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Pa. cop-sniper manhunt enters 3rd week: Can Eric Frein ever be caught?

Police know where alleged cop-killer Eric Frein has been in the dark, tangled Pennsylvania forest, even what he's been eating. But three weeks of searching have passed, and Frein has yet to be caught.

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Members of the Scranton, Pa., Police Special Operations Group, search for suspected killer Eric Frein.

Butch Comegys/Scranton Times & Tribune/AP

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He’s eating tuna and ramen. He laid some pipe bombs. Searchers got within 100 yards of him several days ago, but failed to close the distance.

Locals are starting to wonder: Can Eric Frein even be caught?

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The 31-year-old war reenactor, self-taught survivalist and crack rifle shot has eluded a 1,000-man-strong manhunt for three weeks now in the craggy and tangled underbrush of the Pocono Mountains.

The ceaseless search, performed by police officers eager to throw the alleged cop-killer to the jaws of justice, has brought much of everyday life in northeastern Pennsylvania to a halt as authorities have banned hunting and hiking in the area. Sights of police officers walking through backyards have become commonplace.

This week, police said they found Frein’s detritus, and believe him to be “stressed” and close to capture. Among the things he left behind: Ramen packages and tuna cans, and 90 rounds of the same .308 bullets he used to kill a state trooper and wound another.

On Sept. 12, police say Frein, who apparently has a beef with police, crept through the woods and within sight of the Blooming Grove State Highway Patrol barracks. Right after the11 p.m. shift change, he took aim at Cpl. Bryon Dickson, killing him. He also quickly shot Trooper Alex Douglass, who survived. Then the sniper slipped away, only to be glimpsed, Bigfoot-like, in the distance.

The shootings and search have vexed the tri-state region, as the manhunt has stymied the leaf-peeper tourist season.

What’s more, the manhunt has reminded many of the five-year search for Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, a Christian Identity extremist who carried out several anti-abortion bomb attacks, and who eluded the FBI for five years by holing up in the Nantahala National Forest near Murphy, N.C.

But there’s one key difference. In those days, it was federal investigators and agents who retreated to closely-protected compounds to rest, while many believed Mr. Rudolph received help from locals. Today, ribbons in the townships being searched show solidarity for the slain officer.

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Frein is different in other respects. If he has an ideology, police haven’t said. Instead, they have implied he has morphed his passion for war reenactments and a particular affinity for Serbian Army exploits, into a tragic reality.

Two weeks into the search, police found an empty pack of Serbian cigarettes. They've also found diapers they believe to have been used by Frein – a common tactic among professional military snipers to hunker in place for days.

Some policing experts say they doubt Frein will leave the forest alive. Until now, though, Frein has maintained the upper hand.

“He’s playing a game, and he’s good at it,” Roger Smith, the owner of Smitty’s Camping and Sporting Goods, told John Luciew of the Patriot-News, in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

As far as anyone really knows at the moment, Frein could be hundreds of miles away, or behind the next rock.

"You could literally walk right past someone in this terrain and not see them ... unless you stepped on them," Pa. State Highway Patrol Lt. Col. George Bivens said.