Investigators study Frein’s long evasion
TANNERSVILLE — In the end, Eric Frein finally came out of the woods.
Wearing a black hat and fleece, he walked out in the open under fading daylight, across a scenic yet overgrown former airstrip long ago used to transport honeymooners to the Poconos and toward an abandoned hangar the self-described survivalist had been using as a shelter.
Spotted and surrounded by a team of U.S. marshals — one of dozens of search squads that for weeks meticulously canvassed a section of forest stretching hundreds of acres — Frein dropped to his knees, raised his arms and gave up.
It was a bizarre, nonviolent and unpredictable ending to a drama that for 48 days paralyzed the region, drained law enforcement resources and drew international attention.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of shooting investigations, but nothing quite like this,” said Sam Rabadi, special agent in charge of the Philadelphia division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, one of more than a half-dozen agencies involved in the manhunt.
Frein is being held in the Pike County jail, charged with ambushing a state police barracks in September with a high-powered rifle, killing a corporal and injuring a trooper he didn’t know.
Investigators are working to piece together how Frein, 31, spent seven weeks eluding them. Traveling on foot and carrying a .308-caliber sniper rifle, he led police on an elaborate cat-and-mouse game in the deep woods.
“Clearly, part of (the investigation) is to try to find out exactly what he did every single day,” said Edward Hanko, special agent in charge of the Philadelphia FBI division.
At least eight times, investigators said, they found shelters where they believed Frein had been hiding. One was a cabin he appeared to have broken into just two days after a search team had cleared it.
And they had concluded from interviews and other evidence that Frein, a military re-enactor who considered himself a survivalist, probably preferred the indoors. One witness told them Frein once chose to sleep in his car rather than on a rain-soaked battlefield. That’s one reason they scoured an abandoned hotel complex almost 20 miles from the shooting scene.
But they knew their prey was armed with a sniper rifle, and possibly explosives, and that he was violent and had every reason to be reckless.
His other advantage was their main disadvantage, the one that stretched out before them each morning — what Rabadi called “the vastness of these woods.”
“The reason this took so long is that it was such a big wooded area that he was totally familiar with and had a lot of places to hide in,” State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said after Frein’s capture. “And we had to be very careful with how we searched it.”
In the rugged Pocono Mountains, police dogs lost scents. Helicopters with infrared sensors failed to pick up movements beneath the thick canopy. Even troopers on foot saw barely more than a few yards ahead of them as they trekked through the heart of the forest.
“I’ve had not just family and friends asking me, but also other colleagues asking, ‘Why haven’t you caught this guy yet? We don’t understand. You have all these folks there,’ ” Rabadi said.
In interviews and statements in recent days, officials provided a window into their manhunt. Every morning, they say, officers and agents identified dozens of sections of the area to scour and clear.
Each search team typically included officers with various specialities: a sniper, a negotiator, an explosives specialist, a medic and a dog handler. They fanned out, with each group canvassing a spot on the grid.
Every few days or so, searchers would find more clues in the woods — such as soiled diapers and packages of Serbian cigarettes.
Police believe Frein survived on tuna, ramen noodles and other food stolen from homes and cabins.