SAN BERNARDINO, California (Reuters) - Sheriff’s deputies who believed they had cornered a fugitive ex-cop in the mountains above Los Angeles did not purposely torch a cabin where a nine-day manhunt ended, but the deputies may have ignited the blaze by firing tear gas, officials said on Wednesday.
Former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner, 33, was wanted in a killing spree targeting law enforcement officers that left four people dead. A man matching his description was surrounded inside a lodging nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest on Tuesday.
“We did not intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr. Dorner out,” San Bernardino County 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 Dorner.
“The suspect that we were following ... matched his description,” McMahon said. “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.
Dorner lost his job with the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008 after a police board of inquiry found he lied in accusing a training officer of using excessive force against a homeless man. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has opened a review of that case.
Last Wednesday, Dorner was named as the prime suspect in a double slaying that occurred the weekend before, about 40 miles south of Los Angeles in Irvine. Police say he killed a university security officer and his fiancée, the 28-year-old daughter of a retired LAPD captain who represented Dorner in disciplinary action that led to his termination.
The search intensified last Thursday after he was accused of killing a Riverside policeman and wounding another officer in an ambush about 60 miles 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 Beck as the region’s most extensive ever.
It ended on Tuesday following a shootout at the cabin that saw the slaying of San Bernardino Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremiah MacKay, 35, a married father of two young children, and the wounding of another deputy.
During a lull in the firefight, the cabin caught fire and was quickly engulfed in flames. It remained unclear on Wednesday 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 at the lodging. On the tape, voices purported to be officers shout, “Burn it down.”
McMahon told reporters that officers used pyrotechnic-type tear gas canisters, which he said generate “a lot of heat.”
“We had introduced those canisters into the residence and a fire erupted,” McMahon said.
Before the man believed to have been Dorner made a final stand, police appear to have been frustratingly close to him.
Less than 10 miles north of the cabin that ignited in flames with the suspect inside, there is another lodging where Dorner is believed to have hidden. It is just steps away from where police last week set up a command post, in the city of Big Bear Lake. Authorities had said they conducted door-to-door searches.
It had been reported in the media that two housekeepers encountered a man believed to have been Dorner inside that vacant cabin. But late on Wednesday, a couple named Jim and Karen Reynolds told reporters they own the cabin and were the ones who walked in on Dorner around noon the day before. They said they feared he would kill them.
“He said four or five times that he didn’t have a problem with us; he just wanted to clear his name,” said Jim Reynolds.
But Dorner tied up the couple, they said. “I was able to roll onto my knees and scoot over to the bed and actually get onto my feet,” Karen Reynolds said.
Reynolds said she managed to call authorities to report Dorner escaped in the couple’s Nissan. That was minutes before authorities say Dorner was spotted driving away and got into a roadway shootout with a state game warden. The suspect later took cover in the cabin where he is believed to have died.
The Reynolds said they believe Dorner was in their cabin since at least Friday, based on what he told them.
San Bernardino Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Steve Kovensky, who was in charge of the mountaintop search, said officers went to each cabin and “if there were no signs of break-in or no open doors” they “noted it and moved on.”
“We did not find any forced entry” at the cabin where Dorner is believed to have hidden, Kovensky said. He added that the residence had not been rented since February 6.
Dorner gained prominence after it was revealed that an angry manifesto posted last week on his Facebook page claimed he had been wrongly dismissed from the LAPD. He vowed to seek revenge by unleashing “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” on officers and their families.
Police provided security details to over 50 LAPD officers and their families who were believed to be threatened by Dorner, when he named specific enemies in his rambling manifesto.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the two people who encountered the man thought to have been Dorner might qualify for a $1 million reward posted for information leading to his capture. It is the largest sum ever offered in a Southern California criminal investigation.
Karen Reynolds later said she did not anticipate a payout. “I’ve actually pretty much heard nobody is getting that because he needed to be captured and convicted and all,” she said.
Reporting by Brandon Lowrey, Dana Feldman, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Tom Brown, Toni Reinhold, Steve Orlofsky and Lisa Shumaker