(Reuters) - A fugitive ex-cop accused of a grudge-fueled killing spree targeting police officers and their families is believed to have died in a mountain cabin that burned down in the climax to a massive weeklong manhunt across Southern California, authorities said on Wednesday.
Police were awaiting forensic analysis to confirm that charred human remains found in the smoldering ruins of the cabin in the snow-swept hills of the San Bernardino National Forest were those of 33-year-old Christopher Dorner.
Authorities including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the man who had barricaded himself inside the cabin during a standoff with police on Tuesday was almost certainly Dorner.
"We all are breathing a sigh of relief. We do believe it is the body of Christopher Dorner, but we don't know for certain," Villaraigosa told the CNN news network, adding that a positive, conclusive identification could be days or weeks away.
Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Lieutenant Andy Neiman said the LAPD had returned to "a normal state of operations," but he said security details assigned to about a dozen officers and their families who had been threatened by Dorner would remain in place for the time being.
Dorner is suspected of killing four people, including a deputy sheriff who was shot on Tuesday.
He had been on the run since last Wednesday, when he was named as the prime suspect in the slaying of a couple in Irvine, south of Los Angeles.
The search intensified last Thursday after he was accused of killing of a Riverside policeman and wounding another officer in an ambush about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
Law enforcement converged later that day in the San Bernardino Mountains after a pickup truck identified as Dorner's was found abandoned and burning in the snow near the ski resort community of Big Bear Lake northeast of Los Angeles.
The ensuing manhunt, stretching from the desert north of the mountains to the Mexican border, was described by Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck as the region's most extensive ever.
An angry manifesto posted last week on Dorner's Facebook page claimed that he had been wrongly dismissed from the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008. He vowed to seek revenge by unleashing "unconventional and asymmetrical warfare" on officers and their families.
The cabin where Dorner is believed to have hidden before making his last stand was a short distance from a police command post, in an area where authorities had said they were conducting door-to-door searches of residences.
'BURN IT DOWN'
Tuesday's climax to the manhunt began when two housekeepers encountered a man believed to have been Dorner inside a vacant cabin in the Big Bear area. The man tied them up and then took off in a purple Nissan parked near the cabin, authorities said.
One of the women freed herself and called police.
Villaraigosa said the housekeepers might end up qualifying for a $1 million reward that was posted for information leading to Dorner's capture, the largest sum ever offered in a Southern California criminal investigation.
State game wardens spotted the stolen vehicle and gave chase. The suspect crashed that car, then commandeered a pickup truck at gunpoint from another motorist and traded gunfire with the game wardens as he sped away, authorities said.
Dorner ultimately abandoned the truck and fled into the woods to the cabin, from where he exchanged gunfire with deputies.
During a lull in the shooting, the cabin caught fire and was quickly engulfed in flames. It remained unclear on Wednesday how the blaze began.
Los Angeles-based CBS television affiliate, KCAL, and CNN, have broadcast an audio recording of what sounds like police radio chatter during the confrontation, in which voices purported to be officers shout, "Burn it down."
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department declined on Wednesday to answer any questions from the media about the case until a news conference, which has been scheduled for 4 p.m. local time.
The Los Angeles Times reported that authorities had pumped tear gas into the cabin through smashed windows and called for the suspect to surrender but received no response. As police used a demolition vehicle to tear down the walls, they heard a gunshot from inside before the cabin burst into flames, according to the Times report.
Dorner's last confirmed encounter with authorities was on Thursday, police said, when he ambushed the two Riverside policemen.
The officer who was slain in that attack, 34-year-old Michael Crain, was honored on Wednesday at a funeral attended by police and California political leaders, including Governor Jerry Brown.
Dorner, a former U.S. Navy officer, is also suspected of having exchanged gunfire on Thursday with police in nearby Corona. One officer was wounded.
The hunt for Dorner began last Wednesday when police identified him as a suspect in the slayings of a campus security officer and his fiancee, the daughter of a retired Los Angeles police captain. In the manifesto, Dorner blamed the captain, who had represented him during police disciplinary hearings, for his dismissal from the LAPD.
Dorner lost his job after a police board of inquiry found that he had lied in accusing a training officer of using excessive force against a homeless man. LAPD Chief Becker has opened a review of that case.
(Reporting by Brandon Lowrey, Dana Feldman, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Tom Brown, Toni Reinhold and Steve Orlofsky)