A former Navy helicopter pilot who trained with rogue cop Chris Dorner in the Navy said his former best friend was a “man’s man” unrecognizable as the figure behind the savage shooting rampage this week in Los Angeles.
“The guy who was killed is not the guy who was my friend,” said Justin Gombos, a former helicopter pilot and now MBA student in Oregon. Eleven years ago, he was a Navy officer in training with Dorner in Pensacola, Fla.
“The Chris I knew was friendly, bubbly, always smiling, and an always upbeat person who wouldn’t harm innocent people. The guy that I knew was a guy you wanted as your friend,” he said.
Gombos is struggling to understand the factors that transformed Dorner, 33, sending him onto a shooting rampage during the first two weeks of February, leaving four people dead, including two police officers. He was cornered by police in a remote cabin Wednesday, and his charred body was formally identified Thursday.
Dorner’s spree was aimed at his former LAPD coworkers and led to one of the largest manhunts in LAPD history. And a rambling, politically-charged manifesto suggested a racial motive behind the series of murders by Dorner, who is African-American and wrote in a manifesto posted before the rampage that he had long been the victim of racism, including in the LAPD.
But Gombos, 34, did not recall Dorner dwelling in particular on race or on discrimination. In Navy officer training, in fact, Gombos remembered Dorner holding other black officer candidates to a higher standard than their white colleague, drawing at least one to complain about the intensity of a workout. Dorner was sensitive, in particular, to any suggestion that he was a minority just there to fill a quota.
“That particular guy was pulling the race card, saying ‘people are being hard on me because I’m black,’ and Chris stopped him and said, ‘The only reason you’re still here is because you’re black,’” Gombos said.
That was the only explicit conversation about race Gombos recalled. Being part of the military was a highlight in Dorner’s life.
“He was a man’s man,” Gombos said. “The fraternal aspect of it played into the fact that this was so important to him.”
Gombos met Dorner in the spring of 2002 when they were both in training at the Aviation Officer Candidate School at NAS in Pensacola.
On the weekends, they drank at the downtown Seville Quarter nightclub. The only time Gombos remembers Dorner losing his temper was when he was out at night in civilian clothes and Dorner wore an earring. Navy dress code forbids earrings. The two bumped into a superior officer who confronted Dorner about the jewelry.
“That officer kind of cornered him, and said, ‘Look, everyone knows you’re in the Navy, you can’t wear that,’” Gombos remembers. “Chris just became really defensive, but he knew better than to pop off to a superior officer. In the cab ride home, he vented on me. He didn’t think it was racist, but I think he felt a magnified feeling of being a minority.”
Classes would a semester curriculum into a week or ten days, Gombos remembers. Students crammed for exams in the library, took tests, and moved along to the next subject. “We called it the ‘pump and dump,’” Gombos said. “We would memorize it and forget it.”
When Dorner and Gombos weren’t studying, they were exercising with 5 a.m. 5-mile runs and daily rounds of 100 sit-ups and push ups.
Dorner was a natural athlete who had played football in college at Southern Utah University and could complete the most difficult drills like swimming a mile in uniform.
“Officer candidate school is the prime physical and mental challenge of a lifetime,” Gombos said. “But Chris was a prime physical specimen. He was one of the youngest in his class and so I remember when it came to anything that was physical, he was always encouraging others to work harder.”
The friends lived three rooms apart, and watched sitcoms and movies like Starship Troopers in the hall’s lounge. Gombos remembers Dorner calling his mother weekly from the communal telephone, and helping others wash their uniforms. Gombos didn’t have a car, but Dorner did and would give Gombos rides to run errands or stop at the local Chinese joint. Dorner always ordered hot and sour soup.
Extending his military career
After finishing officer school, the friends attended separate aviation schools. Gombos went to Corpus Christi, Texas and Dorner headed to Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
While Gombos completed his training and became a pilot, Dorner did not finish flight school. He dropped out for academic reasons.
“Technically, the Navy calls it ‘subject to attrition,’ but the Navy thought enough of Chris to keep him on as a reservist,” Gombos said. “Normally if you don’t make it through flight school, they send you home.”
But Dorner stuck around. In the Navy Reserve, Dorner was promoted to Lieutenant in 2006, the same year he was deployed to Bahrain, where he protected a civilian port. He worked various security jobs and served a stint from 2006 to 2007 in Iraq. Gombos saw Dorner one time just before he shipped out.
“He told me he was going to provide security for an oil platform in the Persian Gulf,” Gombos said. “He was himself — his happy, bubbly, smiley self.”
In 2005, Dorner joined the Los Angeles Police Department and completed training in 2006. In 2008, he filed a report concerning a fellow police officer, accusing his colleague of using excessive force on the job. Dorner was fired from the force on September 4, 2008. In 2009, he sued the police department in an effort to reclaim his job. During this time, he continued to do Naval Reserve security work. In 2010, the Superior Court ruled in favor of the LAPD.
In the middle of the 2010 proceedings, Gombos bumped into Dorner in a gas station in Irvine, Calif. Gombos had just returned home from a tour in Afghanistan as a forward air controller.
He said Dorner didn’t recognize him right away and seemed distracted. He told Gombos he was working for the LAPD but that there was “some sort of legal proceeding” going on that was giving him trouble. He was vague on the details.
“We hugged goodbye,” Gombos said. “It was kind of a bro hug with the handshake in the middle and one arm around each other. That was the last time I had contact with him.”
In 2011, Dorner’s lawsuit was rejected by the California Court of Appeals.
Dorner was honorably discharged from the Navy Reserve on February 1, 2013. His shooting spree began on February 3. In his manifesto, Dorner asked for a public admission from the LAPD that his termination was connected to the report he filed.
Gombos said he can understand why Dorner would feel completely abandoned after losing both his military and police jobs.
“In short order, he lost everything. Those were his friends, his social networks, his life.”
The guy with a smile
When Gombos heard the name “Christopher Dorner” on the news, he thought it must be a different person. Until he saw the pictures.
“When you see pictures of him in fatigues with a big smile on his face, that’s the guy that I remember.”
As things started to unravel on Tuesday evening and the LAPD chased any signs of the suspected murderer, Gombos looked at his phone.
Missed phone call alerts and dozens of text messages filled the screen.
“Can you believe this?”
Gombos’ phone was blowing up with messages from old military friends, and he couldn’t scroll through all the messages. He needed to focus on class, which felt impossible as his old best friend was being chased by the police.
In the opening lines of his manifesto, Dorner wrote directly to friends like Gombos:
“I know most of you who personally know me are in disbelief to hear from media reports that I am suspected of committing such horrendous murders … You are saying to yourself that this is completely out of character of the man you knew who always wore a smile wherever he was seen …”
Gombos turned off his phone.