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Dorner likely died of self-inflicted gunshot to head, officials say

February 16, 2013 |  8:25 am

Remains of cabin

Christopher Dorner appears to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to head, but officials said it could take some time to draw a final conclusion.

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, during a news conference Friday, offered the most detailed account yet of the manhunt and final shootout, which left one of his deputies dead and another seriously wounded.

Dorner spent his final hours barricaded inside a mountain cabin armed with a high-powered sniper rifle, smoke bombs and a cache of ammunition, firing at deputies and ignoring commands to surrender until a single gunshot ended his life, authorities said Friday.

The evidence indicates that Dorner, a fired Los Angeles police officer suspected of killing four people and wounding three others, held a gun to his head and fired while the Big Bear area cabin he was holed up in caught fire, ignited by police tear gas.

McMahon steadfastly defended the tactics used by his agency, dismissing assertions that deputies may have botched the hunt for Dorner or deliberately set the cabin on fire.

"We stand confident in our actions on that fateful day," he said. "The bottom line is the deputy sheriffs of this department, and the law enforcement officers from the surrounding area, did an outstanding job. They ran into the line of fire. They were being shot at, and didn't turn around in retreat."

During Tuesday's shootout, a television news crew recorded law enforcement officials shouting to burn the cabin down. McMahon acknowledged the comments were made, but said they did not come from the department's tactical team or commanders on the scene.

"They had just been involved in probably one of the most fierce firefights," he said of the people heard on the recording. "And sometimes, because we're humans, we say things that may or may not be appropriate. We will look into this and we will deal with it appropriately."

The blaze started shortly after police fired pyrotechnic tear gas into the cabin; the canisters are known as "burners" because the intense heat they emit often causes a fire.

Sheriff's Capt. Gregg Herbert, who led the assault on the cabin, said the canisters were used only as a last resort after Dorner did not respond when "cold," less intense tear gas was shot into the wood-framed dwelling.

Herbert said that a tractor was deployed to tear down the walls of the cabin to expose Dorner's whereabouts inside, but that Dorner set off smoke bombs to hide himself. Storming the cabin was considered too dangerous because of the belief that Dorner "was lying in wait for us," he said.

"This was our only option," Herbert said of the pyrotechnic tear gas, adding that the potential for igniting a fire was taken into account.

After about a quarter of the cabin was engulfed in flames, Herbert said, "we heard a distinct single gunshot" come from inside. The shot sounded different from those Dorner had fired at deputies, indicating a different type of weapon was used, he said.

Dental records were used to confirm that the remains found in the cabin were indeed those of Dorner, 33.

From the cabin and vehicles Dorner used in the San Bernardino Mountains, investigators recovered a cache of weapons and ammunition. Among them: numerous assault weapons, including a bolt-action .308 caliber sniper's rifle; silencers; handguns; high-capacity magazines; smoke bombs; tear gas; and a military-style Kevlar helmet.

McMahon said it was unclear how Dorner was able to carry all those weapons while on foot and on the run in Big Bear. But he said there's no evidence Dorner had an accomplice or received aid from anyone.

During Friday's news conference, McMahon also was pressed to address the anger and frustration of Big Bear residents who questioned how Dorner was able to hide out undetected for five days. It turned out that Dorner was hiding in a vacation rental condominium less than 200 yards from law enforcement's command center during the manhunt.

The sheriff said the condo had been checked early in the search. The door was locked and no one answered when deputies knocked. Since there was no sign of forced entry on the door or windows, the deputies moved on.

McMahon said the decision was made not to kick open doors of unoccupied homes because they had no search warrants, and doing so would have included "hundreds" of homes — since many of the cabins and homes are unoccupied vacation homes.

Investigators later learned that the owners of the condo, Jim and Karen Reynolds, had left the unit unlocked to allow workers inside. When the Reynoldses entered the condo Tuesday morning, Dorner tied them up and stole their car. One of them was able to break free and call 911, leading to the deadly standoff at the mountain cabin in Angelus Oaks.

"I don't believe we made any mistakes," McMahon said.

-- Phil WIllon

Photo: A ceramic angel stands over the destroyed cabin in Angelus Oaks where Christopher Dorner died. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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