Judge Dismisses Claims in Dorner Reward Money Lawsuit

Finding no evidence of a breach of contract or violation of civil rights, a judge dismissed all of the claims filed against several entities and a law firm by a camp ranger who sought more than $1 million in reward money amid assertions that he alerted authorities to the whereabouts of rogue ex-LAPD Officer Christopher Dorner.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Fahey granted motions by attorneys for the cities of Los Angeles and Irvine, Riverside County and the law firm of Richards, Watson & Gershon to remove them as defendants in Richard Heltebrake's lawsuit.

The rulings mean Heltebrake can only take to trial his allegations against James and Karen Reynolds, a couple who were competing claimants. He also can seek a default judgment against another claimant, Daniel McGowan.

Fahey's Oct. 13 rulings came more than a year after a three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal unanimously reversed Judge Elizabeth Allen White's ruling dismissing all of Heltebrake's claims against the city of Los Angeles and the county of Riverside.

White in August 2015 found that the claims against the city of Los Angeles and Riverside County infringed on "protected activities." The appeals court disagreed, but upheld White's ruling dismissing the city of Riverside as a defendant.

The justices also said they were not expressing their opinion on the merits of Helebrake's claims, opening the door for the remaining defendants to file new dismissal motions.

Dorner died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Feb. 12, 2013, while he was holed up inside a burning cabin during a shootout with San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies in the unincorporated San Bernardino Mountains community of Angelus Oaks near Big Bear.

The death of the 33-year-old Navy reserve officer ended a roughly 10-day crime spree and manhunt that had law enforcement and the public on edge. His rampage began on Feb. 3, 2013, when he gunned down the daughter and future son-in-law of the ex-police captain who represented him at his Board of Rights hearing.

The bodies of Monica Quan and her fiance, USC public safety officer Keith Lawrence, were found in Lawrence's car in the parking structure of their Irvine condominium building. The next day, Dorner posted the 6,000-word manifesto on Facebook, promising warfare on LAPD officers and their families for what he believed was his unjustified firing.

Dorner, who lived with his mother in La Palma, was later involved in a shootout with Los Angeles police guarding an officer's home in Corona, leaving one officer with a graze wound to the head.

About 20 minutes later, he fired on a pair of Riverside police officers stopped at a red light, killing Officer Michael Crain and wounding the other. San Bernardino County sheriff's Detective Jeremiah MacKay was fatally shot during the gun battle with Dorner at the cabin. Heltebrake's suit, filed in April 2013, maintains he is entitled to all of the more than $1 million in multi-agency rewards because his 911 call put authorities on the trail that eventually led to Dorner.

The legal tangle over the reward was further complicated by a May 2013 decision of a panel of three retired judges appointed to make a final determination about the money. The judges found that 80 percent of the money should go to the Reynolds, who were bound and gagged by Dorner in their Big Bear cabin.

The panel also recommended that McGowan, a ski resort employee who found Dorner's burning truck, be awarded 15 percent and that a tow truck driver, R.L. McDaniel, receive 5 percent for reporting that he saw Dorner's truck in Corona earlier in the manhunt.

Heltebrake was not entitled to any of the money, according to the retired judges. In his rulings, Fahey said he asked the attorneys during the Sept. 23 hearing on the dismissal motions whether there actually ever was any evidence that then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa publicly said there was a $1 million reward for Dorner's capture.

"The parties agreed that no such evidence was before the court," Fahey wrote.

The City Council did offer a $100,000 reward for Dorner's capture in February 2013 and the procedures for making a claim were posted on the Los Angeles Police Department's website, Fahey wrote.

"It is undisputed that plaintiff did not submit a claim in accordance with these procedures," according to Fahey. The city of Irvine contributed $100,000 to the reward fund, but Heltebrake did not follow the steps for presenting a claim even though Mayor Steven Choi sent a letter to the plaintiff's attorney explaining the process, Fahey wrote.

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors heard Heltebrake's reward request, but declined to give him any reward money, basing its decision in part on the recommendations of the three-judge reward panel, Fahey said.

"This court has concluded that there was nothing illegal or constitutional about the formation of the three-judge panel or as to their procedures and recommendations," Fahey wrote.

Richards, Watson & Gershon agreed to hold the reward monies in escrow and then distribute them as directed, but did not contribute any funds or create the reward process, Fahey said.

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