Fugitive's cabin 'not set on fire by police'

Last updated 15:03 14/02/2013

Los Angeles police say they won't suspend their manhunt for a fugitive former officer until they can positively identify the remains found inside a burnt out cabin. Deborah Gembara reports.

Dorner
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A CBS screenshot shows flames and smoke coming from the cabin where fugitive Christopher Dorner was believed to be hiding.

Fate of fugitive LA ex-cop unclear

Christopher Dorner
CHRISTOPHER DORNER: Pledged to 'terminate' the life of a colleague he blamed for his dismissal from the police in 2008.
An armed police officer directs and stops traffic during the manhunt for fugitive former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner.
HUNTING: An armed police officer directs and stops traffic during the manhunt for fugitive former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner.

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A cabin in the mountains above Los Angeles where fugitive and former cop Christopher Dorner is believed to have died following a gunfight with police was not purposely set on fire by law enforcement, the San Bernardino County sheriff says.

"It was not done on purpose. We did not intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr Dorner out," Sheriff John McMahon said at an afternoon press conference.

Investigators had not yet formally identified charred remains found in the burned-out structure, although they are believed to be those of 33-year-old Dorner.

"I cannot absolutely, positively confirm it's him," McMahon said. "The suspect that we were following ... matched his description. His behaviour based on our deputies' interaction with him inside the vacant cabin was consistent with Mr Dorner's activity prior to and we are not currently involved in a manhunt any longer.

"Our coroner's division is working on trying to confirm the identity through forensics and we should know that at some point here soon," he said.

A wallet and personal items, including a California driver's licence with the name Christopher Dorner was found beside the body, an official briefed on the investigation said.

Dorner was wanted in a killing spree targeting police officers when a man matching his description was cornered in the cabin in the San Bernardino National Forest yesterday.

He had been on the run since last Wednesday (local time), when he was named as the prime suspect in the slaying of a couple in Irvine, south of Los Angeles.

The search intensified last Thursday after he was accused of killing of a Riverside policeman and wounding another officer in an ambush about 100km east of Los Angeles.

Law enforcement converged later that day in the San Bernardino Mountains after a pickup truck identified as Dorner's was found abandoned and burning in the snow near the ski resort community of Big Bear Lake northeast of Los Angeles.

The ensuing manhunt, stretching from the desert north of the mountains to the Mexican border, was described by Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck as the region's most extensive ever.

An angry manifesto posted last week on Dorner's Facebook page claimed that he had been wrongly dismissed from the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008. He vowed to seek revenge by unleashing "unconventional and asymmetrical warfare" on officers and their families.

The cabin where Dorner is believed to have hidden before making his last stand was a short distance from a police command post, in an area where authorities had said they were conducting door-to-door searches of residences.

Yesterday's climax to the manhunt began when two housekeepers encountered a man believed to have been Dorner inside a vacant cabin in the Big Bear area. The man tied them up and then took off in a purple Nissan parked near the cabin, authorities said.

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State game wardens spotted the stolen vehicle and gave chase. The suspect crashed that car, then commandeered a pickup truck at gunpoint from another motorist and traded gunfire with the game wardens as he sped away, authorities said.

The suspect ultimately abandoned the truck and fled into the woods to the cabin, from where he exchanged gunfire with deputies.

During a lull in the shooting, the cabin caught fire and was quickly engulfed in flames. It remained unclear how the blaze began.

Los Angeles-based CBS television affiliate, KCAL, and CNN, have broadcast an audio recording of what sounds like police radio chatter during the confrontation, in which voices purported to be officers shout, "burn it down".

During his press conference, McMahon said that the term "burners" was used by law enforcement to refer to tear gas canisters, which were fired into the cabin near the end of the standoff.

The Los Angeles Times reported that authorities had pumped tear gas into the cabin through smashed windows and called for the suspect to surrender but received no response. As police used a demolition vehicle to tear down the walls, they heard a gunshot from inside before the cabin burst into flames, according to the Times report.

DORNER'S FINAL VICTIM NAMED

A San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy killed in the shootout had gone into the search for Dorner happy to help his community, but was wary of the dangers.

McMahon identified the deputy as Jeremiah MacKay, a man who grew up in the area and followed his father into public service.

MacKay suffered multiple gunshot wounds and was transported to Loma Linda Hospital where he died of his injuries. He was 35.

MacKay was a detective who had been with the department for 15 years.

"My condolences go out to the MacKay family," said McMahon. "This is truly another sad day for law enforcement. Our department is grieving from this event. It's just a terrible deal for all of us."

MacKay spoke to The Associated Press on Saturday while he was helping patrol the Big Bear Lake area for Dorner.

MacKay and his partner had been on duty since 5am and they were in good spirits. He stood by the door of his car, dressed in full tactical gear with a helmet and bulletproof vest. He took his Mini-14 rifle out and practiced sighting down its barrel, tucking it in against his shoulder and aiming playfully at a snowdrift.

When a reporter walked up behind him, he turned around with a big smile. MacKay said he was happy to be helping the community and that "everyone's been really nice."

It was MacKay's third day helping with the search for Dorner.

As soon as he had heard news about Dorner's pickup truck in the area Thursday morning, MacKay headed out with his partner to help beef up patrol in Angelus Oaks - near the cabin where Dorner made his last stand. MacKay worked into the night and was back the next day at 7am to help again.

"It's probably one of the biggest tactical and logistics operations we've ever dealt with," MacKay said.

"This one, you just never know if the guy's going to pop out or where he's going to pop out," MacKay said. "We're hoping this comes to a close without any more casualties. The best thing would be for him to give up."

MacKay said because Dorner was targeting law enforcement, officers were taking extra precautions by staying in pairs and in larger groups.

"Everyone is here for the safety of everyone," MacKay said, "for the safety of each other, for the safety of you".

MacKay leaves behind a wife, a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son.

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT

Police scoured mountain peaks for days, using everything from bloodhounds to high-tech helicopters in their manhunt for Dorner. They had no idea he was hiding among them, holed up in a vacation cabin across the street from their command post.

It was there that he apparently took refuge last Thursday, four days after beginning a deadly rampage that would claim four lives.

Until Yesterday, authorities weren't sure Dorner was still in Big Bear Lake, where his truck was found within walking distance from the cabin where he hid.

Door-to-door searches failed to turn up any trace of him in the quiet neighbourhood where children were playing in the snow on Tuesday night.

With many searchers leaving town amid speculation he was long gone, the command centre across the street was taken down on Monday (local time).

Ron Erickson, whose house is nearby, said officers interrogated him to make sure he wasn't being held hostage. Erickson himself had been keeping a nervous watch on his neighbourhood, but he never saw Dorner.

"I looked at all the cabins that backed the national forest and I just didn't think to look at the one across from the command post," he said. "It didn't cross my mind. It just didn't."

- REUTERS, AP

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