The capture of Eric Frein: How a self-styled Cold War soldier finally tripped up

Some had begun to doubt whether police could ever catch up with Eric Frein. But before spotting and arresting him for the assassination of a Pennsylvania state trooper, one of the trackers said he had a ‘hunch’ that Frein was close – very close.

Michael J. Mullen/The Scranton Times-Tribune/AP
Eric Frein, charged with the murder of Pennsylvania State Trooper Cpl. Byron Dickson and critically wounding Trooper Alex Douglass, is taken to prison after a preliminary hearing in Pike County Courthouse on Friday in Milford, Pa.

His FBI “Most Wanted” mugshot could be spotted as far away as the New York City subway. But it turns out Eric Frein, the alleged cop-assassin who eluded capture for 48 days in the Pocono Mountains, never left his old stomping grounds before being captured by US marshals around dinner-time Thursday.

For nearly seven weeks, up to 1,000 law enforcement searchers – including federal teams from the FBI, ATF and US Marshals Service – rotated in and out of northeastern Pennsylvania, searching the deep north woods inch by inch, thicket by thicket.

So impenetrable are the woods that searchers might have missed Frein even if he was hunkered only 20 feet away. Caves course through the Pocono granite, many on brush-covered hillsides. Dogs, thermal-imaging cameras and armed-to-the-hilt officers were all focused on the search – yet Frein, who was spotted several times, stayed frustratingly out of reach.

FBI special agent Edward Hanko said investigators had previously searched the abandoned airfield where Frein was captured but had seen nothing amiss. Likely Frein had hidden and returned once the coast was clear.

"You'd have to have an army to secure that area," Mr. Hanko said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But rechecking the area on Thursday, the team of marshals spotted Frein as he wandered down an old runway that had grown over into an open field. 

"Who knows why he was out walking around," Hanko said. "I fully believe he was caught off-guard."

To be sure, Frein, who grew up in nearby Canadensis, Pa., had experience, skills and nature on his side as he eluded capture. Plus, he was armed, and dangerous. A former high school rifle-shooting standout, his father, a retired Army officer, once said he “doesn’t miss.” Police had found bombs and bomb-making supplies at his parents’ home, suggesting Frein may be booby-trapping his tracks.

Police had also found evidence he held a deep, abiding grudge against law enforcement.

He turned that rage, they say, on Corporal Bryon Dickson, a war veteran and father of two who was heading home at the end of his shift, randomly picking him and sniping him and another officer, Trooper Alex Douglass, from the cover of woods on a moonlit Friday night, Sept. 12. Douglass survived.

Finding the alleged assassin was arduous work that would have been “nerve-wracking” on any searcher, whether civilian or police, says Tom Brown, Jr., the founder of the Tracker School in New Jersey.

But the small team of US Marshals had a “hunch” as they approached an airfield near the now-closed Birchwood Resort, said Scott Malkowksi, a taskforce commander for the US Marshals Service.

The hunch was spot on. After a careful, quiet two hour search, the men crossed a small bridge and suddenly stood nearly face to face with a man wearing black. “Suspect,” one of the marshals breathed.

The man was Frein’s height and weight, and when the officers sighted him and told him to get down, he did, looking “sad and defeated.”

"We expected to find him," said Kimball, a Virginia-based member of the U.S. Marshals' special operations group.

That law enforcement was able to capture Frein alive drew praise from American commentators, although police didn’t necessarily treat him with kid gloves. At first, police said cuts and bruises on Frein’s face didn't occur during his capture, but that story was modified to say that Frein sustained the injuries while face down on concrete, as he was being arrested.

Prosecutors say they’ll seek the death penalty.

To American tracking specialists, Frein’s disappearing feat, which both irked and marveled local residents who had to put up with a constant police presence, lay in his deep preparation, says Mr. Brown, the tracker. Police have confirmed Frein had hidden multiple caches. They also said he may have been using the hangar as his hole-up for some time.

 Police are now trying to create a timeline of Frein’s 48-day run. They say he likely broke into cabins to find food and shelter, and he had enough time and leisure to shave his face into a well-trimmed goatee. Instead of the Mohawk cut police believed Frein was wearing, his hair instead appeared long.

Police have questioned Frein, but haven’t disclosed any motive beyond generalities about alleged anti-police and anti-government views.

Frein has an unusual hobby. He often played realistic war games wearing a Cold War era Serbian Army uniform, and some said he particularly relished the Drina Wolves, a notorious Serbian paramilitary regiment that committed atrocities during the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990s. In one of his discovered caches, police found Frein’s brand of Serbian cigarettes.

Such infatuation with violent groups is common among would-be terrorists, Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI profiler, told the Scranton, Pa., Times-Tribune. Such people attach themselves to ideologies that "morally justifies homicide ...," Mr. McCrary told the paper.

Late Thursday, Frein was led away in Cpl. Dickson’s handcuffs and was taken to the Blooming Grove barracks, where the shooting took place, in Dickson’s cruiser.

“You’re not a real soldier,” one local taunted as Frein was led in his victim’s handcuffs into court on Friday, where he was denied bail.

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