The Lookout

Cause of cabin fire fuels debate on Christopher Dorner standoff

Jason Sickles, Yahoo
The Lookout

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Charred remnants of the cabin where the standoff took place. (AP Photo/The Sun, John Valenzuela)

"Ok, we're gonna go forward with the plan, with the burn ... like we talked about."

"Seven burners deployed and we have a fire."

"Copy. Seven burners deployed and we have a fire."

These purported police commands come from 5 minutes and 17 seconds of audio allegedly recorded off law enforcement radios during Tuesday’s tense standoff between SWAT officers and suspected serial killer Christopher Dorner.

The recording, posted to YouTube, has fueled speculation that authorities may have purposely started the fire to either kill Dorner or force him to surrender.

On Wednesday, law enforcement sources confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that officers did throw incendiary tear gas canisters into the mountain cabin before it caught fire. According to the Times:

SWAT officers surrounding the cabin were under a "constant barrage of gunfire," one source said. “He put himself in that position. There weren’t a lot of options.” 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.

Dorner, a disgruntled ex-LAPD officer accused of killing four people in the past week, never emerged from the charred cabin near Big Bear Lake, Calif.

The coroner’s office is studying the remains of a burned body found in the basement, but an anonymous official told The Associated Press that a wallet and personal items, including a California driver's license issued to Christopher Dorner, were recovered.

An exact cause of death for the body has not been revealed. On the YouTube audio, an unidentified voice says, “It sounds like one shot fired from inside the residence” about the time a police demolition vehicle was tearing down the cabin’s walls and the house became inflamed.

“We have fire in the front. He might come out the back,” a voice says on the YouTube recording.

"Fire doing quite well. I'm going to let it go," a law enforcement officer also said, according to a Yahoo News reporter also monitoring the San Bernardino sheriff’s radio traffic.

A smart move, S.W.A.T. Magazine editor Denny Hansen told Yahoo News.

“You really can’t send firemen up there if the subject is still alive and may shoot them,” said Hansen, himself a former tactical officer. “They may have believed that he started the fire as a diversionary tactic to escape.”

Veteran police consultant Chuck Drago told Yahoo News that he interprets the officers’ discussion of “burners” to be the tear gas canisters that were used.

“They are not meant to cause fire, but they can,” he said. “Sometimes you have a lot of options at your disposal, and sometimes you're limited.”

With nightfall approaching and Dorner having already vowed in an online manifesto to seek revenge by unleashing "unconventional and asymmetrical warfare," Drago said the officers must have decided that the cabin catching fire was worth the risk to accomplish their mission.

“They had to move pretty quickly in this situation,” he said.

Hansen scoffs at anyone who thinks otherwise.

“I’ve already heard some people say, ‘Well, they burned him alive without a trial,’” Hansen said. “There are always going to be conspiracy theories.”

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