Christopher Dorner: What made a police officer kill?
- 16 February 2013
- From the section Magazine
Former Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner shocked the world when he took up arms against ex-colleagues and their families. This week, after a nine-day manhunt, the college graduate was cornered and died in a remote cabin. What made him go bad remains hard to understand.
It ended as he surely knew it would - alone, besieged, a blaze consuming the walls around him.
After the fires subsided, his former comrades found the charred remains of Christopher Dorner, ex-police officer, US Navy veteran, college graduate and suspected mass killer.
A single bullet was lodged in his skull.
For nine days, he brought terror to southern California as he pursued a vendetta against his one-time colleagues in the Los Angeles Police Department and their families.
He is accused of murdering the daughter of an ex-LAPD captain and her fiance on 3 February and shooting dead an officer in cold blood. Three further police personnel were shot and wounded while he was on the loose, and another died in the final siege this week at the ski resort of Big Bear.
The United States has grown wearily accustomed to spree killings of late, but Dorner, 33, was no Jared Loughner, James Holmes or Adam Lanza - the mentally disturbed outsiders accused of the mass shootings at Tucson, Aurora and Newtown.
By contrast, he had once been an upstanding citizen, an athlete, a law enforcement officer and a decorated military veteran. He was remembered by many of those who knew him as intelligent and sensitive. In a photo released by the police, he stands upright in uniform, smiling warmly against a backdrop of the American flag.
Somewhere along the line, Christopher Dorner's life went dramatically awry.
His downward spiral appears to have begun in 2008, when he was dismissed from the LAPD on a charge of making false statements.
In a rambling 6,000-word manifesto he posted online as the rampage began, he unleashed his rage and bitterness at that decision five years ago - and at the racism he insisted remained rife in the force, two decades after the beating of black suspect Rodney King by white officers unleashed waves of rioting in Los Angeles.
What terrified those leading the hunt for Dorner was the lethal potential of a heavily-armed, 6ft (183cm) 19st (122kg) man, schooled in combat techniques, who had pledged to bring "unconventional and asymmetrical warfare those in the LAPD uniform".
"Of course he knows what he's doing," Charlie Beck, the head of the LAPD, told reporters while Dorner remained at large. "We trained him."
There are few clues to the demons that consumed the suspect on the quiet, affluent street in La Palma, Orange County, where he lived with his mother Nancy.
The Dorner home is an attractive, tasteful bungalow backing on to a park, set amidst a sun-bleached, middle-class California suburb. There are SUVs parked outside most properties along the road. Disneyland is 20 minutes' drive away.
Neighbours, who occasionally saw Dorner lifting weights in the garage, recall that he would say hello to them as they passed by.
Those who knew him closely speak of their bewilderment that the warm, personable man they remember was capable of such atrocities.
"It's just shocking to me," says James Usera, a 34-year-old lawyer, who was a good friend of Dorner's at Southern Utah University, where both played on the college's American football team.
"The person I knew was this smart, good man. He was honest and thoughtful, he had a lot of integrity - he was a really likeable guy."
It was a mismatch that Dorner, even as he embarked on his rampage, was self-aware enough to recognise.
"I know most of you who personally know me are in disbelief to hear from media reports that I am suspected of committing such horrendous murders," his manifesto begins.
"You are saying to yourself that this is completely out of character of the man you knew who always wore a smile wherever he was seen."
Dorner was born in New York State, it has been reported, and moved to California with his mother and sisters shortly afterwards.
From an early age, he was made aware of LA's often troubled racial dynamics.
In his manifesto, Dorner said African-Americans made up "less than 1%" of the population in the areas in which he grew up. He was the only black pupil in each of his classes at elementary school in the LA suburb of Norwalk, he added. He described getting into playground fights with pupils who racially abused him.
But he was no hoodlum. As he put it himself, pointedly, he was not an "aspiring rapper" nor a "gang member" nor a "dope dealer". Instead, from an early age he appears to have settled on a career in law enforcement.
As a teenager in La Palma, he signed up with the local police department's youth programme with a view to eventually becoming an officer.
"No-one grows up and wants to be a cop killer," he wrote. "It was against everything I ever was."
At university he was a well-liked figure, according to Usera. After graduating in 2001 with a degree in political science, Dorner enlisted in the US Navy.
There, he was trained in combat techniques and counter-terrorism. He was recognised as a skilled marksman, receiving commendations for his proficiency both with rifles and pistols.
In 2005 he applied to join the LAPD. He remained in the Naval Reserve, rising to the rank of Lieutenant and serving in Bahrain. His list of Navy decorations included the Iraq Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Pistol Expert Medal.
In contrast to his experience with the military, however, it appears his passage through the force's academy was far from smooth.
In the manifesto Dorner said he was accused of punching another recruit, a charge he angrily denied. He was reportedly suspended for accidentally discharging a firearm and various accounts have suggested he frequently clashed with authority.
According to Ron Martinelli, a forensic criminologist and former police officer, the warning signs about Dorner's temperament were visible from the very outset of his career.
"His personality process, in my opinion, did not fit with law enforcement," he says. "You can't seek to control others unless you are in control of yourself."
"I'm very surprised he was even selected to be a police officer."
But to Dorner, it was the LAPD rather than himself who was dysfunctional.
He wrote in the manifesto that he was racially abused by two fellow officers, and described their punishment - suspensions of 22 days - as a mere "slap on the wrist". Dorner concluded that the force had "gotten worse" since the days of Rodney King beating and the widespread corruption exposed in the 1990s at the notorious Rampart Division.
What appears to have pushed him over the edge, however, was the incident that led to his dismissal.
In 2007 Dorner made an official complaint that, two weeks previously, his field training officer had kicked a mentally ill suspect in the head during an arrest.
An internal affairs investigation concluded that the kick had not occurred, however, and Dorner was charged with making false accusations.
At his disciplinary hearing in 2008, the father of the man allegedly assaulted testified that his son told him he had been kicked by an officer.
But the alleged victim had not said anything about this to a physician who inspected him immediately after the arrest, and three witnesses testified that they did not see any such attack. In between the alleged assault and Dorner's complaint, the training officer had criticised his performance in an evaluation report.
The discipline board found that Dorner had lied and fired him - a setback he took extremely badly.
According to Usera, the verdict would have come as a huge psychological blow to a man who often talked about how much he valued his own sense of integrity.
"I don't think this had as much to do with his career so much as his being called a liar," Usera says.
"Of course that doesn't excuse what he did, but I think that's what pushed him over the edge.
"You could call him whatever you want, just don't call him a liar."
Dorner spent the next few years battling to overturn his dismissal, to little avail. In 2010 a judge upheld the LAPD's decision.
His personal life was unravelling, too.
An ex-girlfriend, Ariana Williams, with whom he had a relationship five years before his rampage, told CNN she left a warning on a website called dontdatehimgirl.com after they split, warning women to steer clear of him because of "the fluctuation of his behaviour, the swinging from the highs to the lows".
According to CBS News, he was married for less than a month to a woman called April Carter.
As his rage at his mistreatment intensified, he grew ever more isolated, withdrawing from his friends. Usera says he had no contact with him after 2008.
The manifesto offers an insight into Dorner's state of mind as his chances of vindication grew ever more remote.
In it, he claimed he had lost his relationship with his mother and his sister and was suffering from "severe depression". He insisted he had been victimised by the LAPD for challenging a culture of lies, racism and excessive use of force.
Above all, he demanded absolution.
"I want my name back, period," he wrote. "There is no negotiation."
The abiding impression left by the document is of a well-informed, but disturbed mind.
Thomas Jefferson and DH Lawrence were quoted in his defence. In some detail, he expounded upon his tastes in popular culture as well as his views on society and politics.
He affirmed his support for a range of liberal and progressive causes including gay marriage, the right of women to serve in combat and - incongruously - gun control, including a ban on assault weapons.
Although he said his first choice for the White House in 2012 was the moderate Republican Jon Huntsman, he praised President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the First Lady ("Off the record, I love your new bangs, Mrs Obama"), Colin Powell, Bill Clinton ("my favorite president") and George HW Bush ("2nd favorite").
He endorsed Hillary Clinton for the 2016 ballot and urged her to support Democratic Mayor of San Antonio Julian Castro as her running mate.
In addition, he hailed Piers Morgan, Ellen DeGeneres, Larry David, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, and the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. "Charlie Sheen," Dorner declared, "you're effin awesome."
Take Five by Dave Brubeck was declared "the greatest piece of music ever, period". He wrote that he regretted the fact that he "won't be around to view and enjoy The Hangover III".
These passages may have appeared ludicrous, but by the time Dorner posted them on the internet, no-one was laughing. The killing spree had begun.
The first victims, Monica Quan, 28, and Keith Lawrence, 27, were found shot dead in the parking lot of their apartment building in Irvine, California on 3 February. They had only recently announced their engagement.
Neither served with the LAPD. But Quan's father Randall was a former captain in the force. He had represented Dorner at his disciplinary hearing, though inadequately, Dorner believed.
In Dorner's worldview, this made the couple a legitimate target.
"I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own," Dorner wrote in the manifesto. "I'm terminating yours."
After the manifesto surfaced, authorities guarded some 50 families, several of them belonging to former police department colleagues, against whom Dorner had pledged vengeance in the manifesto.
Four days after the Irvine shootings, two officers assigned to protect an individual named in Dorner's document were fired upon, injuring one of them.
Shortly afterwards, two police officers in Riverside were ambushed as they waited at a red light. One of them, 34-year-old Michael Cain, a father of two, was killed and the other was critically injured.
The manhunt intensified. The police offered a reward of $1.2m (£773,500) for Dorner's arrest and capture.
Around the same time, Dorner posted a package to CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper. It included a yellow Post-It note that read, "I never lied" affixed to a DVD, and a LAPD commemorative coin, wrapped in duct tape and inscribed with the legend "Thanks but no thanks, Will Bratton" - a reference to the reforming former LAPD chief. It was shot through with bullet holes.
After the discovery of the suspect's burned-out Nissan Titan truck, the search moved to the area of Big Bear Lake, a ski resort 80 miles (130km) east of Los Angeles.
Dorner had been hiding out in a condominium, able to watch the manhunt, until the couple who owned it entered. He tied them up, stole their car and fled, but was eventually pursued to a cabin, where he made his last stand.
In his manifesto, he had insisted he wanted only to inflict revenge on law enforcement officers and their families, and, true to his perverse sense of integrity, he stuck to his word.
After a failed attempt to steal a boat in Point Loma on 7 February - presumably in a bid to head for Mexico - he let the owner live.
And he spared the lives of the condominium owners, leaving them bound and gagged, though they were able to reach a mobile phone to raise the alarm.
The LAPD let out a collective sigh of relief after the charred body in the cabin was identified as Dorner's.
But the suspect's testimony may outlive him.
It's possible the case will have reopened wounds dating back to the time of the Rodney King case, when the LAPD was widely regarded by the city's minority communities as institutionally racist.
Under the 2002-2009 leadership of Chief William Bratton - with whom Dorner had once been photographed - the LAPD had focused on dispelling such perceptions, launching drives to hire minority officers and insisting that prejudice among officers would not be tolerated.
Nonetheless, Charlie Beck, Bratton's replacement, felt compelled to announce during the manhunt that Dorner's firing would be re-examined.
"I do this not to appease a murderer," he said in a statement. "I do it to reassure the public that their police department is transparent and fair in all the things we do."
It was not enough to satisfy sections of the community whose mistrust of the police persisted. Some declared Dorner a hero, creating Facebook pages with titles like "Christopher Dorner for President".
Asked by the BBC whether Dorner's claims would damage the relationship between the force and those it was meant to serve, an LAPD spokeswoman said Beck's decision to re-open the disciplinary case would ensure there was "no misunderstanding between the police and the community".
Connie Rice, an African-American civil rights lawyer who helped broker reforms of the force after the 1992 riots, warns that Dorner's rants should not be conflated with the legitimate grievances of a bygone age. "Today's LAPD is not your father's LAPD," she insists.
However, according to Renford Reese, professor of political science at California State Polytechnic University, the folk hero status bestowed by some on Dorner reflects a lingering mistrust, the root causes of which the authorities have yet to address.
For this reason, he insists, it's not enough simply to dismiss Dorner as crazy.
"Of course he's a murderer, of course he did wrong, of course we grieve for the families," Reese says.
"But he's a product of our institutions - our education system, our military, our police. Somehow all these things converged to create a monster."
Whether or not Dorner's grudges were legitimate, it's clear from his manifesto that they had consumed him long before he took cover for the last time in a lonely cabin.
As the flames rose around him and his erstwhile comrades closed in, he was left alone with the only enemy he had left to confront. Himself.