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Manhunt's apparent fiery end leaves a mountain community stunned

While millions watched on TV, Big Bear area residents see and hear what could be the tense final hours of the search for suspected killer Christopher Dorner.

February 12, 2013|By Louis Sahagun, Phil Willon and Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times
  • Cindy Bachman, with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, speaks at a news conference Tuesday.
Cindy Bachman, with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department,… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Bret Berens was serving hamburgers when he heard the sirens.

He looked up and saw four San Bernardino County sheriff's patrol cars screaming past the Oaks Restaurant in Angelus Oaks at 80 mph, followed by an "army" of law enforcement officers.

The telephone rang. It was his brother-in-law, a California Highway Patrol officer. "Lock your doors and stay inside," the officer warned.

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Candy Martin was sitting down to an episode of "Walking Dead" with her daughter when she turned on the TV news and saw her vacation cabin surrounded by police. A shootout was raging, and reports said Christopher Dorner was inside.

"I was basically in a state of shock," Martin said.

The apparent conclusion to a massive manhunt for the former Los Angeles police officer wanted in a series of killings played out on televisions across the country Tuesday. But for those living near the wooden cabin — those who heard the sirens and saw the helicopters — the unfolding drama was stunning.

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Gary Weghorst, an air conditioning and heating repairman, said he heard gunfire while working on a cabin off Highway 38. "Not rapid, long fire. Like a rifle," Weghorst said. "It was big."

Authorities shut down roads and searched cars leaving the area. An inspection of Weghorst's van took just seconds but, given the circumstances, it still was nerve-racking.

"The guns are drawn, [officers] looking at you. I kept my hands like this," he said, gripping his steering wheel. "They're serious."

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The standoff near the Seven Oaks community began after a man believed to be Dorner broke into a home and tied up two maids who had come to clean the property, authorities said. Dorner allegedly left in a purple Nissan, at which point one of the women was able to break free and call 911.

The suspect was spotted by California Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel on Highway 38 and apparently crashed that vehicle on Glass Road while trying to evade them. Officials said Dorner then stopped a pickup truck driven by a local resident, ordered him out and drove off. A second Fish and Wildlife vehicle spotted that pickup.

Dorner allegedly opened fire, crashed the truck and holed up inside Martin's cabin. A gun battle ensued, and two San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies were struck. One of them later died.

The confrontation came to an end hours later when the cabin caught fire and burned to its foundation. There were conflicting reports from officials over whether a body had been found inside.

A San Bernardino County firefighter, who did not want to be named, said he grew up in the wood-framed cabin. When he saw the charred remains, not even the frame was standing.

"There's nothing left," he said.

As the cabin continued to burn Tuesday night, the Oaks Restaurant became an impromptu meeting point for law enforcement officers. Many customers also were there, describing uncertain moments.

"We just hunkered down until we knew what was going on," Samuel Godines said.

Tom Berens, the restaurant's owner and Bret Berens' father, said he had been down the mountain picking up supplies earlier Tuesday. He saw the patrol cars when he returned about noon.

When he realized that a gunfight was going on just miles away, Berens said, he grabbed his handgun.

Within the hour he had put it away. The entire area was swarming with police.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

phil.willon@latimes.com

kate.mather@latimes.com

Sahagun and Willon reported from Big Bear and Mather from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Adolfo Flores in Big Bear contributed to this report.

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