The surrender of cop killer Eric Frein on Thursday after an excruciating 48-day manhunt in the dense woodlands of the Pennsylvania Poconos is not the end of the story. It is the end of the prologue to a very big question that demands to be asked -- and answered: What prompted this wily survivalist to shoot dead a particular state trooper and critically wound another? To suggest that the shootings were random begs credulity, although the revelation as to why Frein chose these targets might be embarrassing to a law-enforcement agency that has limped from scandal to scandal and did not acquit itself particularly well during the manhunt.
Prosecutors have, of course, said that the death penalty will be sought. But it would not be surprising if 31-year-old Frein (pronounced Freen) is allowed to plea bargain a life sentence without the messiness of a trial where the question of why he chose to lurk in the woods outside the Blooming Grove, Pike County, police barracks on the night of September 12 with a high-powered rifle, killing Corporal Bryon Dickson and wounding Trooper Alex Douglass, and not one of many other potential law-enforcement targets is a question that is sure to be raised.
Early in the manhunt, rumors abounded that Frein's sister had a relationship with Trooper Douglass. A state police spokesman initially denied they had "an inappropriate relationship," an explanation that ginned up the rumor mill even more. The spokesman later tried 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-known hatred of police, he may not have chosen Dickson and Douglass at random.
Indeed, little light has been shed on why Frein, who had a fondness for all things military, dressed in Serbian army uniforms and played Cold War-style war games, hated police. Except for a remark from Frein's father in the wake of the attack that his self-trained backwoods survivalist son "never missed" when he had a weapon in his hands, his parents remained conspicuously silent during the manhunt, although they are said to have cooperated with investigators. It is puzzling why they never were asked to go public and urge their son to surrender, or if they were, did not do so.
Frein crashed his Jeep after fleeing Blooming Grove, which is about 20 miles north of his parents' house in the village of Canadensis in Monroe County. He is believed to have hiked through nearly unspoiled forest to an area near Canadensis that provides many hiding places not visible from the air, let alone on the ground a hundred yards away.
The state police kept overplaying their hand, at least in the first weeks of the manhunt, by repeatedly claiming they had Frein surrounded and taunting the fugitive to surrender, although they did find food caches, an incriminating journal, two pipe bombs and other signs of him. Frein seemingly taunted the state police back as he repeatedly eluded capture despite numerous reported sightings. (Documents filed with the court by the state police indicate he may have used a laptop computer with wireless access to keep up with reports on the manhunt.)
In recent days, Frein continued to elude a dragnet of state police, FBI and ATF agents, U.S. Marshals Service trackers and regional and local police that has at times reached 1,000 officers as he trekked into more populated areas. Unarmed, gaunt and bedraggled, he surrendered to marshals on Thursday afternoon after being spotted in a field at an abandoned rural airport that previously had been searched. The airport had been part of one of the honeymoon resorts that were a mainstay of the Poconos tourist industry in the decades after World War II.
Frein was turned over to state police, who ceremoniously slapped slain officer Dickson's handcuffs on him and put him in the back seat of Dickson's police cruiser for transport back to Blooming Grove. A rifle and pistol were found in a nearby hangar where the fugitive apparently had been hiding.
The search, which cost nearly $1.5 million a day according to one analysis, exacted a steep toll on the Poconos, which has not recovered from the Bush Recession. Deer hunting was called off in several Pike and Monroe townships, schools in the vicinity of the manhunt were closed, reopened and sometimes closed again, football games, Halloween parades and other outdoor events were cancelled, and the tourist industry took a big hit amidst one of the most beautiful displays of fall foliage in years.
A PERSONAL NOTE
Ironically, I was driven to Birchwood-Pocono Air Park, the abandoned airport near Tannersville where Frein was apprehended, by a government insider turned informant on my first visit to the Poconos in 1986. As an investigative journalist, I was chasing down reports that the CIA was using the disused airport, as well as other out-of-the-way airstrips in Northeastern Pennsylvania, to fly in shipments of cocaine being sold in New York and Philadelphia to raise money for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
This was one of the extra-legal aspects of what became known during the Reagan administraiton as the Iran-Contra Affair. Despite over a year of digging, my colleagues and I never amassed enough evidence regarding the Poconos angle to justify writing a story. Whether it is established why Frein chose to be at a particular state police barracks on a particular night as his victims changed shifts remains to be seen.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK MAKELA/REUTERS