The ex-LAPD officer who shot his way into the national headlines after killing four people and wounding several others on a dramatic crime spree, Christopher Dorner, was tracked into the Big Bear Lake area of southern California last week. Upwards of 200 law enforcement officers were engaged in the manhunt, which began on February 6 and spread throughout California and Mexico. By Sunday, the search began to focus elsewhere. The California Fish and Wildlife wardens volunteered to join in the hunt and ultimately it was game wardens who appear to have found the elusive murder suspect.

According to California Fish and Wildlife Public Information Officers Pat Foy and Mark Michilizzini, at about 12:45pm on Tuesday afternoon, February 12, two game wardens came to a stopped school bus on Highway 38 near the resort community of Big Bear Lake 80 miles east of Los Angeles. When the school bus started up and passed the wardens, they noticed a purple Nissan sedan was following the school bus very closely. Then they saw that the Nissan was being driven by a person who fit the description of Christopher Dorner. Dorner allegedly got the car days before when he broke into a home, tied up a couple and held them hostage.

The wardens turned around and began pursuit. The driver quickly turned down Glass Road. After a short pursuit at high speed, the man authorities believe to be Dorner failed to negotiate a curve and crashed the Nissan into the woods.

Almost immediately, the suspect stopped a truck driven by Rick Heltebrake, a ranger at a nearby Boy Scout camp, and ordered him out of the pickup with his dog. Heltebrake and dog were unharmed. The man then took off in the white pickup. He then passed another game warden truck with one warden. That warden radioed of the position of the truck and its direction.

A third game warden truck then came on the scene with two wardens. On seeing that truck approaching him, the suspect rolled down the window of his vehicle and opened fire on the approaching truck with a pistol. Five bullets hit the truck, two entering the cab. Luckily no one was hit.

The man then took off on another road, as one of the game wardens, a former Marine, got out of his shot-up truck and began firing with his rifle, hitting the targeted truck several times.

The driver then crashed that truck, got out, and ran for a cabin, as the wardens were joined by San Bernadino County Sheriff’s deputies who swarmed after him on foot.

Two deputies were wounded in the chase, and one subsequently died. Their target then fled to a cabin, where he holed up. At one point he tried to flee, but was driven back inside. A fierce gun battle then ensued.

Finally, deputies were able to approach the cabin in an armored vehicle and began battering it down. Ultimately the cabin was set on fire, a single shot was heard, and a body was later found inside which is presumably Christopher Dorner (editor’s note 2/15/2013: the body has now been positively identified as Dorner’s), ending a tragic story that we will no doubt hear about for some time.

Six California Fish and Wildlife wardens were involved in the manhunt for Christopher Dorner, and five of the six were directly involved in locating the alleged fugitive and engaging him, which led to him holing up in the cabin. The crucial role of the wardens in this dangerous chase may surprise you, as you may have considered game wardens as the men and women who spend their time checking limits of fish and making sure you have tagged your deer.

Yeah, they do that, but they do a lot more.

Game wardens see their fair share of action. In this image of one of a California game warden’s signature green truck, you can see a bullet hole behind the cab. This is not an image from the Dorner shootout.

In California, as in most other states, state game wardens are full law enforcement officers. Each type of law enforcement officer has their own beat. City police focus on matters inside that city’s boundaries. Sheriff’s deputies focus primarily on areas outside of major cities within a certain county. State police tend to focus on major highways and state and federal office buildings.

Game wardens, like U.S. Marshals, can and do go anywhere from wilderness to inner cities, and they are the most woods-wise of all state law enforcement, often patrolling remote areas where no other state officers normally are found. California game wardens are also deputy U.S. Marshals.

In a typical California Fish and Wildlife warden green truck, you will find the standard 12 gauge pump shotgun and a semi-automatic rifle in a heavier caliber like a .308, which is what the warden used to cause Dorner to crash the truck. The wardens use a .308 as they typically have to deal with shooting through heavy brush and sometimes long distances. Wardens also carry two pistols, as well as pepper spray, handcuffs, and such on a belt that may weigh 25 pounds. They are better armed than almost all police.

Normally, game wardens work alone and without immediate back-up in remote areas. Fortunately, in the Dorner case, they were able to double up and apply their woods skills to advantage. Warden PIO Pat Foy reported on-site that the wardens were “a little rattled” but they were trained for this kind of work and were fine. Tuesday’s incident marked the second time in seven weeks that game wardens have been fired on in the line of duty. During summer duty, when wardens encounter drug cartel marijuana gardens on wildlands, there are exchanges of gunfire every summer.

The Real Secret Service

There are over 830,000 sworn local law enforcement officers in the U.S., 72,000 police in Manhattan alone. Nationwide, there are around 7,000 game wardens; about as many as the NYPD Blue assigns to cover the New Year’s Eve celebration.

State game wardens are known by various names such as Conservation Officers, Conservation Police, Wildlife Enforcement Agents, Fish Wardens, and Fish and Game Wardens, just to name a few. Many are also deputy federal marshals. There are also U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents, BLM Special Agents, and National Marine Fisheries Special Agents–federal game wardens–which are about as common as whooping cranes.

No matter what you call them, the jobs of game wardens are basically the same: to protect our fish, wildlife, and natural resources by enforcing wildlife laws–and a lot more. Game wardens are community-based peace officers who cover the largest jurisdiction of any state or local law enforcement officer.

A California Department of Fish and Game (now Department of Fish and Wildlife) warden’s badge.

In California, a game warden must have at least two years of post-secondary education. Then they take an entrance exam. If they pass, it takes a warden 16 months to be trained. Training is extensive and includes (but certainly is not limited to) wildlife law, firearms law, arrest and defense tactics, search and rescue, drug and narcotics enforcement, first aid/CPR, weaponless defense, and much more.

Working from a home office, they are on duty 24/7, patrol remote areas often alone and without backup, in pick-ups, snowmobiles, planes, boats, ATV, underwater with SCUBA gear, horseback, trail bikes, and on foot. They also do all their own CSI. Canine companions are becoming increasingly popular.

Almost all people contacted by wardens are armed with guns or knives, or both. Planes and trucks have been and are hit by gunfire. Wardens routinely contact and arrest armed convicted felons. Over 90% of public contacts on the job are nonviolent, but federal statistics show that game wardens and DEA agents have the highest risk of death on the job. There have been at least 229 wildlife officers that have been killed or have died while on duty.

All wardens are also Hunter Education Instructors. They teach people to use firearms, which is a dramatic departure from other law enforcement officers who discourage firearms use and often try to reduce firearms numbers. The only other place a law enforcement person would meet so many armed people is a battlefield.

Game wardens, the “thin green line,” are not abundant anyplace, and as a result they become obscure when people, including policymakers, think about law enforcement strength, and homeland security. Modern game wardens in reality are like the town sheriff of the old west, and the beat they patrol is covered by few others wearing a badge–forest and park rangers, Border Patrol, Coast Guard, and so on. The more scarce that game wardens are, the less safe are the woods, water, and natural resources, as well as the people who use them.

Note: With 38 million people, California has the distinction of having the fewest game wardens per capita in North America (Nunavut Territory has a better wardens per capita ratio) and also the most famous ones, thanks to the Wild Justice TV series on the National Geographic Channel. If you are a fan of Wild Justice you will know that California wardens deal with organized crime and drug cartels as well as enforcing wildlife law.

For more information about California’s game wardens visit the website of the California Fish and Wildlife Wardens Association or watch the 2009 66-minute documentary, Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens, that first put them in the spotlight here, which includes a link to a location where it can be seen online.

Images courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife and James Swan

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4 thoughts on “Game Wardens: The Key to Finding Christopher Dorner

  1. Had they called and waited for back-up instead of trying to be hero’s, neither would have been shot.

    NH, retired Pennsylvania deputy sheriff

    1. Reread the article… There were 5 game wardens and some deputies as well. Heroes don’t run away when being shot at, they stand and defend their lives, their partners and the publics lives from a pyscho.

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