the search area, in an empty holiday home close to the ski resort of Big Bear Lake, within walking distance of police, press and the truck he left smouldering on a forest road last Thursday.
Today, police were waiting to identify the body of a man – believed to be Dorner – found in the charred rubble of a remote, snow-fringed cabin in the Seven Oaks neighbourhood of the San Bernadino mountains, following a firefight that claimed the life of a fourth victim.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said his officers would be instructed to act as if Dorner was still at large until the remains were formally identified. “This could have ended much better, it could have ended worse,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
The manhunt reached its dramatic climax on Tuesday, after two housekeepers arrived to clean a house on Club View Drive, about five miles from Big Bear. They found a man fitting Dorner’s description, whom authorities now believe may have been hiding there for several days. He tied the women up and drove away in a purple Nissan at 12.15pm. One of the victims broke free and called the police.
Around half an hour later, the stolen Nissan passed a vehicle driven by game wardens from the California Fish and Wildlife Department, who gave chase along icy mountain roads. In his attempt to escape, the suspect crashed the stolen car, and then hijacked a pick-up truck belonging to Rick Heltebrake, a local Boy Scout leader. The suspect was wearing camouflage and a bulletproof vest: “He was dressed up to do some damage,” Heltebrake told Good Morning America. The man, whom Heltebrake said was Dorner, soon crossed paths again with trucks from the Fish and Wildlife service, which had assigned six wardens to the search.
After opening fire on the officers, one of whom shot back, the fugitive swerved off the road, abandoned the pick-up, and fled through the snow. By the time he reached the low wooden cabin at Seven Oaks, he was also being pursued by San Bernadino County sheriff’s deputies. A shootout ensued, during which two of the deputies were wounded. Both were airlifted to hospital; one later died of his injuries.
The suspect then barricaded himself inside the cabin as police closed in. According to its owner, Candy Martin, the building was unoccupied. A Swat team smashed windows, pumped in tear gas and demanded Dorner give himself up. At around 5pm a demolition vehicle was sent in to break down the walls of the cabin one by one. A single gunshot was heard before the structure was consumed by flames. The Associated Press reported that Dorner’s driving licence was recovered from the ruins. It was not known what caused the fire.
In the angry “manifesto” posted on his Facebook feed before he began his alleged string of murders, Dorner predicted he would perish in a violent confrontation with police. “Self-preservation is no longer important to me. I do not fear death as I died long ago,” he wrote. The speech traced Dorner’s long-ago “death” to 2009, when he was fired by the LAPD for allegedly lodging a false complaint against his training officer, whom he claimed had used excessive force during an arrest.
Dorner, who had served as a US Navy reservist in Afghanistan, threatened police officers and their families with “warfare”. The rant came to light too late for Randy Quan, a lawyer and retired LAPD captain, who represented Dorner at the tribunal that led to his dismissal. Dorner is suspected of killing Quan’s 28-year-old daughter, Monica, and her fiancé, Keith Lawrence, 27, who were found shot dead in their car in Irvine, Orange County on Sunday 3 February.
Last Thursday, Dorner allegedly shot three police officers in two separate incidents in Riverside County, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. One of the officers, 34-year-old Michael Crain, was killed when a man thought to be Dorner ambushed him and his partner as their car idled at traffic lights. Crain’s partner was seriously wounded but survived. Los Angeles authorities offered a $1m reward for information leading to the arrest of Dorner, who was formally charged with Crain’s murder on Monday.
Police began searching the mountains around Big Bear when the Nissan Titan truck that Dorner was then believed to have been driving was found abandoned on a forest road. Until Tuesday’s bloody confrontation, it was the final clue to the suspect’s whereabouts.