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Sheriff says fire at Calif. cabin was not deliberate

Witness details encounter with armed fugitive

Riverside police officers saluted the casket of Officer Michael Crain in California. He was a victim of Christopher Dorner.

Michael Nelson/European Pressphoto Agency

Riverside police officers saluted the casket of Officer Michael Crain in California. He was a victim of Christopher Dorner.

LOS ANGELES — There was no question. The man standing before Rick Heltebrake on a rural mountain road was Christopher Dorner.

Clad in camouflage from head to toe and wearing a bulletproof vest packed with ammunition, the most wanted man in America was just a few feet away, having emerged from a grove of trees holding a large, assault-style rifle.

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As teams of officers who had sought the fugitive ex-Los Angeles police officer for a week were closing in, Dorner pointed the gun at Heltebrake and ordered him to get out of his truck.

‘‘I don’t want to hurt you. Start walking and take your dog,’’ Heltebrake recalled Dorner saying during the carjacking Tuesday.

The man, who wasn’t lugging any gear, got into the truck and drove away. Heltebrake, with his 3-year-old Dalmatian Suni in tow, called police when he heard a volley of gunfire erupt soon after, and then hid behind a tree.

A short time later, police caught up with the man they believe was Dorner, surrounding a cabin where he’d taken refuge after crashing Heltebrake’s truck in the San Bernardino Mountains 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

A gunfight ensued in which one sheriff’s deputy was killed and another wounded. After the firefight ended, a SWAT team using an armored vehicle broke out the cabin’s windows and began knocking down walls. A fire broke out and later charred remains believed to be Dorner’s were found.

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said Wednesday the fire was not set on purpose.

‘‘We did not intentionally burn down that cabin to get Mr. Dorner out,’’ he said.

His deputies lobbed pyrotechnic tear gas into the cabin, and it erupted in flames, he said. McMahon did not say directly that the tear gas started the blaze, and the cause of the fire was under investigation.

The sheriff said authorities have not positively identified the remains. However, all evidence points to it being Dorner, he said, and the manhunt is considered over.

A wallet and personal items, including a California driver’s license with the name Christopher Dorner were found in the cabin debris, an official briefed on the investigation told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe.

The tourist community of Big Bear Lake that was the focus of the intensive manhunt was returning to normalcy Wednesday and residents were sharing stories of the last weeks’ events. None was more dramatic than Heltebrake’s.

He said he wasn’t panicked in his meeting with Dorner because he didn’t feel the fugitive wanted to hurt him. ‘‘He wasn’t wild-eyed, just almost professional,’’ he said. ‘‘He was on a mission.’’

Dorner, 33, had said in a rant that authorities believe he posted on Facebook last week that he expected to die, with the police chasing him, as he embarked on a campaign of revenge against the Los Angeles Police Department for firing him.

The apparent end came in the same mountain range where Dorner’s trail went cold six days earlier, after his pickup truck — with guns and camping gear inside — was found abandoned and on fire near Big Bear Lake.

His footprints led away from the truck and vanished on frozen soil.

Deputies searched hundreds of cabins in the area and then, in a blinding snowstorm, SWAT teams with bloodhounds and high-tech equipment in tow widened their search.

San Bernardino County Deputy Chief Steve Kovensky said Wednesday that he did not believe anyone was in another cabin near the command post when search team began going door-to-door after Dorner’s truck was discovered. He also did not say how long Dorner might have been in that cabin or whether deputies had entered it during the dayslong search.

That could have been how Dorner went overlooked. He was there Tuesday, however, when two women arrived to clean it, said Lieutenant Patrick Foy of the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

Dorner tied up the women and took their purple Nissan as he fled. Sparing the housekeepers ultimately would start the chain of events that would lead to his undoing.

One of the women broke free and called 911, Foy said, and the chase was on.

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