Photos courtesy of Getty Images
By William M. Welch
Just as President Obama was preparing to put gun violence squarely in the national political agenda with his address to Congress, a dramatic firefight broke out Tuesday in California that vividly illustrates the stakes of the debate.
Law enforcement officers exchanged shots with a man who they say appeared to be fugitive ex-policeman Christopher Dorner, wanted in the revenge slayings of three people, as he surfaced in the San Bernardino mountains east of Los Angeles after eluding police for a week.
A San Bernardino County deputy was killed in Tuesday's shootout, and a second deputy was wounded. Dorner was thought to be holed up in a vacation cabin in a mountain ski area east of Los Angeles.
It wasn't known if Dorner had been shot, but television footage of the cabin showed it was in flames. Sheriff's spokesman Cindy Bachman confirmed the fire was at the cabin where Dorner was believed to be hiding.
"We have reason to believe it is him," she said.
While multiple news organizations, including CBS and CNN, reported that a body believed to be Dorner's was found inside the burned cabin, Los Angeles police said Tuesday night they had not yet entered the burned building and had not recovered a body.
"There has been no body located inside that cabin. ... The fire is still too hot," Cmdr. Andrew Smith said.
He said police remained on high alert and were continuing armed protection of more than 50 law enforcement families believed to be targeted by the rogue ex-cop.
While far removed from the debate in Washington, the California gunbattle was the latest nationally televised media spectacle involving gun violence.
A string of mass murders, including the slaying of 20 elementary school children and six adults at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Conn., helped elevate the issue of placing controls on guns - long anathema to gun-rights advocates - in the national conversation and political debate.
Spurred by Newtown and earlier shootings, including the attempted assassination of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, Obama has embraced a gun control agenda including mandatory background checks, cracking down loopholes in gun reporting laws, and potential limits on semi-automatic weapons and high-volume ammunition magazines.
Dorner, 33, was thought to have multiple weapons, including one or more semi-automatic assault rifles. Perhaps hundreds of rounds were fired at the Big Bear area of San Bernardino County Tuesday before the shooting stopped.
The manhunt for the disgraced officer began last Wednesday when he was named as the suspect in the killings of a former Los Angeles police captain's daughter and her fiancé the previous Sunday night in Irvine, an Orange County city of more than 200,000 people outside Los Angeles.
Hours after police announced they were looking for him, Dorner allegedly fired at LAPD officers, then ambushed two Riverside, Calif., officers, killing one.
An angry manifesto posted online, which police attributed to Dorner, vowed to wage war on law enforcement out of revenge for his 2009 dismissal from the Los Angeles police force. The manifesto charged racism in the LAPD and recounted slurs and insults dating back to the fugitive's childhood.
While it was unknown Tuesday whether Dorner, a Navy veteran, had been hit by gunfire, massive numbers of officers surrounded the cabin, situated in a snowy, wooded residential area near the Big Bear ski resort area.
"The likelihood is it is him, but we can't say for sure," LAPD's Smith said earlier in the day.
Police called on Dorner to surrender. "Enough is enough. It's time to turn yourself in," Smith said. "It's time to end the bloodshed."
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department said deputies searching for Dorner had responded to a report of a stolen vehicle.
"The reporting party said the suspect took their vehicle and described the suspect as looking very similar to Dorner," the department said in a statement. "Deputies immediately began a search on the ground and from the air for the vehicle."
A man identified as Rick Heltebrake, who works at a Boy Scout camp in the Big Bear area, told KTLA-TV News that Dorner stole his truck from him at gunpoint.
Heltebrake said Dorner came right to the point: "He said, 'I don't want to hurt you. Just get out of the truck and start walking up the road.'" He asked if he could get his dog out of the back. Dorner said okay, but don't take time to get a leash.
The vehicle was found, and the "suspect fled into the forest and barricaded himself inside a cabin," the sheriff's department said.
"A short time later, there was an exchange of gunfire between law enforcement and the suspect."
Two wounded deputies were airlifted to a hospital in Loma Linda, where San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said one of the officers was declared dead.
All roads out of the area were closed, and skiers were instructed not to leave the area immediately. Cars streaming out of resort area and down the mountain backed up for more than 3 miles as police set up roadblocks and searched all vehicles.
More than 1,000 tips
A search for Dorner has been underway in the Big Bear area since his pickup was found there Thursday. It was found burned, with weapons and camping gear inside. An axle was broken or damaged, suggesting he may have had to flee on foot.
Smith urged Los Angeles television stations with helicopters over the area not to air shots of ground activity by police because the fugitive could be watching TV or following news media reports.
More than 1,000 tips have come in since Los Angeles offered a $1million reward, raised from public and private sources. Federal authorities earlier said they believed Dorner had fled to Mexico, according to a federal criminal complaint.
The search was particularly urgent because of Dorner's Navy training as a sharpshooter. He has also been trained in underwater warfare.