BLOOMING GROVE, Pa. – Eric Frein wouldn’t be the first fugitive to become a cult hero.
No matter how heinous the crime – or allegation, in this case – fugitives who remain at large for a long time start to attract cheerleaders, not only because of their elusiveness but because of how their actions can be woven into various cultural narratives.
It’s happening with Frein, 31, who has been on the run for more than two weeks and is on the FBI’s list of 10 Most Wanted Fugitives.
The man accused of using a sniper rifle to kill State Police Cpl. Bryon Dickson and wound Trooper Alex Douglass on Sept. 12 is being celebrated in some corners of social media, not only for dodging a massive, high-tech dragnet but, more disturbingly, for targeting police. There are Facebook pages in his honor – one is called “Eric Frein is God” – and even a rap tribute on YouTube.
Such cases inevitably carry echoes of the public enemy era, when the likes of John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde became celebrated figures despite having innocent blood on their hands.
But the phenomenon is much older than that. Think Billy the Kid. Jesse James. Blackbeard. Villains all, but subjects of enduring fascination.
“We’ve been elevating and idolizing people like Frein for centuries,” said Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, Calif. “The reason is fairly simple. Virtually everyone is oppositional to some extent, some of us to a very great extent. We naturally want to resist authority, although few of us have the courage to do so.”
Dillinger and company rose to prominence during the Great Depression, when Americans victimized by economic catastrophe could readily cheer on criminals who stole from banks.
The FBI may have called the gangsters public enemies, but the fellow on the street knew the real enemy was the fat-cat banker rubber-stamping foreclosure papers. So when newsreels recounted the latest exploits of the G-men versus the bad men, viewers took vicarious pleasure in watching the establishment flounder.
“Outlaws, however repugnant they may be in some ways, are fulfilling one of our deepest desires” by thumbing their noses at authority figures, said Epstein, former editor in chief of Psychology Today magazine and author of 15 books.
But the reasons for Frein’s growing cult status are more complex than the Robin Hood narratives of the Dillinger days. The story has been hijacked by partisans in angry debates over race relations and the extent of police power. It has even taken an oddball turn into the realm of conspiracy.
“S/O to Eric Frein,” wrote a Twitter user called SpeechlessXO, using the shorthand for “shout out” in one of a series of messages suggesting Dickson’s death was some sort of karmic payback for the events in Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
“They support Darren Wilson, I support Eric Frein,” SpeechlessXO tweeted. “How does it feel, other side?”
While SpeechlessXO and any number of other tweeters contend that Dickson’s death balanced some awful racial equation, others say the troopers were legitimate targets because they were in law enforcement – the real enemy.
The other lesson of Ferguson, after all, was that local police departments after 9/11 were bolstered by what might be called an embarrassment of armaments. The sight of protesters’ being confronted by police with heavy weaponry, body armor and tanklike vehicles prompted a national debate over the growing militarization of police forces.
On a Facebook page called “Support Eric Frein,” some posters have tweaked the hundreds of state troopers and federal agents pursuing the fugitive through the rugged terrain of Monroe and Pike counties.
“It’s 10 o’clock,” one wrote. “Do you know where Eric Frein is? Neither do state police.”
But other posts on the page, which has 182 “likes,” take a far more serious tone, recounting examples of police abusing their authority. One is titled “Fourteen Ways America is Becoming a Police State.”
The most recent post, on Tuesday morning, was a link to a video of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”
Another page, “Eric Frein – American Hero” contrasts a photo of the clean-cut and friendly looking police officers of the old “Adam-12” TV show with a photo of masked, armored sheriff’s deputies carrying semi-automatic rifles.
A third page, called “We Support patriot Eric Frein,” takes the discussion in an even stranger direction. Under the “About” section, it says “We get it. He’s an alleged murderer. Due process or Dorner?”
“Dorner” refers to Christopher Dorner, a former Los Angeles police officer charged in shootings that left three police officers and a civilian dead and several others wounded in early 2013. He shot himself to death at the end of a massive manhunt, leaving behind a manifesto accusing the police department of entrenched racism.
This is where the conspiracy theorists come in.
On a website called 21st Century Wire, one story carries this “Scripted Ambush: Was the Pennsylvania Barracks Ambush staged?”
The story lays out a case that Frein, like Dorner, was an actor in a “false flag” operation designed to distract the public as the government pushes “illegal” overseas wars and increases oppression of the citizenry at home.
It’s important to point out that for every voice supporting Frein, there are many more condemning him and cheering on the men and women who are exhausting themselves trying to track him down.
In the search area, residents have posted signs warning the fugitive that his time is short. One sign was adorned by a diaper, a pointed reference to the soiled diapers Frein has apparently left behind during his flight.
Alison Novak, an assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, said some may be intrigued by Frein’s “technique and ability” in eluding trained trackers.
But it’s a mistake to think people who are curious about Frein are necessarily supporting him.
“Most of the time this digital content, YouTube videos, Facebook and Twitter posts, is a way for the public to vent their frustrations and anxieties about the possibility that someone can commit a terrible crime and avoid punishment,” she said.