LOS ANGELES >> 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 ammunition, the most wanted man in America was just a few feet away, having emerged from a grove of trees holding a large assault-style rifle.
As teams of officers who had sought the fugitive ex-Los Angeles police officer for a week were closing in, Dorner pointed the gun at Heltebrake and ordered him 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.
The man, who wasn’t lugging any gear, got into the truck and drove away. Heltebrake, with his 3-year-old Dalmatian Suni in tow, called police when he heard a volley of gunfire erupt soon after, and then hid behind a tree.
A short time later, police caught up with the man they believe was Dorner, surrounding a cabin where he’d taken refuge after crashing Heltebrake’s truck in the San Bernardino Mountains 80 miles east of Los Angeles.
A gunfight ensued in which one sheriff’s deputy was killed and another wounded. After the firefight ended, a SWAT team using an armored vehicle broke out the cabin’s windows and began knocking down walls. A fire started, and later, charred remains believed to be Dorner’s were found.
San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said today the fire was not set on purpose.
“We did not intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr. Dorner out,” he said.
His deputies lobbed pyrotechnic tear gas into the cabin, and it erupted in flames, he said. McMahon did not say directly that the tear gas started the blaze, and the cause of the fire was under investigation.
The sheriff said authorities have not positively identified the remains. However, all evidence points to it being Dorner, he said, and the manhunt is considered over.
A wallet and personal items, including a California driver’s license with the name Christopher Dorner were found in the cabin debris, an official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe.
The tourist community of Big Bear Lake that was the focus of the intensive manhunt was returning to normalcy today, and residents were sharing stories of the last weeks’ events. None was more dramatic than Heltebrake’s.
He said 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 carried out a revenge campaign against the Los Angeles Police Department for firing him.
The end came in the same mountain range where Dorner’s trail went cold six days earlier, after his pickup truck — with guns and camping gear inside — was found abandoned and on fire near Big Bear Lake.
His footprints led away from the truck and vanished on frozen soil.
Deputies searched hundreds of cabins in the area and then, in a blinding snowstorm, SWAT teams with bloodhounds and high-tech equipment in tow widened their search.
Authorities for the most part looked at cabins boarded up for the winter, said Dan Sforza, assistant chief of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and often didn’t enter occupied homes where nothing appeared amiss.
One of the major remaining questions is how Dorner eluded such an intensive search. Remarkably, the cabin where he hid out at least part of the time was a stone’s throw from the searchers’ command post.
San Bernardino County Deputy Chief Steve Kovensky said Wednesday that searchers did not see any forced entry to the cabin when it was checked. But he could not provide details about exactly when the check was made, and did not say whether it ever was re-checked.
Dorner’s cover was blown Tuesday when two women arrived to clean the cabin, said Lt. Patrick Foy of the state Fish and Wildlife Department.
With three killings behind him and law enforcement still on the hunt, Dorner didn’t shoot them. Instead, he tied up the women and stole their purple Nissan. Sparing the housekeepers ultimately would start the chain of events that would lead to his undoing.
One of the women broke free and called 911, Foy said, and the chase was on.
About 20 miles away, two game wardens spotted the car on a meandering road along a scenic lake behind two school buses, and deputies planned to throw down spike strips to puncture the vehicle’s tires, authorities said.
Dorner seemed to anticipate the move, pulling close behind the buses to give officers no space to drop the strips, Foy said. Dorner had warned — even boasted — in the rant that he knew police tactics and techniques as well as the officers pursuing him.
The purple Nissan then disappeared.
Heltebrake, a ranger who takes care of a Boy Scout camp nearby, said he just had lunch and was checking the perimeter of the camp for anything out of the ordinary when he saw someone emerge from the trees, and instantly recognized Dorner.
Meantime, officers trying to find the fugitive quickly realized he must have turned onto a side road, but for a few minutes nobody involved in the chase knew he had changed vehicles.
Then game wardens saw Heltebrake’s truck making erratic moves and saw a man fitting Dorner’s description behind the wheel. And then the shooting started.
Dorner fired at wardens as he drove. A warden then stopped his vehicle and fired multiple rounds at the truck from his high-powered, semi-automatic rifle. He apparently missed.
“If he had been struck it would have caused so much damage immediately that he (the warden) probably would have known,” Foy said.
Out of options after crashing the pickup, Dorner made a break for a cabin and barricaded himself inside.
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 spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
San Bernardino Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremiah MacKay was killed, and another deputy, Alexander Collins, was wounded at the cabin. MacKay, a detective who had been with the department 15 years, had a wife, a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son, sheriff’s officials said.
Police said Dorner began his run Feb. 6 after they connected the Feb. 3 slayings of a former Los Angeles police captain’s daughter and her fiance with his angry manifesto.
Dorner blamed former 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 he was the subject of racism by the department and was targeted for reporting misconduct within the department.
House after police named Dorner as a suspect in the double murder, he shot at two LAPD officers, grazing one in the head, and then ambushed two Riverside officers, killing Officer Michael Crain. His funeral was Wednesday.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who initially dismissed Dorner’s allegations, has 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 tense relationship with police that has improved in recent years.
A $1 million reward had been offered for Dorner’s capture and conviction. LAPD Officer Alex Martinez said the mayor’s office will determine if the money is paid out.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a reward,” he said. “Remember, it’s capture and conviction. There was no capture and no conviction. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”