Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mistakes Made in the Manhunt for Christopher Dorner

Christopher Dorner

Christopher Dorner. Police release.

Originally published 02/15/2013. 


When Christopher Dorner, an ex-LAPD officer and Navy veteran, declared the reasons for his crime spree in an 11,000 word online manifesto threatening police officers with deadly force, it was clear this story would shine a light on the entire law enforcement community – particularly the Los Angeles Police Department. What ensued over the next 10 days raised questions about the tactics and processes of police forces across Southern California as various mistakes were made during the investigation of an admittedly unprecedented and entirely terrifying situation.

The most glaring police oversight was made public on Tuesday after Dorner’s death following a shoot-out with San Bernardino Sheriff’s deputies. Dorner was forced to take cover in a cabin that caught fire during the melee. Out of those ashes, the biggest manhunt in Southern California history came to an end.

It has now been determined that for the prior several days of frantic searching, Dorner had been holed up in a condo with a clear sightline of the command center where officials briefed reporters with updates. If he had cared to open a window, he might have heard the San Bernardino Sheriff detail the search for him firsthand.

That shocking discovery underlines a string of questionable calls and incidents by law enforcement over the course of the manhunt, beginning with the stated reason for Dorner’s crimes.

In Dorner’s manifesto, he rails against the Board of Rights hearing – an internal LAPD process for review before an officer is fired – he received in mid-2008 for reporting that his partner, then Officer, now Sergeant, Teresa Evans kicked a mentally disturbed man unnecessarily in the process of subduing him. The Board of Rights panel made up of veteran officers and an outside lawyer found enough doubt that the kicks occurred that it upheld Dorner’s termination for making false statements.

To Dorner, this termination occurred simply because in reporting a fellow officer, he “had broken their supposed ‘Blue Line’.”  He goes on to chastise the LAPD for inherent racism that “has not changed since the Rampart scandal and Rodney King days. It has gotten worse.” For some in the African-American community in Los Angeles, Dorner’s screed had a ring of truth to it.

Whatever one thinks about the LAPD’s internal machinations, Dorner’s revenge killing of Monica Quan (and her fiancé Keith Lawrence) in Irvine on Februry 3rd, was not an acceptable form of protest against the process. Randal Quan, Monica’s father, is a former LAPD captain who represented Dorner at his Board of Rights hearing.

And so LAPD Chief Charlie Beck first stood steadfastly behind the Board of Rights’ findings regarding Dorner, bluntly telling reporters who asked if the case would be reopened “That’s not gonna happen.” But as the manhunt went on, Beck backtracked on that pronouncement and announced (see PDF below) that the department would take a thorough look at Dorner’s allegation and subsequent dismissal.

Whether Beck’s about-face was simply a ploy to lure Dorner out of hiding was a subject of debate at the time of the announcement, but the most recent statement from LAPD spokesman Andy Neiman on Wednesday stated that the investigation of Dorner’s disciplinary case would continue post-mortem. The results of that re-investigation may answer one of the biggest questions about the man in the center of it: Was Dorner was a loose cannon and a fabulist who made up the improper use-of-force complaint? Recent events might argue that case, but the history of the LAPD is littered with substantiated allegations of racism and corruption which make Dorner’s contentions that much more plausible.

Christopher Dorner.

While Dorner’s list of crimes grew longer – an aborted boat heist in San Diego, the firing at two LAPD officers in Corona (one wounded), and then the close shooting of two Riverside police officers (Ofc. Michael Crain killed in the gunfire; Ofc. Andrew Tachias hospitalized, currently in stable condition) – the police racked up a few shootings of their own.

By last Thursday, the manhunt was at full throttle. Officers were on the lookout for Dorner, a 6-foot, 270-pound African American man, and his blue Nissan Titan pick-up truck. And yet, a team of LAPD officers on a protection detail (the LAPD set up guard at roughly 50 homes of people mentioned in Dorner’s manifesto) let off a flurry of gunshots – approximately 50 rounds – at a blue Toyota Tacoma truck. The truck – which was driving slowly through a Torrance neighborhood – was delivering morning newspapers to residents – and the drivers looked nothing like the suspect.

In fact, there were two Latino women in the truck: 47-year-old Margie Carranza and her mother Emma Hernandez, 71. Hernandez was hit twice in the back by police artillery. Both women were taken to a local hospital and Carranza was soon released with minor cuts from the van’s broken glass. Hernandez was released from the hospital a few days later.

LAPD chief Charlie Beck told the LA Times that his officers were under “incredible tension” that led to the “tragic misinterpretation” that the women’s van might be Dorner’s. Two days after the shooting, Beck visited with the women to express his apologies in person – and promise the LAPD would provide them with a new truck.

The women’s attorney Glen Jonas maintained the incident was a break-down of police procedure, saying the police gave “no commands, no instructions and no opportunity to surrender” before the gunfire started. Whether a civil suit against the LAPD is in the offing is yet to be seen, but not unlikely.

More police gunshots rang out just minutes later in a nearby section of Torrance – this time it was Torrance Police officers guilty of overreaction. Having heard the reports of shots fired in the general area, Torrance Police officers sprung into action when they saw a dark pick-up truck start to drive away. One patrol unit slammed into the black Honda Ridgeline. Another officer started firing.

Again the driver was not Christopher Dorner – it was David Perdue, a 38-year-old LAX baggage handler. Perdue was up early to meet a friend for surfing when his truck was besieged by police. Perdue was lucky that the Torrance officers didn’t actually hit him with gunfire, but he did suffer a arm and shoulder injuries and a concussion. His lawyer Todd Thibodo issued a letter to the Torrance PD asking for police reports and access to the evidence from the shooting

The dangerous police missteps quickly provoked outrage on the internet, Facebook pages in support of Dorner sprung up, garnering thousands of likes. The hacker group Anonymous sent up a tweet reading: “The LAPD is doing illegal things to catch an ex-cop doing illegal things who was kicked off the force for exposing cops dong illegal things.”

Apart from the mistaken-identity shootings and questioning of the validity of Dorner’s motives, some clues were flat-out misinterpreted by law enforcement. On February 7, the same day Dorner’s pick-up was found burning in Big Bear, the US Marshall’s office filed papers in U.S. District court alleging that Dorner had fled the country.

“There is probable cause to believe that Dorner has moved and traveled,” wrote Inspector Craig McClusky, “from California to Mexico with the intent to avoid prosecution.”

Of course, that assertion was proven false on Tuesday when Dorner was discovered in that Big Bear condo by owners Jim and Karen Reynolds, ultimately leading to a final firefight between suspect and law enforcement that left San Bernardino Sheriff’s deputy Jeremiah McKay dead and fellow deputy Alexander Collins wounded.

Even as Dorner’s cabin smoldered, questions arose about the nature of the fire – who started it and why. Across the twittersphere, conspiracy theories popped up likening Dorner’s fiery demise to a lynching and accusing authorities of starting the fire to make sure Dorner would never be taken alive to tell his story.

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon denied that his deputies set out to burn the cabin. Rather, he said, they deployed more volatile CS gas canisters after conventional tear gas failed to smoke out Dorner. “I can tell you it was not on purpose,” McMahon said later, “We did not intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr. Dorner out.” In response to an audio recording in which police can be heard saying “burn it down,” McMahon said officers were referring to the gas canisters as “burners.”

On Thursday, the San Bernardino Sheriff-Coroner Department concluded from dental records that the charred remains from the burned out cabin in Seven Oaks were indeed those of Christopher Dorner. The manhunt is over and Dorner can no longer add to his manifesto or have his day in court, but the questions about the tactics and methodology of the forces that pursued him have yet be answered. Hopefully, they will be after the massive investigations are completed.

Previous: Fired Cop Goes on Revenge Killing Spree, Manhunt in Progress

Related Reading: The Rampart Scandal Explodes

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