If there was any question that the Pennsylvania State Police-led manhunt for cop killer Eric Frein was in big trouble -- indeed, that the trail for the marksman-survivalist in the northeastern Pennsylvania woodlands may have gone cold -- a photograph on the front page of the Pocono Record on Monday, the 17th day of the search, betrayed a harsh truth. And now, to make a bad situation worse as the manhunt drags on and state police encounter the first murmurs of public criticism, they find themselves having little choice but to outrage perhaps the most influential constituency in the region -- hunters.
The Pocono Record photograph showed troopers clad in camouflage and SWAT
team mufti preparing to search a vacant cabin for Frein. The cabin was not one of many that dot the woodlands, which already had been searched, but was on a well-traveled state road, not exactly the kind of place that a crafty, if troubled, 31-year-old charged with criminal homicide who likes to dress up like a Serbian soldier and play war games would choose.
State police clearly are at the end of their rope -- or nearly so.
Frein shot and killed state police Corporal Bryon Dickson and wounded Trooper Alex Douglass on September 12 in a sniper-style attack in the late evening darkness as they changed shifts at a barracks in Blooming Grove, a small Pike County community about 20 miles north northeast of Frein's parents' house in the village of Canadensis in Monroe County. The self-trained backwoods survivalist crashed his Jeep near Blooming Grove and is believed to have hiked south southwestward through nearly unspoiled forest to an area not far from where his parents live.
State police had set themselves up for failure -- or at least a frustratingly long search -- by taunting Frein in public pronouncements and repeatedly boasting that they were closing in on him. Lieutenant Colonel George Bivens, the lead state police spokesman, declared at one point that trackers, which include FBI agents, local police and dogs in addition to troopers and number about a thousand officers in all, had confined Frein to a one-square mile area and had him surrounded.
As the dragnet dragged on, the area increased to five-square miles and then Bivens' "We know where you are and we're coming get to you" boasts stopped altogether. Frein has appeared to be taunting back, hanging an AK-47-style assault rifle from a tree trunk in plain view that is believed to be his, while leaving a trail of butts from Serbian cigarettes and perhaps soiled diapers, as well.
Some 20 days after the murder, the impression grows and has begun to be voiced by a few people in a community that has showed overwhelming support for the state police despite myriad inconveniences caused by their manhunt, including residents being forced to stay away from their homes for days: Had the murder victim been one of them, the manhunt already would have been called off or there would not even have been one.
The state police also have struggled to stay on message.
Asked about rumors that Frein's sister had a relationship with Trooper Douglass, Bivens initially denied they had "an inappropriate relationship," which ginned up the rumor mill even more. Bivens later sought to clarify matters by stating they had not had any kind of a relationship and did not even know one another, but the impression lingers that despite Frein's well-documented hatred of police in general, he did not pick out Douglass at random with plenty of other law-enforcement targets closer to home.
And a state police report that Frein had been leaving behind soiled diapers was called into question.
While well-trained snipers wear diapers because of the many hours they sometimes have to wait for their prey without moving, area residents well familiar with the many black bears who populate the woodlands, noted that it was not unusual for bears to drag bags with household waste, including soiled diapers, into the woods. This may have prompted a cryptic state police statement released Friday, unusual in and of itself, stating that they would not comment on any possible evidence.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has appeared at Dickson's funeral, a state police press conference and other Frein-related news events, but that has failed to resuscitate an re-election campaign that is running on empty because of his slash-and-burn cuts to the state education budget and lingering questions about whether he foot-dragged on the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State sex scandal while attorney general.
Bivens has said Frein was spotted by trackers at a distance around dusk on the evening of September 22 while being tracked by dogs, and trackers detonated a flash-bang device. He said a helicopter was overhead but could not follow Frein because of the thick forest canopy, and he was able to slip away. There were unconfirmed reports of another spotting on Monday.
The spokesman has explained the failure of apprehend Frein by noting there are numerous caves in the woodlands, trackers are taking their time clearing them because Frein is considered armed and dangerous, while there is concern that because two pipe bombs have been found in the search area and because Frein has experimented with explosives in the past, he could have booby-trapped the area or is capable of another sniper attack.
"I'm calling on you, Eric, to surrender," Biven said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. "We continue to take your supplies and weapons stockpiles . . . We are not going anywhere."
There was a certain inevitability that a man accused of killing a cop in cold blood would become a cult hero. There are several Facebook pages in Frein's honor, including one called "Eric Frein Is God," and a rap tribute on YouTube.
The search turned tragicomic on Wednesday night when two state troopers fell 20 feet from a tree stand during the search and were injured. They were flown to a Lehigh Valley hospital, treated and released, which provoked additional criticism because the injuries appeared to be minor.
Perhaps Frein will have been been apprehended by the time you read this. Or gunned down while refusing to surrender. Or has taken the coward's way out by killing himself. Let's hope so.
But the Pennsylvania State Police historically has been a troubled and scandal-plagued agency long on boastfulness and short on accomplishments, the most recent scandal enveloping none other than State Police Superintendent Frank Noonan, who sent and received hundreds of sexually explicit photos, videos and messages from his state e-mail account. In other words, pornography. Talk about role models.
Given the state police's history, the failure to find Frein comes as no surprise. Nor does the abysmal coverage of the Pocono Record, which has been gifted an international story right in its front yard but has rolled over and allowed out-of-town media to break the big stories, such as they are, while dutifully kowtowing to the state police and officialdom, taking everything they have said at face value with nary a skeptical question asked, let alone published, as it has become increasing obvious that the massively expensive operation to bring Frein to ground has been unraveling.
Not a single Record story in the last three weeks has showed the kind of initiative and doggedness that has allowed the Scranton Times-Tribune, Allentown Morning Call, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times and the television news networks to run circles around it.
THE POCONOS TAKE ANOTHER HIT
The manhunt could not have come at a worse time for the Poconos.
The Monroe County economy crapped out long before the rest of the nation, and for a while it led all counties nationwide in home foreclosures per capita. This is because local bigs, not content to try to build the tourist industry and brand the Poconos as a special place with beautiful woodlands chockablock with trails, waterfalls, creek and rivers, as well as golf courses, ski slopes and family friendly resorts, climbed into bed with rapacious developers and usurious financial institutions after the 9/11 attacks to sell the Poconos as a safe haven from a world gone crazy.
(Not surprisingly, although Frein fits the definition to a T, the news media is up to it's usual name-game bull in calling him everything other than what he is -- a terror-freaking-ist, because he is an American and doesn't wear funny clothes and worship a false God.)
Anyhow, people flocked to the area from the Bronx, Queens and northern New Jersey by the thousands after 9/11, but the gauzy illusion that the Poconos was some sort of paradise soon gave way to a harsh reality of which wise locals were all too aware: There was an apathetic political establishment resistant to reform, many roads and bridges were in atrocious condition, social services were overtaxed, schools ranged from mediocre to poor, rates were well above state county-by-county averages for adult major crime, drunk driving and vehicular fatalities, an increasingly degraded environment, and stratospherically high local tax rates that have been crushing to all but the relatively few affluent residents.
Many of the homes built for new arrivals were substandard, many of the people who bought them were marginally solvent and easy prey for unscrupulous mortgage companies -- and there were no decent jobs.
Politicians' post-9/11 promises that a major complex of financial institutions that they dubbed Wall Street West would be built in the Poconos and long-moribund passenger rail service would be restored between the region and New York City were so much hot air.
Virtually the only jobs were and remain minimum wage -- dishwashers, groundskeepers, chambermaids and burger flippers -- while the commute to and from North Jersey and New York City and decent paying jobs is a killer; in fact, it is regularly described as the worst commute in the nation by rating services. Fickle educators went on a school building binge as a result of the population explosion, but today some schools have been shuttered and teachers furloughed. A reverse migration has kicked in as many of the same people who were lured by false promises have retreated back to where they had come from -- foreclosed on, broke and broken.
Meanwhile, the manhunt comes when fall foliage, an attraction for day trippers and other tourists, is kicking in early because of a dry summer. It promises to be spectacular.
Inn keepers and restaurateurs report lousy to nonexistent business. And don't mind that huge image of Frein, with a smirking mug and Serbian army hat, his inclusion on the FBI's Most Wanted List duly noted, on a huge electronic billboard at the Delaware River Toll Bridge on Interstate 80, the eastern and most heavily used portal to the Poconos. (There is nary a peep about the manhunt, let alone the fact that much of the region remains open for visitors, on the website of the reliably somnambulant Pocono Mountain Visitors Bureau, the lead tourism agency.)
Then there is the fall hunting season, an annual orgy of wildlife carnage in a gun-crazy region where public schools still close on the first day of gun deer season and tables, lunch counters and bars at pubs, roadhouses and diners usually glow hunter orange from the beginning of deer bow season, which opens on Saturday, followed by seasons for deer and elk, squirrel, rabbit and hare, and various wildfowl that run through to the end of December.
State police initially green-lighted hunting in even the deepest woods once the seasons opened, but on Wednesday the state Game Commission had second thoughts and banned hunting in a huge area in seven townships that is substantially larger than the area where the manhunt is ongoing.
It is hard to imagine a more incompatible mix: Hunters armed to the teeth filling woodlands teeming with state troopers armed to the teeth, but the Game Commission edict has provoked outrage from both casual hunters and hunters who rely on filling their freezers with venison and other game to make it through harsh winters.
"Thank you Pa. Game Commission for making it official, one indignant hunter declared. "The police have been lying to us about knowing the general area where Frein is. I understand them closing the area where they claim he is . . . yet they want the game commission to close such a massive area. I support the police for putting their lives on the line, but the higher up's are not being honest with the public."
"If anybody should be honest and straightforward with the public it is the police," said another resident. "I have been supportive of the police from the start, but that support is wearing thin other than wishing them good luck and safe going."
I reveal how the Pennsylvania State Police, aided and abetted by an indifferent criminal-justice establishment, blew a high-profile Poconos murder and botched several other murders in my 2010 book, The Bottom of the Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder. The book is available online in trade paperback and Kindle versions at Amazon and at Barnes & Nobles and other online booksellers.* * * * *
Photograph from philly.com