A Christopher Dorner sighting was reported Sunday in my Northridge neighborhood. Helicopters swarmed, patrol cars roared up. The hardware store was evacuated and my favorite bakery roped off.
It turned out to be a false alarm — just some random big black guy trying to shop at Lowe's, not the rogue ex-cop sought in the killings of three people.
The mistake didn't surprise me. The $1-million bounty now on Dorner's head has prompted hundreds of recent "sightings." I imagine street vendors are already peddling "I'M NOT DORNER" T-shirts, in XXL.
FOR THE RECORD:
Dorner case: In the Feb. 12 Section A, a column about public reaction to the case of Christopher Dorner, the former L.A. police officer suspected of three killings, gave an incorrect first name for a former Republican presidential candidate. His name is Jon Huntsman, not John.
What did surprise me was the response of locals to the prospect of Dorner nearby. They were worried more about "trigger-happy" cops than the risk posed by the fugitive at the center of the manhunt.
That's a reflection of how this twisted drama has taken on unexpected dimensions.
There has been, on the fringes, an online duel about whether Dorner's mission to avenge his "racist" firing from LAPD makes him villain, hero or victim. "Christopher Dorner For President" reads one Facebook page. "Find and Kill Christopher Jordan Dorner" urged another.
But there's confusion in the center too, unfolding in more measured tones in Facebook posts and on media comment boards, among people with different perspectives about the roots and meaning of this evolving tragedy.
Is this the story of one paranoid, delusional man, with a long memory, a mean streak and a murderous vendetta?
Or is it a reflection of racism, callousness and corruption, still stubbornly embedded in our new-and-improved Los Angeles Police Department?
Before any of us board the "folk hero" train, we ought to remember that Dorner is charged with murder in the death of a Riverside police officer and suspected of killing a young Irvine couple. The young woman, Monica Quan, was the daughter of a retired LAPD officer who was targeted for revenge by Dorner.
Still, Dorner's lengthy online manifesto left me with a lump in my throat. It is alternately frightening, painful, funny, smart and terribly disconcerting.
He lays out his grievances against the LAPD in excruciating detail. He lost his job and his dignity, he says, because of cowards, racists and liars.
But he goes further, giving us a peek at the man behind the violence and threats. He backed John Huntsman for president, but likes Michelle Obama's bangs. He admires Ellen DeGeneres and Charlie Sheen, Tim Tebow and Colin Powell. He remembers the first time he was called a "nigger." He fought back, in first grade, and was punished for it.
He plays on themes that resonate in many people's lives: social isolation, workplace slights, the feeling of being marginalized. And he validates those who mistrust law enforcement with his diatribes.
A sort of kinship was clear in online comments from readers, like the mother whose sons are "harassed" by cops, and the guy "railroaded" out of a job he loved.
Confusion reigned in others. "Morbidly fascinating," one reader pronounced it. Another found it hard to square the image of a heartless killer with a man whose manifesto draws on D.H. Lawrence.
But there's Dorner, smiling in every picture we see, in his uniforms and his medals. Even those who know him can't seem to adequately peg him.
A woman who dated him a few years back described him as "super paranoid … emotionally and mentally disturbed." But his college friends and Navy comrades remember him as kind, thoughtful, intelligent … "the kind of guy you'd want your sister to marry," recalled one military buddy.
The divided public response to the manhunt has been a reality check for LAPD leaders, who thought they'd reshaped the department into a force that the community trusts and respects.
When Dorner's alleged rampage began, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck dismissed the complaints in his manifesto as the ramblings of a madman.
But the LAPD's credibility took a hit when its officers opened fire on a 71-year-old woman and her daughter last week as the pair delivered newspapers near a Dorner stakeout.
Beck described the incident as a "tragic misinterpretation" by officers working under "incredible tension." But in Los Angeles and around the country, it played as proof of a "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality that gives credence to Dorner's claims that the force is riddled with brutality and incompetence.
Beck has tempered his public comments since, promising to replace the injured women's bullet-riddled truck and review the investigation into Dorner's firing.
"We're a department of human beings, and mistakes get made," Beck told me. "But we're immeasurably better than we've ever been."
He's troubled that anyone would embrace Dorner as a hero or reformer. "I think people are very, very misguided," he said. "I think it's an authority thing … the anti-hero thing is very strong in American culture. We all get shafted by 'the man.' And now we're getting back at him. People want it to be that."
He knows that the legacy of his department is what clouds perceptions of Dorner. "It's a much better story if the LAPD is evil. But that's not the case," Beck said.
And even if it is, that wouldn't excuse what Dorner's believed to have done.
"Let's say he's right about everything that happened to him," Beck said. "Then think about Monica and Keith," the couple he's alleged to have killed. "In no way is that a legitimate response.
"You look at everything and weigh all the facts, you can't possibly have sympathy for him."