Crime

02.14.13

How Christopher Dorner Went Down

Tear gas, high-speed car chases, a slain officer. Christine Pelisek tells the inside story of the last stand of L.A.’s rogue cop—and who started the fire that appears to have killed him.

“We are not involved in a manhunt any longer.”

The San Bernardino sheriff wouldn’t confirm that the charred body found in the ashes of a California cabin Tuesday night is that of ex-cop Christopher Jordan Dorner, but he did say they’re not looking for him anymore. “We believe this investigation is over,” John McMahon told reporters.

The sober words effectively end a week-long rampage in which Dorner, a former LAPD officer bent on avenging a personal vendetta, is accused of killing four people. His dramatic last stand was a violent day that saw hostage-taking, two shootouts with police, multiple car thefts, a high-speed car chase, and finally a fire—all in the normally quaint resort town of Big Bear Mountain, 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

Tuesday’s dramatic showdown was chaotic, with media helicopters directed away from the scene as a safety precaution and conflicting reports of Dorner’s death bouncing across social media throughout an hours-long siege. But as the smoke clears over Big Bear, a clearer picture of the showdown has begun to emerge, based on public comments from police officials and interviews with other law-enforcement officers involved.

One burning question—whether police intentionally started the blaze in the cabin, a vacant property Dorner had holed up in—appears to have been answered.

During the four-hour standoff, police broke the cabin’s windows, used a loudspeaker to implore Dorner to give himself up, and lobbed tear-gas grenades inside, according to a law-enforcement source who was not authorized to be identified. They even ripped exterior walls down using a police vehicle.

Video screenshot

Police scanner audio, allegedly from Tuesday's standoff with Christopher Dorner, suggests that police may have started the fire that killed the fugitive ex-cop.

The canisters, McMahon said, are to blame for the conflagration. “It was not on purpose,” the sheriff said Wednesday. “We introduced the canisters and a fire erupted.” McMahon said the officers threw three of the tear-gas grenades inside the cabin, including a pyrotechnic device that "generates a lot of heat." 

“My personal casualty means nothing,” Dorner wrote.

Shortly after the fire started, police heard a single gunshot. The cabin was quickly engulfed, accelerated by highly flammable tear gas. Plumes of smoke could be seen for miles, and the building took several hours to burn to the ground, preventing law enforcement from entering the wreckage for some time.

It wasn’t until 11 p.m., some seven hours after the fire started, that officers made their way inside the burned-out cabin and found the charred remains. McMahon says his team is still waiting for confirmation of Dorner’s identity by the San Bernardino coroner’s office.

Eerily, Dorner had predicted in a threatening Facebook manifesto that he would die in such a police battle. “My personal casualty means nothing,” he wrote. “You cannot prevail against an enemy combatant who has no fear of death.”

The snow-capped mountain of Big Bear had been the main focus of the dragnet, the largest in Los Angeles history, after the former Navy veteran’s pickup truck was discovered on fire along a rural road last Thursday. Despite earlier theories that he may have fled to Mexico or elsewhere, police now believe that Dorner never left the area and was holed up in a vacant luxury townhouse the whole time. And one with a view—it was just 100 yards away from a law-enforcement command post that was set up to conduct press conferences.

Dorner appears to have broken into the townhouse, near Route 38, after police found his car. (It’s unclear whether the car broke down or Dorner chose to abandon it—its broken axle may have been caused when police dragged it away from the scene.) Dorner lay low for a few days, in eye-view of the law-enforcement command post. Then, on Tuesday morning, Karen and Jim Reynolds arrived at their townhouse, in the 1200 block of Club View Drive, after having left Thursday when they heard about Dorner.

Dorner held them hostage. “I really thought it could be the end,” Karen Reynolds said at a Wednesday night press conference.

After he immobilized the couple with zip ties and jammed towels in their mouths, Dorner stole their purple Nissan, carrying along with him a sniper rifle with a silencer, a pistol, some smoke grenades, and a survival pack, the official said. Karen Reynolds was able to get free after 20 minutes and call the police, telling the operator that the suspect looked like Dorner.

Twenty-three minutes later, around 1 p.m. Pacific time, a San Bernardino deputy and a warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife heard the bulletin as they were driving. Speculating that Dorner would try to flee the mountain via Highway 38, the officers were putting down a spike strip on the highway when they spotted Dorner drive by, nestled behind two school buses. The officers quickly got in pursuit, but Dorner passed the school buses and disappeared down a rural road.

“He was plodding 30 miles [per hour], and then when he saw the wardens he sped up,” said Andrew Hughan, a warden with California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At that point, Dorner lost control of the Nissan on Glass Road, a steep, winding paved street that drops into a canyon, and crashed into a snowbank. It was there that Dorner, who was dressed in camouflage gear and carrying a rifle, approached 61-year-old Boy Scout leader Rick Heltebrake, who later told reporters that Dorner forced him out of his Dodge Ram truck. “He pointed a gun at my head and he said, ‘I don’t want to hurt you,’” Heltebrake told KTLA. When Heltebrake asked if he could get the leash for his dog out of the truck, Dorner allegedly responded: “No. Keep walking.”

Meanwhile, another group of wardens, in two vehicles, turned down Glass Road in hot pursuit of Dorner. They saw a silver truck careening erratically at high speed toward them and realized it was Dorner, said Patrick Foy of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. As he passed, Foy said, Dorner rolled down his window, pulled out a pistol, and fired at least six shots at a warden driving alone.

One of the bullets narrowly missed the warden’s head by about 10 inches, said Hughan. The warden who was fired upon pulled over and fired 20 rounds with his high-powered rifle at Dorner as he sped off. “He was so close he recognized his face,” Hughan recalled.

Dorner then abandoned the stolen pickup truck near Glass Road and took off on foot into the forest—igniting smoke grenades as he ran—with San Bernardino deputies in hot pursuit. He barricaded himself inside a vacant cabin on Seven Oaks Road, just off Highway 38.

As more law enforcement arrived, including SWAT members, Dorner traded hundreds of rounds of gunfire with them for about 20 minutes. The commentary on police scanners offered a rare and chilling look at what was going down. “Shots fired, officer down,” one sheriff’s official said. “Shootout at Cabin 7 as we speak.” A minute later, another sheriff’s official: “Another officer down. Automatic fire coming inbound.”

At one point, officers were attempting to use smoke canisters to get the wounded officers out of the line of fire. “If we can pop smoke we can get the wounded out of the way,” one reported on the scanner.

A few minutes later, the two injured officers were flown by helicopter out of the area to Loma Linda University Medical Center. One of them, Jeremiah McKay, 35, was pronounced dead at the hospital.

In Dorner’s rambling, 6,000-word Facebook post, he pledged to wage "asymmetrical warfare" against the Los Angeles Police Department. He had worked with the force from 2005 to 2008, and was fired in 2009 for allegedly making false statements against his training officer, whom he alleged had kicked and punched a mentally ill man.

The rambling manifesto was posted the day after the bodies of 27-year-old Monica Quan, a California State, Fullerton assistant basketball coach, and her fiancé, Keith Lawrence, were found shot multiple times in a parking garage in Irvine on Sunday, Feb. 3. Quan was the daughter of Randy Quan, a retired LAPD captain who represented Dorner at a hearing on his firing and who is one of about 50 people Dorner blamed for his dismissal in his manifesto. Quan was explicitly addressed in the Facebook post: "I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own…[so] I am terminating yours."

On Thursday, Dorner is believed to have killed Riverside police officer Michael Crain and severely injured his partner.

In the wake of those murders, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa over the weekend offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Dorner. By Tuesday, the LAPD had been flooded by calls of Dorner sightings, one of which caused police to evacuate a Lowe’s hardware store in Northridge, Calif.

But it wasn’t until Tuesday morning, when the Reynoldses arrived at the townhouse in which Dorner was hiding, that things heated up—and ultimately boiled over.

“I’m so relieved he is caught,” said 78-year-old James Rose, who lives four doors away from the townhouse. “I’m glad he is out of people’s lives.”