For the hundreds of police officers now searching for him, Dorner's once-prized attributes have taken a sinister turn

In pictures he is invariably in uniform and smiling, and friends say Christopher Jordan Dorner was as direct and warm as his gaze. A big man, a dedicated officer, smart, and good with his hands.

On Friday, as hundreds of heavily armed police swarmed across the snowy mountains of Big Bear, and thousands more fanned across southern California in a tense, frantic manhunt, Dorner's attributes turned sinister, and the smile mocking.

"He knows what he's doing – we trained him," Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles police department, told a press conference. It was a lament. A police force which has provided more than its fair share of dramas over the decades was once again transfixing the United States.

Dorner, 33, who was fired from the LAPD in 2008, is accused of killing three people and wounding two others in self-declared "unconventional and asymmetrical warfare" against his former comrades, a week-long rampage which terrorised police from San Diego to LA and by Friday had shifted to the icy wilderness of Big Bear, a ski resort east of LA, where Dorner was believed to be hiding.

An 11,000 word rambling manifesto he posted on Facebook tried to explain his actions – and listed a 40-person hit list.

Schools, stores and hotels were in lockdown and officers in helmets and body armour trekked warily through the snow lest the fugitive, a former navy reservist and trained marksman, a cop killer and a killer cop, had left traps. "There's always that concern and we're extremely careful and we're worried about this individual," San Bernardino County sheriff John McMahon told reporters. "We're taking every precaution we can."

The weather turned and a storm closed in, wrapping a story which already felt elemental: Dorner was pursuing a vendetta against authority, believing himself a victim of injustice, and the biggest posse in living memory was after him.

Revenge, blood, pursuit, ingredients of countless westerns and action films from Hollywood, on the other side of the mountains, and a story trending on Twitter buzzed with film references: Cape Fear, Rambo, The Deer Hunter, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Fugitive.

In reality Dorner was probably suffering from mental illness and three families were mourning the death of innocents but already, in some minds, he was becoming legend. Facebook pages sprouted in support, hailing him a rebel, and media commentators hyped his martial skills as if the navy reserves really did breed Rambos.

With TV helicopters hovering above Big Bear, buffeted by strengthening winds, Dorner's story was swept into debates about race, gun control and law enforcement.

According to his manifesto, this week's rampage can in some ways be traced back to racial taunts when he was a black boy in a mostly white school in Norwalk. He struck back with his fists.

Addressing "America" and written in the language of a police report, Dorner casts himself as hero and victim, with his first blows for the fellow first-grader who taunted him.

"My response was swift and non-lethal. I struck him fast and hard with a punch an [sic] kick … that day I made a life decision that I will not tolerate racial derogatory terms spoken to me."

He attended Southern Utah University from 1997 to 2000, graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science and a minor in psychology. He played running back for the football team.

He joined the navy in 2002, serving in Nevada and San Diego and Bahrain, where he was awarded the Iraqi Campaign Medal and National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and other medals for marksmanship.

Clint Grimes, a former navy comrade, told reporters that Dorner was excited to join the LAPD, calling it a dream job. He appeared to like military protocol. "I would say, 'Call me Clint,' and he would say, 'Yes sir.'"

Dorner was friendly, bright and technologically savvy, said Grimes. "I never knew him not to be smiling. They're not looking for a stupid guy, here," Grimes said.

The dream job swiftly soured however. He accused a female training partner of kicking a mentally ill homeless man during a routine stop. She denied it, witnesses appeared to back her, and Dorner was fired in 2008 for making false accusations. A tribunal upheld the decision in 2009.

Divorced and without a job, Dorner seethed and called the sacking an affront to his "honor, courage, and commitment". On 31 January he posted his manifesto and on 3 February allegedly killed his first victims: Monica Quan, 28, a basketball coach and her fiancee Keith Lawrence, 27, as they sat in a car in Irvine, south of LA. Quan was the daughter of a police captain who had represented Dorner – negligently, in his view – at the tribunal.

Police woke up to the threat and studied the manifesto in dread: "The violence of action will be high … I will bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in LAPD uniform whether on or off duty … you will now live the life of the prey."

There are reports Dorner tried to hijack a boat to Mexico after the first alleged attack but was foiled by engine trouble.

As units scrambled to protect those named on the hit list, he was spotted near Corona at 1.30am local time on Thursday and exchange shots with a patrol, grazing one officer in the head. About 20 minutes later he allegedly ambushed two officers at a red traffic light in nearby Riverside, killing one, a veteran, and wounding the other, a trainee.

With dawn yet to break police lashed out but picked the wrong targets. Officers from the Hollywood division blazed at a pick-up truck in Torrance, thinking it was Dorner's grey Nissan, firing more than a dozen bullets, only to find they had hit two women who were delivering newspapers. They were taken to hospital with minor injuries. A few minutes later officers in another part of Torrance opened fire on another pick-up driven mistaken for Dorner's. No one was injured.

On Thursday Dorner's pick-up was found burning at Big Bear. An overnight search of woods and cabins yielded little but footprints. Reinforcements arrived on Friday. They braced for a storm expected to hamper visibility.

© Guardian News and Media 2013