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Eric Frein caught, will face murder charge in killing of Pennsylvania trooper

A seven-week dragnet in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania came to an end with the capture of survivalist Eric Frein, whose wrists were bound with the handcuffs of the trooper he is accused of killing, officials said late Thursday.

Frein’s arrest ended one of the largest manhunts in Pennsylvania history. He will face first-degree murder charges that could carry the death penalty, a prosecutor said. 

Searchers spotted Frein about 6 p.m. near an abandoned airport hanger and ordered him to surrender, Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said at a late-night news conference in Hawley. Frein was taken by surprise and gave up peacefully, Noonan said. 

The cuffs of the dead officer, Cpl. Bryon Dickson, were placed on Frein’s wrists, Noonan said, and Frein was placed in Dickson’s car.

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Noonan said the search had taken so long because Frein was familiar with the Pocono Mountains area, and because his sniper skills made him dangerous. 

“He presented a great threat to us,” Noonan said.

However, he said, Frein was unarmed when arrested. Noonan added that authorities were serving search warrants at places where he may have taken refuge, but there was no indication that anyone was helping him.  

“He gave up because he was caught, and he had no choice but to give up,” Noonan said.  

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A picture from the scene shows Frein -- a self-trained sniper and survivalist -- in the back of a police cruiser, dressed in black with his hair long and unkempt.

Gov. Tom Corbett thanked those who searched for Frein, and the residents of the area.

“You have given your heart and soul in the name of justice,” Corbett told the searchers.

“I can’t think of a more dangerous occupation than going into the woods after this individual,” Corbett said.

Pike County Prosecutor Raymond Tonkin told reporters that Frein would be charged with first-degree murder, and would face the death penalty. 

Frein, 31, was wanted in the ambush of state troopers Dickson and Alex Douglass with a sniper rifle outside their Blooming Grove barracks on Sept. 12. Dickson, 38, was killed and Douglass seriously wounded.

Calls to the Frein family home in Canadensis, Pa., were not immediately returned.

Residents and others breathed a sigh of relief at the news. 

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“I’m glad they finally got him,” said Patrick Patten, a rescue expert who has advised police in the search and who runs a school to teach law enforcement agents how to conduct manhunts. “He could have gone for five years, but it ended today and that’s wonderful.”

Nothing in Frein’s childhood suggested that 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.

A college dropout who worked odd jobs, Frein was interested in   reenactments of 20th century Eastern European battles, wearing historically accurate uniforms.

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.

Police suspected that Frein had prepared meticulously for life as a fugitive, saying he appeared to have stockpiled food and supplies. Police think he had planned the shooting years in advance, though it was unlikely he targeted Dickson and Douglass specifically.

The searchers, led by 200 Pennsylvania troopers, spotted Frein a number of times, only to have him slip away.  They were reluctant to give chase for fear of booby traps or ambush by the expert marksman.

They discovered signs of his movement throughout the woods, including a discarded rifle and empty cigarette packs. On multiple occasions, Frein seemed to be probing the edge of the police perimeter looking for a way to escape.

 The manhunt had disrupted life in the Pocono Mountains region, threatening to prevent Halloween trick-or-treating in some towns and prompting authorities to temporarily ban hunters and others from the forest.   

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Hundreds of law enforcement agents from the Pennsylvania State Police, FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Connecticut State Police and local police departments had descended on the rustic hunting region, hampering business and sometimes frustrating residents.

They used police dogs and thermal imaging helicopters to aid in the search. In recent days, police resorted to a new tactic: floating a helium surveillance balloon over the area.

Some locals who knew Frein had predicted he would continue to elude authorities due to his intimate knowledge of the area.

“They are really not going to catch him until he is ready to be caught,” Jeremiah Hornbaker, a filmmaker who knew Frein, said in an interview this month.

Reached Thursday night, Hornbaker said he was surprised by the arrest.

“Hopefully this will bring closure for the police officers and the families and everybody else involved,” Hornbaker said. “For everybody close to Eric, this upset their lives in a pretty dramatic way. Hopefully now everybody gets closure and they can move on.”

Hornbaker 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 came from Frein himself, who appeared 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 Douglass to help him.

Douglass survived but was seriously wounded. He was hospitalized until mid-October, when he was released to a rehab center.

Dickson had been a trooper for seven years, and had transferred to the Blooming Grove barracks from Philadelphia only months before the shooting. He is survived by his wife and two sons.

Noonan said the families of both officers were relieved and grateful that Frein was in custody.

So was Cait Finnegan-Grenier, a 63-year-old Canadensis resident who was within the wooded area that police locked down when Frein was first tracked to the hunting town last month.

“It would be nice to not have helicopters and drones over the house. That was going on until a couple of hours ago,” Finnegan-Grenier told The Times. “I feel sorry for the officer’s family, but I also feel sorry for Frein’s family. I can’t imagine being his mother.”

@timphelpsLAT

Times staff writers James Queally, Ryan Parker and Connie Stewart contributed to this report. 


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