After a fiery siege at a cabin near the Big Bear ski resort appears to have brought a week-long, state-wide manhunt to its conclusion, ex-LAPD cop turned cop killer Christopher Dorner appears to be dead, but the conspiracy theories are alive. The LAPD has called off its tactical alert, meaning Dorner is no longer at large as they examine a charred body inside the cabin (believe to be this one picture above). Questions remain, though, from a state and a nation rapt by the chase for a man as intriguing as he was violent, as half-believable as he appears to have been half-mad: Did the cops start the deadly fire, or did Dorner? Can cops burn another cop alive just because he killed their own? And why would there have been a plan to smoke him out if they had him trapped? Dramatic new video and unconfirmed police scanner audio only contribute to the smoking gun:
Police Say They Don't Know Why It Started...
During our live report of Dorner's last stand on Tuesday night, neither Los Angeles Police Department nor San Bernardino County Sheriff spokespeople ever said how the fire started — they never confirmed it, they never even hinted at it. While many details remain sketchy in public crime dramas such as this climaxing manhunt, nobody really seems to know whether the fire was set deliberately, ignited defensively, or had something to do with the crossfire. And according to the Los Angeles Times, a source in law enforcement makes it seem like the SWAT team was trying any means necessary to get into the cabin, then stopped their entry once the big flames arrived:
According to a law enforcement source, police had broken down windows, fired tear gas into the cabin and blasted over a loud speaker, urging Dorner to surrender. When they got no response, police deployed a vehicle to rip down the walls of the cabin "one by one, like peeling an onion," a law enforcement official said.
By the time they got to the last wall, authorities heard a single gunshot, the source said. Then flames began to spread through the structure, and gunshots, probably set off by the fire, were heard.
The Times adds that highly flammable gas was a kind of last resort:
Hoping to end the standoff, law enforcement authorities first lobbed "traditional" tear gas into the cabin. When that did not work, they opted to use CS gas canisters, which are known in law enforcement parlance as incendiary tear gas. These canisters have significantly more chance of starting a fire. This gas can cause humans to have burning eyes and start to feel as if they are being starved for oxygen. It is often used to drive barricaded individuals out.
Meanwhile, CNN is sticking by its law enforcement sources, which say "smoke devices" thrown inside by the police caught fire, giving way to the narrative that police, at that point, had no choice but to let the cabin burn.
...but It Sounds Like Police Planned on Burning Something:
As we pointed out, the KCAL 9 report — the one with a local reporter caught in the crossfire — contains audio from police saying "fucking burn this motherfucker." And now there's video from CBS News:
And The Guardian's Paul Owen points us to an unconfirmed recording of the police scanner on Tuesday. In the recording, there's this piece of dialogue:
All right, Steve, we're gonna go, er, we're gonna go forward with the plan, with, er, with the burn [or burner]. We want it, er, like we talked about.
Journalist Max Blumenthal heard something similar:
Hard to decipher on San Bernadino Sheriff scanner now: "We're gonna go ahead w/the plan w/the burner... Like we talked about."— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) February 12, 2013
Then There's Due Process...
Many have speculated that police started the cabin fire to force out Dorner from the cabin and have him surrender. But law enforcement officials also said they had the cabin surrounded. Why not wait him out? CNN at one point reported that a U.S. Marshall said the suspect had tried to leave but had been "pushed back inside" as the fire was starting, but that seems to have been dismissed by mounting reports today. And the theory that Dorner started the fire himself — his chilling manifesto says "I do not fear death" — seems to have fizzled as well?
But can the cops really burn a suspect alive? Does it matter that he killed their own, that the whole world has been watching?
Those asking questions have made (sketchy) links to the 1993 siege on the Davidian house in Waco, Texas, where government officials said they were not using tear gas and that cult members started a fire that killed 76 of its members at the end of a 50-day standoff — a claim that was walked back some six years later:
There's also the complicated question of whether Dorner still had the right to due process. This epic Reddit thread has a brewing legal debate among non-lawyers comparing Dorner's situation to that afforded to Aurora guman James Holmes. Muddying Dorner's thread of due process — at least among amateur investigators — is that manifesto, in which he more or less confessed to the first two of four suspected murders, and the crossfire heard on the CBS report. This was a manhunt with an end in sight, surely, but if the fire was set deliberately and it did kill Dorner, is that an acceptable amount of legal force?
...and There's Still Something Fishy About Dorner's Wallet!
One of the things that didn't and still doesn't make is this wallet nonsense. The AP reported today that pieces of identification belonging to Dorner were found in the cabin:
...hours later a charred body was found in the basement of the burned cabin along with a wallet and personal items, including a California driver's license with the name Christopher Dorner, an official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
But from what we were told, Dorner ditched his wallet and his identification in San Diego on February 8. NBC San Diego reported:
An LAPD badge and a wallet with the suspect's personal identification were discovered Thursday by an airport shuttle driver near San Diego's Lindbergh Field.
Exactly how many wallets and pieces of identification did Dorner have? And is more odd evidence like this going to keep popping up in the aftermath?
Aside from all the mayhem and the manhunting, one of the most intriguing parts of the Dorner case was his own admission on Facebook, his own sick motive for the rampage: The LAPD cannot be trusted, he wrote. And now, with Dorner apparently dead, we have to trust the people he told us not to trust — the very people who, in his mind, pushed him to these murders. Which is fine; they're law enforcement, and more agencies than just the LAPD are involved now. But some of the more extreme conspiracy theories insist that with the climactic fire as the final crime scene in this bloody ordeal, all the control back is back with the police — that they can come up with any story they want, far from the reach of helicopters and even reporters who got too close for comfort.
Of course there are plenty grains of salt that need to be taken with Dorner's vengeful and terrifying manifesto. But if anything, the Dorner saga showed us that he isn't the only one with claims of institutionalized racism and corruption — Facebook pages and personal anecdotes have popped up in support of some of Dorner's claims. And those claims aren't going to go away just because Dorner has. Everybody loves a true-crime conspiracy, right?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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