(MCT) — BIG BEAR, Calif.—The bustling winter resort of Big Bear took on the appearance of a ghost town Thursday as surveillance aircraft buzzed overhead and police in tactical gear and carrying rifles patrolled mountain roads in convoys of SUVs, while others stood guard along major intersections.
Even before authorities had confirmed that the torched pickup truck discovered on a quiet forest road belonged to suspected gunman Christopher Dorner, 33, officials had ordered an emergency lockdown of local businesses, homes and the town’s popular ski resorts. Parents were told to pick up their children from school, as rolling yellow buses might pose a target to an unpredictable fugitive on the run.
By nightfall, many residents had barricaded their doors as they prepared for a long, anxious evening.
“We’re all just stressed,” said Andrea Burtons as she stocked up on provisions at a convenience store. “I have to go pick up my brother and get him home where we’re safe.”
Police ordered the lockdown about 9:30 a.m. as authorities throughout Southern California launched an immense manhunt for the former lawman, who is accused of killing three people as part of a long-standing grudge against the LAPD. Dorner is believed to have penned a long, angry manifesto on Facebook saying that he was unfairly fired from the force and was now seeking vengeance.
Forest lands surrounding Big Bear Lake are cross hatched with fire roads and trails leading in all directions, and the snow-capped mountains can provide cover and extreme challenges to a fugitive on foot. It was unclear whether Dorner was prepared for such rugged terrain.
Footprints were found leading from Dorner’s burned pickup truck into the snow off Forest Road 2N10 and Club View in Big Bear Lake.
San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said that although authorities had deployed 125 officers for tracking and door-to-door searches, officers had to be mindful that the suspect may have set a trap.
“Certainly. There’s always that concern and we’re extremely careful and we’re worried about this individual,” McMahon said. “We’re taking every precaution we can.”
Big Bear has roughly 400 homes, but authorities guessed that only 40 percent are occupied year-round.
The search will probably play out with the backdrop of a winter storm that is expected to hit the area after midnight.
Up to 6 inches of snow could blanket local mountains, the National Weather Service said.
Gusts up to 50 mph could hit the region, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Moede, creating a wind-chill factor of 15 to 20 degrees.
Extra patrols were brought in to check vehicles coming and going from Big Bear, McMahon said, but no vehicles had been reported stolen.
“He could be anywhere at this point,” McMahon said. When asked if the burned truck was a possible diversion, McMahon replied: “Anything’s possible.”
Dorner had no known connection to the area, authorities said.
Craig and Christine Winnegar, of Murietta, found themselves caught up in the lockdown by accident. Craig brought his wife to Big Bear as a surprise to celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary. Their pre-arranged dinner was canceled when restaurant owners closed their doors out of fear.
“It’s definitely scary,” Christine Winnegar said.
The couple’s children had been texting them throughout the day with updates. They worried that the gunman might come to Murietta. “I said no, no, you guys are fine,” Christine Winnegar said. “He’s actually up here with us.”
As Craig Winnegar was sipping a hot chocolate, he said they planned to stay even with the manhunt under way.
“It certainly will be a memorable anniversary.”
Behind the counter of Triangle Market in Big Bear City, clerk Robert Caballos said that unlike many other folks in the area, he wasn’t worried for his safety.
“I mean, I heard he’s going after cops, right?” he said.
Others promised a quick resolution to the matter if they were put in charge.
“I did 12 years in the Marine Corps, man,” said Dennis Pollock.
“Give me a sniper rifle, some gear and point me in his general direction and get out of my way,” he said.
Authorities said the search will continue overnight and, if the weather holds, schools, business and ski resorts will reopen Friday.
It took only a couple of passes by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department helicopter for Dean Johnson to go outside and see what all the fuss was about.
As the chopper whizzed by another six times or so, Johnson began filming.
“Oh my God he’s going to land on that golf course!” he recalled thinking.
Once the chopper landed, SWAT officers poured out of the aircraft. Soon the snow-covered neighborhood was crawling with police and federal agents.
Johnson thought it was a drill, but soon after police streamed through the area, his neighbors told him what they’d heard: Dorner was believed to be in the area.
Dorner, who was fired from the LAPD in 2009, is suspected of killing a young Irvine couple last Sunday, assistant college basketball coach Monica Quan and her fiance, Keith Lawrence, a University of Southern California safety officer.
Quan’s father had been an LAPD captain, and the subject of Dorner’s wrath in the manifesto police say he wrote.
But then late Wednesday and on into Thursday, Dorner allegedly went on a violent rush, shooting three police officers in Riverside County, one of whom died.
Down the the mountain from the ski resort community Thursday night, Pat Halpin, 55, stood quietly outside Riverside City Hall at a prayer vigil honoring the as-yet-unidentified 34-year-old police officer who was ambushed and killed earlier in the day.
Authorities say Dorner was the gunman.
“I came to grieve for the family and the officer and to support my city,” Halpin said.
“I know times like this it’s difficult to experience peace, but Lord when you’re with us, we can,” said Police Chaplain Steve Ballinger, who began the vigil with a prayer.
Afterward, the crowd broke into several small groups, some hugging, some praying, some crying.
Morris Mendoza, 65, lit a candle.
“I’m a born Riversider, I care what happens here,” Mendoza said. “We all share in the grief and pain.”
Mendoza’s sister, Cindy Collins, said her son knew the slain officer. He was married, she said, and well-respected. “How can one officer do that to another officer? Whether you’re on the force or not, you don’t do that.”
Halpin agreed. It was a depth of rage that he could not understand. “This thing has been brewing in him for years,” he said.
Such violence, he said, seemed to be becoming more common.
“What is wrong with the world? We must not be doing something right.”
(Staff writer Phil Willon reported from Big Bear and staff writer Ruben Vives reported from Riverside, Calif.)