SAN BERNARDINO, California (Reuters) - Sheriff's deputies who believed they had cornered a fugitive ex-cop in the mountains above Los Angeles did not purposely torch a cabin where a nine-day manhunt ended, but the deputies may have ignited the blaze by firing tear gas, officials said on Wednesday.
Former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner, 33, was wanted in a killing spree targeting law enforcement officers that left four people dead. A man matching his description was surrounded in the San Bernardino National Forest on Tuesday.
"We did not intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr. Dorner out," San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said at an afternoon press conference.
Investigators had not yet formally identified charred remains found in the burned-out structure, although they are believed to be those of Dorner.
"I cannot absolutely, positively confirm it's him," McMahon said. "The suspect that we were following ... matched his description."
"Our coroner's division is working on trying to confirm the identity through forensics and we should know that at some point here soon," he said.
Dorner lost his job with the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008 after a police board of inquiry found he had lied in accusing a training officer of using excessive force against a homeless man. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has opened a review of that case.
Last Wednesday, Dorner was named as the prime suspect in a double slaying that occurred the weekend before, about 40 miles south of Los Angeles in Irvine. Police say he killed a university security officer and his fiancée, the 28-year-old daughter of a retired LAPD captain who represented Dorner in disciplinary action that led to his termination.
The search intensified last Thursday after he was accused of killing of a Riverside policeman and wounding another officer in an ambush about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
Law enforcement converged later that day in the San Bernardino Mountains after a pickup truck identified as Dorner's was found abandoned and burning in the snow near the ski resort community of Big Bear Lake northeast of Los Angeles.
The ensuing manhunt, stretching from the desert north of the mountains to the Mexican border, was described by Beck as the region's most extensive ever.
It ended on Tuesday following a shootout at the cabin that saw the slaying of San Bernardino Sheriff's Deputy Jeremiah MacKay, 35, a married father of two young children, and the wounding of another deputy.
During a lull in the firefight, the cabin caught fire and was quickly engulfed in flames. It remained unclear on Wednesday how the blaze began.
Los Angeles-based CBS television affiliate, KCAL, and CNN, have broadcast an audio recording of what sounds like police radio chatter during the confrontation at the lodging. On the tape, voices purported to be officers shout, "Burn it down."
McMahon told reporters on Wednesday the term "burners" was used by law enforcement to refer to tear gas canisters with a pyrotechnic charge, which he said generate "a lot of heat."
"We had introduced those canisters into the residence and a fire erupted," McMahon said.
The Los Angeles Times reported police used a demolition vehicle to tear down the walls of the cabin, and they heard a single gunshot from inside before it burst into flames.
CLOSE HIDING PLACE
Before the man believed to have been Dorner made a final stand, police appear to have been frustratingly close to him.
Less than 10 miles north of the cabin that ignited in flames with the suspect inside, there is another lodging where Dorner is believed to have hidden. It is just around the corner from a police command post, in the city of Big Bear Lake where authorities had said they conducted door-to-door searches.
On Tuesday, two housekeepers encountered a man believed to have been Dorner inside that vacant cabin. The man tied them up and then took off in a purple Nissan parked near the lodging, authorities said.
San Bernardino Sheriff's Deputy Chief Steve Kovensky, who was in charge of the mountaintop search, said officers went to each cabin and "if there were no signs of break-in or no open doors" they "noted it and moved on."
"We did not find any forced entry" at the cabin where Dorner is believed to have hidden, Kovensky said. He added that the residence had not been rented since February 6.
Police officials abruptly ended the news conference on Wednesday as they faced more questions from reporters.
Dorner gained prominence after it was revealed that an angry manifesto posted last week on his Facebook page claimed he had been wrongly dismissed from the LAPD. He vowed to seek revenge by unleashing "unconventional and asymmetrical warfare" on officers and their families.
Police provided security details to over 50 LAPD officers and their families who were believed to be threatened by Dorner, when he named specific enemies in his rambling manifesto.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the housekeepers who encountered the man thought to have been Dorner might qualify for a $1 million reward posted for information leading to his capture. It is the largest sum ever offered in a Southern California criminal investigation.
(Reporting by Brandon Lowrey, Dana Feldman, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Tom Brown, Toni Reinhold, Steve Orlofsky and Lisa Shumaker)
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