The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

February 14, 2013

Sheriff: Cabin not purposely burned in firefight

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 over the last week was just a few feet away, having emerged from a grove of trees holding a large, assault-style rifle.

As teams of officers who had sought the fugitive ex-Los Angeles police officer since last 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 Dorner, surrounding a cabin in which he had taken refuge after crashing Heltebrake’s truck 80 miles east of Los Angeles. A gunfight ensued in which one sheriff’s deputy was killed and another wounded.

Then, as the gunfire ended, the cabin erupted in flames.

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said Wednesday his deputies did not intentionally burn down the cabin. His deputies shot 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 remained unclear.

A charred body was found in the basement, along with a wallet and personal items, including a California driver’s license with the name Christopher Dorner, an official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe.

McMahon said authorities have not positively identified the remains.

Recalling his encounter, Heltebrake said Wednesday that 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.

Dorner, 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 Dorner’s trail went cold six days earlier, after his pickup truck — with guns and camping gear inside — was found abandoned and on fire near the ski resort town of Big Bear Lake.

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

Deputies searched door-to-door in the city of Big Bear Lake and then, in a blinding snowstorm, SWAT teams with bloodhounds and high-tech equipment in tow focused on scouring hundreds of vacant cabins in the forest outside of town.

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.

That could have been how Dorner went overlooked in a cabin just across the street from a police command post set up to capture him. It wasn’t immediately known how he got into the cabin or how long he’d been there.

He as 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, Dorner 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 seems to anticipate the move, pulling close behind the school buses to give officers no space to drop the strips, Foy said. Dorner 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 Dorner 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 Dorner 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 Dorner’s, the death toll from the rampage would be four, including a Riverside police officer.

Police said Dorner 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.

Dorner blamed former LAPD Capt. Randal Quan for providing poor representation before a police disciplinary board that fired him for filing a false report. Dorner, 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 Dorner threatened to go after would continue to be protected until the remains are positively identified.

“This really is not a celebration,” he said.

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