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Search for fugitive ex-cop has mountain towns on edge

February 7, 2013 |  9:04 pm

The bustling winter resort of Big Bear took on the appearance of a ghost town Thursday as surveillance aircraft buzzed overhead and police in tractical gear and carrying rifles patrolled mountain roads in convoys of SUVs, while others stood guard along major intersections.

Even before authorities had confirmed that the torched pickup truck discovered on a quiet forest road belonged to suspected gunman Christopher Dorner, 33, officials had ordered an emergency lockdown of local businesses, homes and the town’s usually bustling ski resorts. Parents were told to pick up their children from school, as rolling yellow buses might pose a target to an unpredictable fugitive on the run.

By nightfall, many residents had barricaded their doors as they prepared for a long, anxious evening.

PHOTOS: Manhunt for ex-LAPD officer

“We're all just stressed,” said Andrea Burtons as she stocked up on provisions at a convenience store. “I have to go pick up my brother and get him home where we're safe.”

Police ordered the lockdown around 9:30 a.m. as authorities throughout Southern California launched an immense manhunt for the former lawman, who is accused of killing three people as part of a long-standing grudge against the LAPD. Dorner is believed to have penned a long, angry manifesto on Facebook saying he was unfairly fired from the force and was now seeking vengeance.

Forest lands surrounding Big Bear Lake are cross-hatched with fire roads and trails leading in all directions, and the snow-capped mountains can provide both cover and extreme challenges to a fugitive on foot. It was unclear whether Donner was prepared for such rugged elements, though he served as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserves at the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nev., where Marine and Navy personnel undergo cold-weather training.

TIMELINE: Manhunt for ex-LAPD officer

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said about 125 officers have been deployed for tracking and door-to-door searches.

Footprints were found leading from the burned pickup truck into the snow off Forest Road 2N10 and Club View in Big Bear Lake.

McMahon said that while authorities were actively searching for Dorner, he acknowledged that officers had to be mindful that the suspect may have set a trap. “Certainly. There’s always that concern and we’re extremely careful and we’re worried about this individual. We’re taking every precaution we can,” McMahon said.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Searching for suspected shooter

The search will likely play out with the backdrop of a winter storm that will begin hitting the area after midnight. Up to 6 inches of snow could blanket local mountains, the National Weather Service said.

“As the storm gets closer, winds are going to be picking up,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Moede.

Gusts up to 50 mph could hit the region, he said, creating a wind-chill factor of 15 to 20 degrees.

DOCUMENT: Read the manifesto

Extra patrols were brought in to check vehicles coming and going from Big Bear, McMahon said, but no vehicles had been reported stolen.

“He could be anywhere at this point,” McMahon said. When asked if the burned truck was a possible diversion, McMahon replied: “Anything's possible.”

Dorner had no known connection to the area, authorities said.

Craig and Christine Winnegar, of Murrieta, found themselves caught up in the lockdown by accident. Craig brought his wife to Big Bear as a surprise to celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary. Their pre-arranged dinner was canceled when restaurant owners closed their doors out of fear. “It’s definitely scary,” Christine Winnegar said.

The couple’s children had been texting them throughout the day with updates. They worried that the gunman might come to Murrieta. “I said no, no, you guys are fine,” Christine Winnegar said. “He’s actually up here with us.”

As Craig was sipping a hot chocolate, he said that they planned to stay even with the manhunt underway. “It certainly will be a memorable anniversary.”

Behind the counter of Triangle Market in Big Bear City, clerk Robert Caballos said that unlike many other folks in the area, he wasn’t worried for his safety.

“I mean, I heard he's going after cops, right? Not people,” he said.

Others promised a quick resolution to the matter if they were put in charge.

“I did 12 years in the Marine Corps, man,” said Dennis Pollock. “Give me a sniper rifle, some gear and point me in his general direction and get out of my way.”


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--Joseph Serna and Phil Willon in Big Bear

Photo: A police officer checks the cab of a truck along Switzerland Avenue in Big Bear Lake for shooting suspect Christopher Dorner. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times