As the media focused on the mistaken identity shootings in Torrance and began looking into Dorner’s background, the focus of the manhunt was about to move 100 miles away and nearly 7,000 feet higher in the towering San Bernardino Mountains.
Like all other Southern California law enforcement, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department had been on high alert since the reports came in about the shooting of Riverside officers Michael Crain and Andrew Tachias. The department had sent deputies to Riverside to help support the police in controlling the situation and provided a protective detail as reports swirled about the possibility of Dorner returning to the scene for more shooting.
Investigators examine Dorner’s burned out truck.
LA Times Photo/ Michael Robinson Chavez
Many of the freeways and surface streets leading away from the Riverside shooting scene ran directly into San Bernardino County, which is just to the north. The main route from Riverside to Las Vegas (where officers had already been searching Dorner’s home) ran for hundreds of miles through San Bernardino County. The department knew there was a good chance that Dorner had passed through the county after the shooting, Sheriff John McMahon said.
As the search around Southern California intensified, a report came in about 8:30 a.m. Feb. 7 to the sheriff’s substation at Big Bear Lake, high in the San Bernardino Mountains: A maintenance crew had discovered a burning vehicle along one of the unpaved roads that ran behind the area’s ski resorts. The vehicle appeared to be a pickup.
Captain Tom Bradford, the commanding officer at the Big Bear substation, drove to the scene immediately and found evidence that made him call in the department’s SWAT teams. Scattered near the pickup, which was still smoldering, were numerous shells for a high-powered weapon. Bradford said he was immediately convinced this was Dorner’s truck.
Dorner’s truck was located atop a ridge in the San Bernardino National Forest (A). The search was hampered by difficult mountain terrain.
The location of the smoldering truck was a problem. It was high on a ridge that allowed quick access to the ski resorts, where operations were in full swing. Although it had not snowed recently, the resorts make their own snow all winter and had a special event planned for that Thursday: police and firefighter appreciation day. Thousands of officers from throughout Southern California were already headed to the slopes for the day.
On the other side of the ridge, the slope led away from the Big Bear area down to lower cabins along State Route 38, a popular area that was miles away from the ski resorts by road, but a straight hike down from the ridge. Even before the truck was positively identified as Dorner’s, Bradford had search teams out in both directions.
The SWAT team members were taking no chances. They felt the location was too exposed, and had the truck towed to a safer site before digging into it for evidence. What they found made it clear – the “hidden VIN” showed the vehicle was definitely Dorner’s. By mid-morning on Feb. 7, the manhunt had moved to a new location, and both the media and the agencies trying to stop him were headed from sunny beach communities to winter weather as cold and unforgiving as North Dakota’s.
Deputies fanned out to search Big Bear neighborhoods after finding Christopher Dorner’s burned out truck nearby.
Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise.
Knowing that Dorner could be anywhere, Bradford said the most pressing need was to bring the “police and firefighter appreciation day” at the ski resort to an early close. The skiers’ vehicles were checked – along with every other one leaving the mountains that day – to ensure that Dorner was not making an escape. The three main routes out of the resort were even closed for a time, but the roadblocks were deemed impractical with tens of thousands of people coming and going to the resorts.
Deputies searched for Dorner in the harsh terrain and weather.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Just two hours from the beach, the San Bernardino Mountains are topped with hundreds of square miles of national forest land. The San Bernardino National Forest is the most populated in the nation, home to thousands of dwellings, from small-unheated cabins to luxury resort condominiums. The buildings crowd into the forest, some as dense as a good-sized town, others scattered miles into the trees.
McMahon, Bradford and the sheriff’s department knew the only way to ensure that Dorner was not hiding in one of those cabins was to check them all. As the day progressed, they mounted a search operation that involved hundreds of county personnel, including probation officers and others as support. The searchers, sent out in teams, faced a daunting task. Most of the cabins were unoccupied in winter, and many were in areas that had no radio or cell phone reception. Before they checked the doors and windows of each dwelling, deputies had to find a spot nearby with reception, and sometimes used a team of searchers to pass along the word if the cabin was safe or not.
“We had to have someone in a spot where they could get the word out in a hurry. We knew that it was likely if we opened the door and he was there, we might not survive it.” – San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy
Every cabin and condominium was checked, Bradford said. If the doors were locked and there was no sign of forced entry, the search teams moved on. “We weren’t going to break down every door.”
As the teams fanned out across the mountains, the media descended on the resort. In an effort to maintain some control, McMahon used the Bear Mountain Golf Course clubhouse adjacent to the ski resort. A command post was established, and McMahon and other police officials held a series of press conferences in the parking lot.
The search continued into the night of Feb. 7 and the next morning, when the weather changed dramatically. A winter storm dropped several feet of snow along the mountain communities on Feb. 8, and the temperatures plummeted. Searchers were convinced that if Dorner had not found shelter, he would soon die of exposure. His body might not be found until the spring thaw.
Nevertheless, searchers carried on. Snow-cats were used to take searchers to remote cabins that had not been reached. Crews dressed in full winter gear traipsed through drifts to ensure there was no sign of habitation. Cabins and condominiums near the resorts were checked a second time.
Through the two days, there was only one reported sighting of Dorner. A resident said she was heading to the grocery store early Thursday morning, when she turned and saw a man matching Dorner’s description walking down her street. He noticed her, and turned and walked back into the forest. The resident was so frightened that she returned to her home and locked herself in. She did not report the sighting to deputies until they knocked on her door during the search hours later. By then, snow had covered whatever tracks might have shown where the man had gone into the forest.
Deputies continued search for Christopher Dorner during raging snowstorm in Big Bear. Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise.
The police command center in Big Bear during hunt for Christopher Dorner. Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise.
The Trail goes Cold
Just three days after the discovery of Dorner’s online rant, and two days after his brutal attacks on officers in Corona and Riverside, the trail had gone cold in the snow-covered mountain communities. McMahon decided to relocate the command post to the Big Bear Lake Substation and gear down the operation, hoping that if the fugitive was still in the Big Bear area, he would try to make his escape and be caught.
Law enforcement teams faced harsh weather conditions as they continued the search in the snowstorm. LA Times Photo/Micheal Robinson Chavez
What had begun as a double homicide in a quiet suburb had become a national manhunt. Reports came in of Dorner sightings from Mexico, Las Vegas, Arizona, and Utah. Police officers throughout Southern California were on high alert.
With multiple locations now involved in the search, it became clear that the command center in Irvine might not meet the needs of an ever-expanding incident. Investigators from a half-dozen police agencies needed a place to coordinate their efforts and deal with the growing deluge of clues and sightings coming in. Irvine, Corona, and Riverside had crimes to investigate, and the LAPD was under a state of siege. San Bernardino County appeared to be the last known whereabouts of the killer, but there was no clear evidence he was still there.
Assistant LAPD Chief Michel Moore had been closely involved with the case since it became clear that Dorner’s attacks were focused on the people he blamed for his firing. Moore had spent a considerable amount of time at the Irvine command center, and he had talked directly with Riverside Chief Diaz and San Bernardino County Sheriff McMahon. Although the LAPD was not investigating a homicide, it had the most at stake in terms of an ongoing potential death threats against at least 77 identified likely targets and their families. The department was faced with what could only be called a terrorist threat.
Moore convinced Irvine Chief Maggard to move to a larger, more centralized location. Moore proposed using the Joint Regional Intelligence Center in Norwalk – southeast of Los Angeles. The other agencies agreed to the move, and the JRIC became a unique hybrid operations center with joint operations that were unprecedented.
The JRIC had been created in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when it became clear that no single law enforcement agency could keep track of the potential threats throughout Southern California. Most agencies throughout the region maintained some level of involvement with the center, and it had brought some measure of coordination to intelligence gathering among hundreds of agencies that had a history of not communicating across county lines.
However, the JRIC had never been intended as a command center. To gear it up for the Dorner effort, the LAPD tasked Det. Dan Jenks with making it work. Jenks created a multi-tiered operation that essentially operated on three levels. The largest was a clearinghouse for collecting evidence and “clues,” which was staffed by LAPD officers who were familiar with large investigations. By the end of the manhunt, the JRIC crew had taken in and investigated 900 such clues. None led to Dorner.
Working alongside the clue clearinghouse were investigators from all of the agencies involved in the various crimes attributed to Dorner, as well as representatives from state and federal agencies that had been called in to assist. Investigators from all of the police agencies involved with the case said this interaction was invaluable. Faced with a rumor or sighting – or need to run down evidence of Dorner’s background – the various crews could walk across the room and discuss it with others who were intimately involved with the case. The overall effect was to dramatically reduce rumor mill problems, investigators said.
The final element of the center was a joint command staff tasked with determining how the agencies would work together to move the case forward. Official reports show this unprecedented joint staffing created some frustration among investigators, who reportedly felt they were spending an unnecessary amount of time briefing higher-ups. They also felt that the need to clear operations through the joint staff slowed response in some situations.
The JRIC brought efficiencies from many agencies together, Jenks said. One part of the team was the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Task Force, which had invaluable experience with wiretaps and surveillance efforts. At one point, the HIDTA team brought a judge to the JRIC to help quickly clear warrants to allow the establishment of numerous search efforts, he said. Federal and State officials also brought unique support to the effort. The Fish and Wildlife Service has tagged many of the large carnivores in the San Bernardino Mountains, and agreed to monitor tracking devices to see if the animals were congregating in one spot where a potential body might be discovered. The Department of Homeland Security agreed to allow the use of a C-123 aerial surveillance plane, which could focus infrared sensors on the snow-covered mountains to discover hikers by the heat signature.
However, by Sunday, February 10, all of this unprecedented effort had produced only frustration. Los Angeles officials announced a $1 million reward for anyone providing information leading to Dorner’s capture. The reward caused calls to the JRIC to spike, but did not lead to any new information on his location.
The command staff at the JRIC felt it was important to do another sweep of the Big Bear area, and began to put together a multiagency team to begin another search of cabins and condominiums. San Bernardino officials believed the previous searches had been as extensive as possible – but agreed to help guide the multiagency teams through the various neighborhoods and cabin clusters.
Although SBSD had formally moved the mountain command center, Bradford and many other San Bernardino County deputies were convinced that Dorner was still somewhere in the Big Bear area. They had maintained vehicle inspections on the roads leading out of the resort and were confident he had not been able to slip through. The SWAT team had been stationed at the Big Bear substation, ready to respond, if a sighting occurred.