BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. – 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 magazines, 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.
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 afternoon.
Dorner, who wasn’t lugging any gear, got into the truck and drove on. Heltebrake, with his 3-year-old Dalmatian Suni in tow, called police when he heard a volley of gunfire erupt soon after.
A short time later, the police had caught up with a man they believe was Dorner and surrounded a cabin in which he had barricaded himself and began a standoff that was broadcast around the world and ended with the man’s death in the burning building.
By day’s end, the man had mounted a last stand in a shootout in which he killed a sheriff’s deputy and wounded another before the building erupted in flames.
A charred body was found in the basement of the burned cabin 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 investigation.
The coroner’s office is studying the remains to positively determine the identity. It was not clear how the cabin caught fire.
Recalling his encounter, Heltebrake said Wednesday 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 his firing.
The apparent end came in the same mountain range where his trail went cold six days earlier, when his burning pickup truck – with guns and camping gear inside – was 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.
With no sign of him and few leads, police offered a $1 million reward to bring him to justice and end a “reign of terror” that had more than 50 families of LAPD officers who were mentioned as targets in the rant under round-the-clock protection.
If the body proves to be Dorner, the death toll in his rampage would be four, including two police officers, one of them killed on Tuesday.
LAPD Lt. Andrew Neiman said the agency had returned to normal patrol operations but about a dozen of the targets would continue to be protected until the remains are positively identified. “This really is not a celebration,” he said.
Neiman would not answer any questions regarding what occurred in the mountains the previous day, saying it was the investigation of San Bernardino County authorities.
Just a few hours after police announced Tuesday that they had fielded more than 1,000 tips with no sign of Dorner, word came that a man matching his description had tied up two people in a Big Bear Lake cabin, stolen their car and fled.
Lt. Patrick Foy with the California Fish and Wildlife Department, which aided the search, said two housekeepers surprised Dorner in the cabin when they came to clean it Tuesday morning. The women were tied up but one freed herself and call 911, Foy said.
Fish and Wildlife wardens spotted the Nissan that had been reported stolen going in the opposite direction and gave chase, Foy said. The driver looked like Dorner.
They lost the car after it passed a school bus and turned onto a side road, but two other Fish and Wildlife patrols turned up the road a short time later, and were searching for the car when a white pickup truck sped erratically toward them.
“He took a close look at the driver and realized it was the suspect,” Foy said.
That was Heltebrake’s truck.
Dorner, who allegedly stole the pickup truck at gunpoint after crashing the first car, rolled down a window and opened fire on the wardens, striking their truck more than a dozen times, he said.
One of the wardens shot at the suspect as he rounded a curve in the road. It’s unclear if he was hit, but the stolen pickup careened off the road and crashed in a snow bank.
The driver then ran to the cabin where he barricaded himself and got in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies and other officers, two of whom were shot, one fatally.
LAPD officers used the Internet to monitor radio chatter during the shootout. “It was horrifying to listen to that firefight and to hear those words. ‘Officer down’ is the most gut-wrenching experience that you can have as a police officer,” Neiman said.
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.
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 in his online rant that he was the subject of racism by the department and was targeted for reporting misconduct by other police.
Chief Charlie Beck, who initially dismissed Dorner’s 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 long fractured relationship with police that has improved in recent years.
Dorner vowed to get even with those who had wronged him as part of his plan to reclaim his reputation.
“You’re going to see what a whistleblower can do when you take everything from him especially his NAME!!!” the rant said. “You have awoken a sleeping giant.”