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Published November 20, 2015
Det. Alex Collins was speeding down a mountain road, closing in on ex-cop-turned-killer Christopher Dorner and his phone was buzzing.
In rapid succession, his two brothers — also San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies — called to warn the baby of the family to be careful. Dorner, a former Los Angeles policeman, vowed to kill as many officers as possible to avenge his firing from the department.
A few nights earlier, the brothers discussed Dorner's chilling online manifesto and the risk of encountering him. "We had no delusions," Sgt. Ryan Collins said. "It was not going to end well for whatever deputy it was who found him."
When Ryan heard a dispatch last Feb. 12 that officers had been shot, he frantically tried calling Alex again and again. The phone was dead.
For the swarms of police who hunted Dorner last year, the manhunt was more than just a matter of public safety — it was personal; he was targeting their brethren. For the Collins brothers, however, it was even more so.
Dorner, 33, was wanted in the Feb. 3 murder of the daughter of a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain and her fiance in Orange County. Dorner said the former captain had poorly represented him before the discipline board that recommended his firing.
In a rambling rant on Facebook, Dorner, who was black, also complained about racism at the LAPD, and vowed to unleash "unconventional and asymmetrical warfare" against those who wronged him and their families.
On Feb. 7, he opened fire on an LAPD cruiser, grazing an officer sent to guard one of his targets. Later, he ambushed a Riverside patrol car, killing one officer and seriously wounding another, police said. Then, he disappeared.
Ryan Collins, now 39, had briefed officers in Big Bear Lake, in the snowy San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, to be on the lookout for Dorner. It seemed trouble elsewhere had a way of rippling into the ski resort town.
Sure enough, hours later Collins went to investigate a report of a car fire, and discovered Dorner's smoldering pickup. Collins said he and another deputy eyed each other, faces white as ghosts. Dorner was on their mountain.
"We knew there was probably a good chance we were in somebody's crosshairs," he said.
As Ryan helped coordinate the manhunt, Det. Matt Collins, now 37, hiked through a snowstorm with other SWAT members to search hundreds of cabins looking for footsteps or anything suspicious.
Their little brother, Alex, joined in the search, too, coming back early from leave after his wife, Lila, gave birth to their first child, Benjamin, some three weeks earlier.
Everyone figured it was only a matter of time before Dorner emerged.
The call came after noon on the sixth day of the mountain search: "We've been tied up by Dorner," a woman told the 911 dispatcher. "He's taken off with our Nissan Rogue."
Karen Reynolds and her husband Jim had gone to check on the condo they rent to guests and were surprised by the hulking Dorner who bound, blindfolded and gagged them.
Alex Collins and his partner Det. Jeremy King followed a hunch he would take the back road off the mountain. As they sped there, they got word that Dorner had carjacked a white pickup, had shot at game wardens and was headed down a side road near boarded-up summer cabins.
Matt was racing to the scene a few minutes behind Alex while Ryan helped the Reynoldses. Both brothers called Alex, knowing he was nearest to Dorner.
Be careful. Don't go in alone. Wait for us, for SWAT, to get there.
"But that's Alex," Matt said, his voice choked with emotion as he relived the conversation for the first time. "He's a go-getter."
Dorner had ditched the pickup down an embankment behind some bushes and had broken into a nearby cabin. His tire tracks seemed to just disappear into the snow. Alex, armed with a rifle, began sidestepping along the road, thinking it was impossible for a truck to just vanish.
Tink. Tink. Tink.
The sound of a silenced high-power rifle was followed by a burning wallop as a bullet entered his left nostril, pierced the roof of his mouth, split his tongue and burst through his jaw. Shots to his chest and forearm knocked the rifle from his hands. His leg was hit.
Bullets skipped along the road as he ducked behind an SUV's rear wheel. He was showered by glass as the back windows were blown out.
Starting to choke on blood and teeth and in terrible pain, he tried to call his wife to say he loved her and was sorry; he didn't think he'd be coming home. He reached in his chest pocket and found his phone shattered by a bullet. He tossed it in disgust.
He thought he was going to die.
"OK, God, I'm ready," he thought as he closed his eyes.
He remembered from the police academy that he needed to muster the will to survive. It was up to him.
Minutes later, Det. Jeremiah MacKay was fatally shot nearby.
"Two deputies down," the radio blared. "Automatic fire inbound ... deputies still down in the kill zone."
Matt Collins was drawn into the chaotic firefight when he arrived. He could see deputies on the ground a couple dozen yards away, but couldn't tell if one was his brother. He had a bad feeling and tried to call Alex. It went straight to voicemail.
Ryan Collins heard the dispatch, and he started calling Alex. He called at least 10 times.
As Ryan sped to the firefight, he got a call from Matt.
"Is it Alex?" Ryan asked.
"I don't know, I don't know, but I don't see him down here," Matt said.
Under a smoke screen as officers fired at the cabin, two SWAT officers dragged MacKay and Alex to safety. King, who'd taken cover nearby to return fire, told Ryan by phone that his brother was shot, but that Alex had given the thumbs-up sign as he was carried away.
Alex, now 27, spent a month in the hospital, returning for roughly 20 surgeries, including multiple bone grafts. He'd regain color, become more mobile, then undergo another surgery and be back in a wheelchair, sallow with dark circles around his eyes.
Several months after the shooting, Alex took his wife and infant son to the evergreen forest where he was shot and where Dorner killed himself as the cabin burned to the ground.
It wasn't an emotional visit. He wasn't ready to relive the experience. He pointed to where he lay on the road, the place where he had tried to call home as he thought he wouldn't make it. The destroyed phone, doctors told him, had saved his life.
He returned to full duty eight months after the shooting. Today, he has an almost indiscernible limp, a slight heaviness to his speech when he pronounces a hard "T'' sound, a dimple-like scar near his nose, and scars on his chest, forearm and leg.
Alex and his brothers still talk daily and have dinner together with their parents every Sunday. They don't discuss the shootout, but each says it's always in the back of their minds.
"I couldn't even imagine if something happened to them," Alex said. "And for them, they've been kind of looking out for me my entire life. And they still do."
Tami Abdollah can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/latams