Christopher Dorner’s last stand: How the manhunt unfolded into a fiery end
He had outfoxed the biggest manhunt in recent US history, calm and methodical while his pursuers floundered, but in his final hours Christopher Dorner made a fateful mistake.
With his whereabouts still a mystery to the outside world, Dorner suddenly found himself with two hostages and overlooked the simple detail of securing them, setting off a chain events which led to a bloody conclusion.
For five days he had hidden in plain sight at 1200 Club View Drive, a block of condominiums in snowy mountains near Big Bear in California. From the window of his cabin – furnished, with television and internet – he could watch police and media coming and going from the dragnet’s command centre, a five-minute walk away.
About 200 officers had scoured these forests and trails east of Los Angeles since February 7, when Dorner’s pick-up truck was found burning nearby. An axl broke and he abandoned it, making his way on foot to Club View Drive and breaking into an unoccupied rental cabin.
What he made of the ensuing circus is anyone’s guess. Police and television network helicopters buzzing overhead, fleets of Swat teams, sniffer dogs, special tracking equipment.
And a circus it was, because the San Bernardino sheriff’s department, co-ordinating a hunt which transfixed TV viewers, with a $1m reward for information about the fugitive, contrived to not stroll across the street and search Club View Drive.
Deputies did pass through but did not enter properties, a spokesman said this week, prompting a blizzard of questions from the press pack which he declined to answer.
“I think if they searched every house, they probably would’ve found him,” Jeanne Kelly, 61, who lived nearby, told reporters. “I hate to knock them.”
Jim Rose, 78, another nearby resident, said searchers didn’t call on him, either. “One friend said: ‘OK, so much for the inspection’.”
Searchers instead fanned across the countryside, battling ice and wind, and gradually concluded that Dorner, a former LAPD officer wanted for killing three people in a vendetta against the police force, was probably elsewhere. Mexico, San Diego, Nevada, downtown LA: tips and reported sightings flowed in, each demanding investigation.
Twitchy police shot up two vehicles thinking Dorner was inside, hitting a 71-year-old woman in the back and slightly injuring two other innocents. Hundreds of other police guarded 50 colleagues and their families believed to be on the fugitive’s hitlist.
The Transportation Security Administration warned that as a navy reservist, Dorner had received flying instruction: maybe he would steal a plane. Then footage was released of a man resembling Dorner buying scuba diving equipment shortly before his rampage. In the air, underwater, Acapulco – California’s Scarlet Pimpernel was everywhere and nowhere. Maybe, it was speculated, Dorner or an accomplice had left his truck in Big Bear as a ruse to distract from his real whereabouts.
By Thursday morning there were just two dozen officers left in Big Bear, raking over what seemed a cold trail, when Jim Reynolds, 66, and his wife Karen, 56, who owned the condo which Dorner was using, entered to clean it.
The fugitive pointed a gun and shouted: “Stay calm!”. Karen Reynolds tried to flee but Dorner caught her. In a bedroom he bound the couple’s arms and legs with plastic zip locks and stuffed small towels in their mouths. He put pillowcases over their heads and tied extension cords around the cases to secure the gags.
He told the couple he would not harm them: “I don’t have a problem with you. I just want to clear my name,” Jim Reynolds quoted him to reporters.
“He tried to calm us down, saying very frequently that he would not kill us, Reynolds said. “He huddled down beside me and said, ‘You’re going to be quiet, right? Not make a fuss and let me get away?'”
Karen Reynolds added: “He told us: ‘I know you know who I am, I know you’ve been seeing the news.'”
Dorner told them he had observed them clearing the yard the previous Friday and crossing the street to stay at another condo. He called them “hard-working, good people”.
Dorner, 33, had shown no mercy to Monica Quan, daughter of a retired LAPD captain, or her fiance, Keith Lawrence, shot to death in an Irvine parking garage on February 3. Or to Irvine patrolman John Crain, a father of two, ambushed and killed at a traffic light on February 7.
Dorner, who was fired from the LAPD in 2008, said in his online “manifesto” that he wished to inflict vengeance on law enforcers and their families, not the wider public, and he stayed true to this twisted version of justice. After trying to commandeer a boat in Point Loma on February 7, he let the owner live to tell the tale after propellers snagged on ropes, foiling a presumed bid for Mexico.
He also spared the Reynoldses, leaving them bound and gagged on the floor, and made off in their purple Nissan. But the former police officer, up to now so methodical, made that rookie blunder. Adrenaline, a racing mind, underestimating their dexterity: whatever the cause, it had fatal consequences.
Two minutes after hearing the car leave, Karen Reynolds rolled on to her knees and rose to her feet. What happened to the pillowcase is unclear, but she saw Dorner had made another mistake: her cellphone was left on the coffee table. With hands bound behind her back, Reynolds called 911, put the phone on speaker and told the operator: “Dorner tied us up, and he’s in Big Bear.”
Most of what happened next is now well known. Wardens from the Department of Fish and Wildlife quickly spotted Dorner tailgating a school bus on Highway 38, apparently to avoid possible police spike-strips, and gave chase.
He eluded them, crashed into a snow berm, and, wearing camouflage, body armour and wielding a rifle, commandeered a pick-up on Glass road.
“He came at me with his gun leveled at my head,” Rick Heltebrake told reporters. “I stopped, put my truck in park, raised my hands, and he said: ‘I don’t want to hurt you. Just get out, start walking up the road and take your dog.’ I said: ‘Can I get her leash?’ He said: ‘No, just start walking.'”
Another warden spotted Dorner in his new vehicle. The fugitive shot out his windshield and the warden returned fire. Dorner crashed, abandoned the truck and ran to a big cabin off Seven Oaks Road to make what proved to be a last stand.
In the ensuing four-hour battle, Jeremiah MacKay, 35, a married deputy sheriff with a seven-year-old daughter and four-month-old son, was killed, and another deputy seriously wounded.
Hundreds of reinforcements surrounded the wood-panelled cabin, blasting rounds and lobbing tear gas canisters. As Dorner continued firing, police took a controversial decision to fire incendiary canisters. Flames spread through the building, creating a huge blaze which lit up the forest as night drew in.
“We didn’t intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr Dorner out,” John McMahon, a spokesperson for San Bernardino sheriff’s department, told a news conference on Wednesday night. Sceptics said commands such as “burn him” overheard on police scanners suggested otherwise.
Dorner stopped firing – there is speculation a single gunshot from inside the cabin during a lull in battle was the sound of suicide – and police, and millions of TV viewers, watched as the cabin became a pyre.
Forensic scientists continued on Thursday to examine human remains recovered from the charred debris. McMahon said his department had little doubt they belonged to Dorner. “We believe that this investigation is over at this point.”
Authorities have not indicated if some or all of the reward – which swelled to $1.2m – would be paid out. “We heard nobody was getting that because he needed to be captured and convicted,” Karen Reynolds said. She and her husband were just happy to be alive, she said.
Dorner’s mother Nancy said in a brief statement that his family did not condone his actions, KTLA-TV reported. “It is with great sadness and heavy hearts that we express our deepest sympathies and condolences to any one that suffered losses or injuries resulting from Christopher’s actions.”
Dorner, according to a footnote which emerged Thursday, was praised for his honesty in a 2002 article in Oklahoma’s Enid News and Eagle newspaper, which reported that the then navy student pilot and a friend stumbled across a bag with $8,000 in it. They handed it in to police. The money turned out to belong to a local church.