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In Pennsylvania woods, Eric Frein eludes a massive manhunt

Search dogs and thermal equipment are little help in a manhunt through the Pocono Mountains

He is a self-trained sniper, survivalist, cop hater and, according to police, a cold-blooded killer who watched his victim die with clinical interest.

For six weeks Eric Frein has dodged one of the largest manhunts in Pennsylvania history, hiding in a small section of the Pocono Mountains he knows intimately and eating ramen noodles and cans of tuna that police say he cached for the ultimate war game.

Two hundred uniformed Pennsylvania State Police troopers and hundreds of others from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Connecticut State Police and local law enforcement have descended upon this small, rustic hunting town.

Though heavily armed and aided by police dogs and thermal imaging helicopters, search teams always seem to remain just one step behind, flushing Frein from campsites or rushing to reported sightings only to have him slip away again. One state police official speculated that Frein, viewing himself as a modern-day Rambo, may be intentionally taunting them.

The police strategy is to use their dragnet to systematically eliminate any possible hiding places. But they move carefully in the dense woods, believing that the man they are chasing — who calls himself "Little Wolf" in military-simulation war games — is also targeting them.

Frein, 31, is charged in the Sept. 12 shooting death of state Trooper Bryon Dickson, 38, who was ambushed outside a police barracks in Pike County, near the borders of New York and New Jersey.

Despite considerable budget and resources, the mostly out-of-town officers — some of whom have stopped in Smitty's camping store here asking for directions or maps — have been outwitted by Frein, who spent years learning how to live in the woods undetected. Police suspect he prepared for life as a fugitive by stockpiling supplies, possibly in an underground bunker.

The search has left some residents and hunters shaking their heads, frustrated by the sudden invasion of swarms of police camped out at a former school just down the road. One local said he had been stopped seven times by police while walking to work. Business at most stores is down because hunters have been temporarily banned from the woods.

In one recent incident in the town of Swiftwater — the current focal point of the search — police demolished the front of a barn after apparently seeing body heat on their thermal imaging equipment. It turned out to be a family of raccoons, residents say.

"They are really not going to catch him until he is ready to be caught," said Jeremiah Hornbaker, who hired Frein five years ago to advise him on historical accuracy for a World War I documentary film. "He is a very intelligent individual."

Though some have questioned how Frein could elude such a huge dragnet for so long, local hunters and veterans of similar manhunts say it is not surprising.

Paul Yanega, 58, who lives a mile from Frein's home, said that when he had his camouflage suit on while deer hunting, people walked right past without spotting him. And there are special clothes and sprays that mask a hunter's scent, he added.

With winter coming, Frein could keep warm by living in caves in the mountains, Yanega speculated, while the falling leaves would make it nearly impossible to track him. Complicating search efforts is the terrain, consisting mostly of gently rolling hills but with a thick undergrowth of raspberry brambles, rhododendrons and other bushes that cut visibility.

"There are many times that we'll have a line of troopers … and you literally cannot see another trooper 10 or 15 feet away from you," said Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens.

Hornbaker, the documentary maker, insisted that the police portrait of Frein as an evil killer "was not the man I knew."

But authorities say the most chilling account of Frein's mental state comes from Frein himself, who appears to describe the attack against Dickson in a handwritten note found at an abandoned campsite.

"I got a shot around 11 p.m. and took it," police say he wrote. "He dropped, I was surprised at how quick. I took a follow up shot on his head and neck area. He was still and quiet after that. … Another cop approached the one I just shot. As he went to kneel, I took a shot at him and then [he] jumped in the door. His legs were visible and still."

The description closely matches the sniper attack on Dickson and the attempt by fellow trooper Alex Douglass to help him. Douglass survived but was seriously wounded.

There were few clues in Frein's childhood that would suggest he would end up on the FBI's most-wanted list. He grew up in a bucolic setting in the Poconos of northeastern Pennsylvania, in a house that looks toward a state forest dense with oak, pine and hemlock trees.

He was a member of his high school rifle team, where he was known as a crack shot. He dropped out of college, working at a supermarket and for a couple of summers at a Boy Scout camp.

His passion was military history and the minute details of Eastern European military uniforms and weapons. In particular, he focused on the modern Serbian Army and paramilitary groups, more interested in their unusual uniforms than the politics of those who butchered Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. He traveled around Pennsylvania acting out mock battles between Serbs and Croats, including at least one reenactment he appears to have planned and directed himself.

"June 1992. Bosnia has erupted into war. Serb brigades and paramilitaries start a rampage through the countryside capturing villages and strategic locations from government forces," Frein wrote online in a description for a military scenario to be staged by a reenactment group he founded called Eastern Wolves. In the post, he set exacting standards for uniforms and weapons to be used by anyone wishing to participate.

Frein used the online screen name "Thufir 0064," an apparent reference to the master assassin in the science fiction book "Dune."

In 2006, Frein spent three months in jail for stealing more than $3,800 worth of World War II military uniform reproductions two years earlier.

Patrick Patten, who has advised Pennsylvania police in the search for Frein and runs a training school to teach law enforcement agents how to conduct manhunts and rescues, said finding Frein in the woodlands would be more challenging than most imagined.

"Think about the math," said Patten, head of North Carolina's Tactical Woodland Operations School. "A human being occupies about 9 square feet. There are 42,000 square feet per acre. They are searching about 115,000 acres. It's just much harder than anybody realizes."

Patten, a retired law enforcement ranger for the National Park Service, was involved in the search for Eric Rudolph, who killed two people in antiabortion and anti-gay bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala., in the 1990s. Rudolph survived in the southern Appalachians — part of the same mountain range in which Frein is thought to be hiding — for five years before being caught searching for food in a trash bin.

"Eric [Rudolph] had planned," Patten said. "He was smart and he was good in the woods. He and Frein have a lot in common."

tim.phelps@latimes.com

The Allentown, Pa., Morning Call contributed to this report.

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