(MCT) — BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif.—When authorities hemmed in the man they suspected of killing three people in a campaign of revenge that has gripped Southern California, he responded as they had feared: with smoke bombs and a barrage of gunfire.
The suspect, who police believe is fugitive ex-cop Christopher Dorner, shot to death one San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy and injured another Tuesday. He then barricaded himself in a wood cabin outside Big Bear in the snow-blanketed San Bernardino Mountains, police said.
Just before 5 p.m., authorities smashed the cabin’s windows, pumped in tear gas and called for the suspect to surrender. They got no response. Then, using a demolition vehicle, they tore down the cabin’s walls one by one. When they reached the last wall, they heard a gunshot.
Then the cabin burst into flames. By late Tuesday evening, the smoldering ruins remained too hot for police to enter, but authorities said they believed Dorner’s body was inside.
The standoff appeared to end a weeklong hunt for the former L.A. police officer and Navy reserve lieutenant, who is also suspected of killing an Irvine couple and a Riverside police officer. But Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said he would not consider the manhunt over until a body was recovered and identified as Dorner.
“It is a bittersweet night,” said Beck as he drove to the hospital where the injured deputy was undergoing surgery. “This could have ended much better, it could have ended worse. I feel for the family of the deputy who lost his life.”
According to a manifesto Dorner allegedly posted on Facebook, he felt the LAPD unjustly fired him in 2009, when a disciplinary panel determined that he lied in accusing his training officer of kicking a mentally ill man during an arrest. Beck has promised to review the case.
Dorner, 33, vowed to wage “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” against law enforcement officers and their families, the manifesto said. “Self-preservation is no longer important to me. do not fear death as I died long ago.”
Last week, authorities had tracked Dorner to a wooded area near Big Bear Lake. They found his torched gray Nissan Titan with several weapons inside. The only trace of Dorner was a short trail of footprints in newly fallen snow.
On Tuesday morning two maids entered a cabin in the 1200 block of Club View Drive and ran into a man who they said resembled the fugitive, a law enforcement official said. The cabin was not far from where Dorner’s singed truck had been found and where police had been holding news conferences about the manhunt.
The man tied up the maids, and he took off in a purple Nissan parked near the cabin. About 12:20 p.m., one of the maids broke free and called police.
Nearly half an hour later, officers with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife spotted the stolen vehicle and called for backup. The suspect turned down a side road in an attempt to elude the officers but crashed the vehicle, police said.
A short time later, authorities said the suspect carjacked a light-colored pickup truck. Allan Laframboise said the truck belonged to his friend Rick Heltebrake, who works at a nearby Boy Scout camp.
Heltebrake was driving on Glass Road with his Dalmatian, Suni, when a hulking black man stepped into the road, Laframboise said. Heltebrake stopped. The man told him to get out of the truck.
“Can I take my dog?” Heltebrake asked, according to his friend.
“You can leave and you can take your dog,” the man said. He then sped off in the Dodge extended-cab pickup — and quickly encountered two Department of Fish and Wildlife trucks.
As the suspect zoomed past the officers, he rolled down his window and fired about 15 to 20 rounds. One of the officers jumped out and shot a high-powered rifle at the fleeing pickup. The suspect abandoned the vehicle and took off on foot.
Police said he ended up at the Seven Oaks Mountain Cabins, a cluster of wood-frame buildings about halfway between Big Bear Lake and Yucaipa. The suspect exchanged gunfire with San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies as he fled into a cabin that locals described as a single-story, multi-room structure.
The suspect fired from the cabin, striking one deputy, law enforcement sources said. Then he ducked out the back of the cabin, deployed a smoke bomb and opened fire again, hitting a second deputy. Neither deputy was identified by authorities. The suspect retreated back into the cabin.
The gun battle was captured on TV by local KCAL 9 reporter Carter Evans, who said he was about 200 feet from the cabin. As Evans described on air how deputies were approaching the structure, he was interrupted by 10 seconds of gunfire.
Deputies drew their weapons and sprinted toward Evans. Someone yelled for him to move — then about 20 more seconds of shooting erupted.
“Hey! Get ... out of here, pal,” someone shouted. Evans was unharmed.
The gunfire gave way to a tense standoff. Mountain residents locked their doors and hunkered down.
Holly Haas, 52, who lives about a mile from where the shootout unfolded, said she heard helicopters buzzing on and off until about 3:30. One dipped so close to her home, she said, “I could throw a rock and hit it.”
Others watched the standoff unfold on television. At her home, Candy Martin sat down to watch TV when, to her surprise, she spotted her rental cabin on-screen — where the suspect was believed to be holed up.
She contacted police and told them that the furnished, 85-year-old cabin had no cable, telephone or Internet service. No one had booked it for Monday.
“There should have been nobody,” she recalled saying. “Nobody in any way.”
Within hours, authorities moved in on the cabin. The fire broke out, setting off ammunition that had apparently been inside. On TV, viewers saw only the orange flames and curls of black smoke.
As night fell, authorities had yet to enter the building, said San Bernardino County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Bachman. “They believe there is a body in there,” she said.
LAPD Chief Beck said his officers will remain on high alert until a body is found and confirmed to be Dorner. His officers have been providing around-the-clock protection for more than 50 people thought to be Dorner’s targets since the manifesto was discovered.
Police say Dorner’s first victims were the daughter of the retired LAPD official who represented him at his disciplinary hearing and her fiance. Monica Quan and Keith Lawrence were found shot to death Feb. 3 in their car in their condo complex’s parking structure.
Days later, Dorner allegedly attempted to steal a boat in San Diego in a failed bid to escape to Mexico. By Feb. 7, authorities said, he had fled to the Inland Empire. In Corona, police said, he fired at an LAPD officer searching for him at a gas station. About half an later, he allegedly opened fire on two Riverside officers, killing Michael Crain, 34, and injuring his partner.
Early on in the manhunt, officers mistakenly fired on three people in the Torrance area — two Latina women and a white man — while searching for Dorner, who is 6 feet tall and 270 pounds.
After his truck was found in Big Bear, authorities swarmed the area, where many of the roughly 400 cabins sit empty during the winter. At the height of the search, more than 200 officers scoured the mountain, while others sifted through more than 1,000 tips that poured in after officials offered a $1-million reward.
Just as some officials began to speculate that the former cop had failed to survive in the wilderness, Dorner apparently surfaced.
(Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Matt Stevens, Julie Cart, Kate Mather, Ron Lin, Phil Willon, Wesley Lowery, Adolfo Flores, Ruben Vives, Samantha Schaefer, Frank Shyong and Louis Sahagun.)