By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A day after a bloody crime wave attributed to a former Los Angeles police officer with a deadly grudge left the city on edge, the man at the center of the drama seemed to vanish on Friday, leaving behind only a few footprints in the snow.
For more than 24 hours, the hunt for 33-year-old Christopher Dorner gripped Southern California as police pursued him through the streets of two Inland Empire communities, descended on a San Diego naval base and combed fruitlessly over a ski resort in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles.
Dorner, a former Navy officer fired by the Los Angeles Police Department in 2008 and said to be heavily armed, is wanted in a crime spree that began on Sunday with the murders of a young couple at the top of a parking structure in the quiet Orange County suburb of Irvine.
Police officials, saying Dorner had made it clear in a rambling Internet manifesto that he was bent on revenge against the department, declared a "tactical alert," in which officers remain on their shifts as long as needed.
Despite saturation news coverage and an exhaustive manhunt across California and other western states, Dorner has not been sighted since about 1:40 a.m. on Thursday - when he is accused of ambushing two policemen at a red light in Riverside, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, killing one and wounding the other.
Since then, the clues to his whereabouts have been confusing, even contradictory.
In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, apparently skittish police officers in the city of Torrance opened fire on a blue pickup similar to the one Dorner was thought to be driving, wounding two women delivering newspapers.
Meanwhile, electronic signs on jammed Southern California freeways blinked out warnings for motorists to be on the lookout for Dorner's gray Nissan Titan - and call police immediately if they spotted it.
A few hours after the Torrance shooting, Dorner's wallet turned up mysteriously on a San Diego sidewalk, not far from a naval base motel where he had checked in on Tuesday and never checked out.
Authorities swarmed the motel amid frantic TV news reports that Dorner was barricaded inside, but came away empty handed and later said he had not been there on Thursday after all.
Perhaps the strongest lead came that afternoon, when authorities said a pickup truck found burning in the snow on a fire road in the San Bernardino Mountains, near a ski resort and the community of Big Bear Lake, was Dorner's gray Nissan Titan.
Leading away from the scene were tantalizing tracks in the snow, apparently left by the suspect.
But an all-night search of the mountain and some 200 vacant vacation cabins by 125 law enforcement officers using helicopters, dogs and snow tractors failed to turn up any further trace of the suspect. The footprints could only be followed so far, they said, before they were lost on icy ground.
Authorities cleared the ski resort and local schools to reopen on Friday and said they had no idea if Dorner was on the mountain.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Grebler)