MILFORD, Pa. – It felt like the trail had gone cold in the Pocono Mountains, and the townspeople were starting to grumble.
Nearly seven weeks into the massive manhunt for alleged cop-killer Eric Frein, state and federal law-enforcement in northeastern Pennsylvania were conducting roving patrols in four townships spanning 134 square miles – roughly the size of Philadelphia.
Everyone had a theory about Frein’s whereabouts, from the local bar-stool fixture to your cable guy.
Maybe he’s in an underground bunker. Or he’s dead. A friend picked him up. He’s heading south on the Appalachian Trail. He’s in a bear den. Or an abandoned ski lodge.
“You run through all the scenarios in your head, but it’s anybody’s guess right now. That’s what makes it frustrating,” a state trooper said during a woods patrol in Paradise Township Monday afternoon. “But we have to keep at it now. Can’t let up.”
Three days later – and only three miles away – Frein was taken into custody for allegedly murdering Cpl. Bryon Dickson and seriously wounding Trooper Alex Douglass on Sept. 12 with a .308-caliber sniper rifle outside the Blooming Grove State Police barracks.
Frein, 31, is a chain-smoking survivalist from Canadensis, Pa., with a highly punchable face like Eli Manning’s. But, unlike the New York Giants quarterback, no one had been able to get his hands on the guy until Thursday night.
He’d landed on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list within a week of the ambush at the police barracks and had managed to elude a search team that, at its peak, involved about 1,000 law-enforcement officers.
The FBI, U.S. Marshals, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and a small army of local cops and state police from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut were all called in.
They used helicopters, surveillance planes, armored personnel carriers, thermal imaging cameras, a hot air balloon and a 6-ton tactical vehicle with robotic video cameras called The Rook.
Even K-9 units from the Philadelphia Police Department, SEPTA Transit Police and Temple University had joined in the search.
“He’s pretty sharp,” a state trooper admitted on Monday. “He’s a coward, but he’s intelligent.”
After 48 days, they finally got him.
“Thank God. We can go back to life without having to look over your shoulder,” said Joyce Aleckna, a school-bus driver and former corrections officer who lives near Frein’s parents’ home in Canadensis.
Aleckna, 46, had seen so many cops searching around her property that she put a porta-potty on her front lawn. The sign at the base of her driveway says “LEO potty,” for law-enforcement officers. They’d pull up in the middle of the night with their car lights off to relieve themselves.
“It was 48 days of ridiculous,” she said.
Frein’s arrest came as some Poconos residents were reaching their breaking point.
Schools had been closed intermittently. Home football games became away games. Practices were moved off-site.
The shelter-in-place restrictions had been lifted and the checkpoints were gone, but so was Halloween – they thought. Barrett Township’s 50th annual Halloween parade was canceled. It had been scheduled for last Sunday and normally draws thousands of people.
Trick-or-treating had also been banned while Frein was on the loose, but Barrett Township supervisors began spreading the word Thursday night that Halloween had been saved as a result of his arrest.
People were calling him all different names. Coward. The kid. Waldo Frein. The wilderness ninja. “Diaper sniper” made the rounds after cops found used diapers in the woods.
“If he grew up in the woods and planned this for a while, I guess he can outsmart them,” Michele Hooey, owner of Maryann’s Dairy Bar, said on Monday.
Business has been down at Hooey’s roadside stand in Analomink, where out-of-town leaf peepers eat ice cream cones on benches surrounded by thick mats of fallen pine needles. This year, though, foliage-season tourists were spooked by Frein – and the cops who were chasing him.
“It was like a war zone. They were all over, guns drawn, vests on,” Hooey said, recalling the state and federal officers who descended on her parking lot earlier in the search. “There are so many of them here.”
Police had resorted to some unusual measures in their attempt to find Frein, including a white Mylar balloon that was sent into the sky above the Alpine Mountain Ski & Ride Center on Monday morning. Slightly misshapen, it resembled a giant molar tethered by dental floss.
This is how it all ended Thursday: U.S. marshals spotted a man they thought was Frein at Birchwood Pocono Air Park in Tannersville, Pa., according to State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan. The marshals ordered him to get on the ground, and he acknowledged he was Frein.
“He did not just give up because he was tired,” Noonan said. “He gave up because he was caught.”
The manhunt was dotted with potential sightings, and police said they will figure out which were accurate now that they have Frein in custody. When Frein was captured Thursday, he was brought to the same Blooming Grove barracks where police said he had opened fire.
Frein Friday was ordered held without bail on murder charges.
His hair slicked back and sporting a goatee and bruises on the cheeks, nose, and eyes, Frein answered politely as Pike County District Judge Shannon Muir asked if he understood the charges against him and the purpose of the arraignment in the packed, one-room 19th Century courthouse.
To taunts of “you’re a coward,” and “rot in hell,” from a crowd of about 150, after the proceeding he was led out by state police from the front steps and marched to the rear of the building. He was taken to the Pike County Correctional Facility.
“If you attack troopers, and a civilized society, the Pennsylvania State Police will bring you to justice,” Pennsylvania State Troopers Association President Joseph Kovel said in a statement. “Eric Frein is a coward. Cpl. Bryon K. Dickson II and Trooper Alex T. Douglass are true heroes.”
Prosecutors will seek the death penalty, authorities said.