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Sniper Eric Frein in court: Justice for fallen police comrade drove manhunt

It took 48 days for law enforcement in Pennsylvania to pin down Eric Frein, the man they believe is responsible for a Sept. 12 sniper attack on the Blooming Grove state police barracks, which killed Cpl. Bryon Dickson, a father of two, and critically injured Trp. Alex Douglass.

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Pennsylvania state troopers take away suspected killer Eric Frein from the Blooming Grove State Police barracks early Friday in Pennsylvania. Frein eluded capture for 48 days before surrendering Thursday.

Butch Comegys/The Scranton Times-Tribune/AP

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After a fretful 48-day manhunt in northeast Pennsylvania, police late Thursday nabbed 31-year-old Eric Frein, suspected of killing a state trooper and injuring another in a brazen sniper ambush attack on Sept. 12. He was found at an abandoned Poconos airplane hangar, where he had apparently holed up.

Mr. Frein, who had eluded capture in the thick, cave-strewn Pocono Mountain woods while communities closed schools and even canceled Halloween trick-or-treating, was spotted late Thursday by a team of US marshals assisting in the manhunt.

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The self-styled survivalist and fantasy soldier, whom investigators believed was ready to go down fighting, instead gave his name and surrendered quietly. He was clean-shaven and “healthier than expected,” police noted. A cut on his nose wasn’t caused by police, they say. There were conflicting reports about whether Frein was armed at the moment of arrest.

“He was definitely taken by surprise,” Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said. “He gave up because he was caught and he had no choice but to give up.” 

The capture happened at the Birchwood Pocono Air Park in Tannersville, Pa., about 30 miles from Blooming Grove, where the shootings occurred. Frein was transported to the Pike County Correctional Facility from the barracks early this morning. He is scheduled to appear in court at 9 a.m. this morning.

Troopers used the handcuffs of the slain officer, Cpl. Bryon Dickson, to manacle Frein. Police also used Mr. Dickson’s cruiser to transport Frein to a cell at the Blooming Grove barracks, the same police safehouse he attacked near midnight on Sept. 12 before slipping away into the deep woods. The fact that Frein was captured alive to stand trial highlighted the best of American justice, a local newspaper columnist noted.

“The news was a stinging rebuke to bar stool and Internet ‘experts’ who insisted the accused cop killer was long gone as state police, FBI and ATF agents combed the woods of Monroe and Pike counties for 48 days,” writes Scranton, Pa., Times-Tribune columnist Chris Kelly. “He was there all along, just like state police said.”

Prosecutors say they'll seek the death penalty amid a litany of murder and bomb-making charges. But even after finding parts of his diary, combing his Internet history, and plumbing his past, Frein’s motives remain elusive, answerable perhaps only at his upcoming trial.

So far, police have only described Frein’s alleged sniper attack as “pure evil,” partly for his cold-blooded remembrance of the shootings in a diary found by searchers. “Got a shot around 11 p.m. and took it,” Frein wrote, according to police.

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Frein had been a standout on his high school rifle team. His father, an Army officer, had said Frein “doesn’t miss.” He had been jailed for 109 days in the mid-2000s for larceny stemming from a war-reenactment festival in New York. It’s not known whether that incarceration forged what police have said is a deep-seated hatred of law enforcement.

He played organized war games using rifles that shoot rubber bullets. He dressed in a Serbian Army uniform and smoked Serbian cigarettes. His work history is patchy, and it was at his bedroom in his parents’ house in Canadensis, Pa., where police found two pipe bombs he had constructed.

“I don’t think that he is actually that well-versed in survival,” Tom Brown, Jr., founder of the Tracker School in New Jersey, told the Monitor recently. “He’s going to make a mistake.”

Police believe Frein had planned the attack and escape for years. They found hints that he’d searched the Internet for information about how to elude police. And for 48 days, he managed to do just that, partly because of extreme caution on the part of searchers.

"A tracker is torn between looking at tracks on the ground and worrying about someone dropping them at 300 yards or 500 yards," Mr Brown said.

Indeed, as Frein managed to stay just ahead of the manhunt, some civilian tracking experts noted that police manhunt methods had fallen short, and officials acknowledged that the combination of thick geography and concerns about another sniper attack on searchers had slowed the manhunt down.

Meanwhile, the surrounding hill communities in part worried about Frein’s ability to wreak more havoc even as residents griped about area lockdowns and school closings. The manhunt atmosphere created a sort of police state “that raised important questions about law enforcement’s authority to curtail the rights of innocent citizens,” Mr. Kelly, the Scranton columnist, writes.

The shooting and manhunt also came in a year of anti-police protests in New York City and Ferguson, Mo., over cases where unarmed black men were killed by white police officers. Police fraternal organizations have been warning in recent years of an uptick in ambush assaults on law enforcement and courts.

In some cases, “police are not making friends of [the people], so you have to expect that this sort of activity is going to occur and more people are going to disappear in the woods who have more [wilderness] training” than state and federal law enforcement, says Shane Hobel, the founder of the Mountain Scout Survival School in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Frein had become a ghostly presence as he hovered at the periphery of daily life in the quiet Pennsylvania township where he grew up.

When police had sighted him, he flickered away in the thicket. Mr. Hobel, the tracker, wondered if Frein perhaps really was “on a beach somewhere.” Police, however, say they never gave a thought to shutting down the manhunt, which was costing more than $1 million a week.

After Frein’s capture, local officials also made sure to tell everyone that Halloween was no longer canceled.