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updated: 2/13/2013 11:49 PM

Intense manhunt for ex-L.A. cop ended in gun battles, fire and death

Intense manhunt for ex-L.A. cop ended in gun battles, fire and death

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  • Members of the news media are shown outside a home, at left, in Big Bear, Calif., where two women were taken hostage by fugitive Christopher Dorner. Police scoured mountain peaks for days but had no idea he was hiding among them, possibly holed up in this vacation home across the street from their command post.

      Members of the news media are shown outside a home, at left, in Big Bear, Calif., where two women were taken hostage by fugitive Christopher Dorner. Police scoured mountain peaks for days but had no idea he was hiding among them, possibly holed up in this vacation home across the street from their command post.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
By Greg Risling and Tami Abdollah
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- There was no question. The man standing before Rick Heltebrake on a rural mountain road was Christopher Dorner.

Clad in camouflage from head to toe and wearing a bulletproof vest packed with ammunition, the most wanted man in America was just a few feet away, having emerged from a grove of trees holding a large, assault-style rifle.

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As teams of officers who had sought the fugitive ex-Los Angeles police officer for a week were closing in, Dorner pointed the gun at Heltebrake and ordered him to get out of his truck.

"I don't want to hurt you. Start walking and take your dog," Heltebrake recalled Dorner saying during the carjacking Tuesday.

The man, who wasn't lugging any gear, got into the truck and drove away. Heltebrake, with his 3-year-old Dalmatian Suni in tow, called police when he heard a volley of gunfire erupt soon after, and then hid behind a tree.

A short time later, police caught up with the man they believe was the suspect, surrounding a cabin where he'd taken refuge after crashing Heltebrake's truck in the San Bernardino Mountains 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

A gunfight ensued in which one sheriff's deputy was killed and another wounded. After the firefight ended, a SWAT team using an armored vehicle broke out the cabin's windows and began knocking down walls. A fire broke out and later charred remains believed to be the suspect's were found.

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said Wednesday the fire was not set on purpose.

"We did not intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr. Dorner out," he said.

His deputies lobbed pyrotechnic tear gas into the cabin, and it erupted in flames, he said. McMahon did not say directly that the tear gas started the blaze, and the cause of the fire was under investigation.

The sheriff said authorities have not positively identified the remains. However, all evidence points to it being the suspect, he said, and the manhunt is considered over.

A wallet and personal items, including a California driver's license with the suspect's name were found in the cabin debris, an official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe.

The tourist community of Big Bear Lake that was the focus of the intensive manhunt was returning to normalcy Wednesday and residents were sharing stories of the last weeks' events. None was more dramatic than Heltebrake's.

He said he wasn't panicked in his meeting with Dorner because he didn't feel the fugitive wanted to hurt him. "He wasn't wild-eyed, just almost professional," he said. "He was on a mission."

"It was clear I wasn't part of his agenda and there were other people down the road that were part of his agenda," he said.

The suspect, 33, had said in a rant that authorities believe he posted on Facebook last week that he expected to die, with the police chasing him, as he embarked on a campaign of revenge against the Los Angeles Police Department for firing him.

The apparent end came in the same mountain range where the suspect's trail went cold six days earlier, after his pickup truck -- with guns and camping gear inside -- was found abandoned and on fire near Big Bear Lake.

His footprints led away from the truck and vanished on frozen soil.

Deputies searched hundreds of cabins in the area and then, in a blinding snowstorm, SWAT teams with bloodhounds and high-tech equipment in tow widened their search.

Authorities for the most part looked at cabins boarded up for the winter, said Dan Sforza, assistant chief of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and often didn't enter occupied homes where nothing appeared amiss.

San Bernardino County Deputy Chief Steve Kovensky said Wednesday that he did not believe anyone was in another cabin near the command post when search team began going door-to-door after the suspect's truck was discovered. He also did not say how long the suspect might have been in that cabin or whether deputies had entered it during the dayslong search.

That could have been how the suspect went overlooked. He was there Tuesday, however, when two women arrived to clean it, said Lt. Patrick Foy of the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

With three killings behind him and law enforcement still on the hunt, the suspect didn't shoot them. Instead, he tied up the women and took their purple Nissan as he fled. Sparing the housekeepers ultimately would start the chain of events that would lead to his undoing.

One of the women broke free and called 911, Foy said, and the chase was on.

Two game wardens quickly spotted the car on a meandering road along a scenic lake, and deputies planned to throw down spike strips to puncture the vehicle's tires, authorities said.

The driver of the vehicle seemed to anticipate the move, pulling close behind the school buses to give officers no space to drop the strips, Foy said. The suspect had warned -- even boasted -- in the rant that he knew their tactics and techniques as well as the officers pursuing him.

The purple Nissan then disappeared.

Heltebrake, a ranger who takes care of a Boy Scout camp nearby, said he just had lunch and was checking the perimeter of the camp for anything out of the ordinary when he saw someone emerge from the trees, and instantly recognized the suspect as the man on the news.

Officers trying to find the fugitive quickly realized he must have turned onto a side road, but for a few minutes nobody involved in the chase knew he had changed vehicles.

That was when officers saw Heltebrake's truck, and the suspect appeared to be behind the wheel. And then the shooting started.

At one point, an officer emptied a high-powered semiautomatic rifle into the truck, but Foy said he doubts the driver was hit. "If he had been struck it would have caused so much damage immediately that he (the warden) probably would have known," he said.

Out of options after crashing the pickup, the driver made a break for a cabin and barricaded himself inside.

With the standoff under way, officers lobbed tear gas canisters into the cabin. A single shot was heard inside before the cabin was engulfed in flames, said a law enforcement official who requested anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

If the body found there proves to be the suspect's, the death toll from the rampage would be four, including a Riverside police officer.

Sheriff's Deputy Jeremiah MacKay was killed and another deputy wounded at the cabin. MacKay, a detective who had been with the department 15 years, had a wife, 7-year-old daughter and 4-month-old son, sheriff's officials said.

Police said the suspect began his run on Feb. 6 after they connected the Feb. 3 slayings of a former police captain's daughter and her fiance with his angry manifesto.

The suspect blamed former LAPD Capt. Randal Quan for providing poor representation before a police disciplinary board that fired him for filing a false report. The suspect, who is black, claimed he was the subject of racism by the department and was targeted for reporting misconduct.

Chief Charlie Beck, who initially dismissed his allegations, said he would reopen the investigation into his firing -- not to appease the ex-officer, but to restore confidence in the black community, which had a tense relationship with police that has improved in recent years.

LAPD Lt. Andrew Neiman said his agency had returned to normal patrol operations Wednesday but about a dozen targets the suspect threatened to go after would continue to be protected until the remains are positively identified.

"This really is not a celebration," he said.

Manhunt: Sheriff says fire in cabin not intentionally set

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