A trio of heavily armed state troopers looked down intently from a bridge in rural Pennsylvania. Behind them, a slow procession of unmarked cars climbed a steep hill to deliver the next tour of local, state and federal law enforcement agents in the nearly two-week hunt for cop-killing suspect Eric Matthew Frein.
Broken branches beneath the span caught the troopers’ attention. Two officers, carrying rifles and wearing ballistic vests, descended to inspect. The third stood guard above. Every disturbed branch merits a closer look for clues to the whereabouts of the self-styled survivalist with a grudge against law enforcement.
Frein, 31, is the suspect in a September 12 ambush that left Cpl. Byron Dickson dead and another trooper wounded outside the Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Blooming Grove, Pennsylvania.
On Wednesday, with as many as 1,000 law enforcement officers involved in the manhunt at a given time, authorities revealed that the meticulous, grid-like search over up to 3 square miles of hilly terrain may be paying off.
There have been a number of sightings of a man believed to be Frein — a war buff obsessed with Eastern European military conflicts — by both local residents and police, State Police Lt. Col George Bivens said without giving further details. The last sighting came about 24 hours ago.
The sightings were from a significant distance, however, and Frein has continued to elude authorities.
The search has yielded an empty pack of Serbian cigarettes, Bivens said. Frein claims to have fought with Serbians in Africa and has studied Russian and Serbian languages, according to the FBI, which last week named him one of its 10 Most Wanted fugitives. Soiled adult diapers were also found, perhaps used by Frein to stay in a stationary position for long periods of time.
“I think this is a game to him in some ways,” Bivens said.
It’s a game that’s wearing thin on some residents of Pike and Monroe counties who have been affected by the massive manhunt. Local lawyer Joshua Prince is asking residents who feel that their rights have been violated during the police manhunt to contact his law firm.
“I’ve spoken with a number of individuals who have either been excluded from their homes, ordered to stay in their homes or have been subjected to searches of their vehicles all without warrants or court orders,” he said.
“These are innocent third parties,” he added. “They have no relationship with Mr. Frein, and the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI appear to be merely doing whatever they want up there and ordering people to allow them to go through their homes and vehicles, all in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
In a statement Tuesday night, the Pennsylvania State Police, the lead agency in the investigation, said that “at no time” were residents completely restricted from access to their homes.
“To clear up any misconceptions regarding the search, we have been diligent in respecting the rights of the public while working hard to keep both residents and law enforcement personnel safe. We need to be deliberate and methodical in our operations, as we still believe that Eric Frein is armed and very dangerous,” the statement said.
Bivens thanked residents for their “patience and understanding” and said troopers were “doing their best to balance safety concerns.”
Over the weekend, authorities discovered an AK-47 rifle, some magazines and a small bag of ammo believed to belong to Frein. Greg Huelbig, who owns the 402 Cafe about 100 yards away, said many residents were inconvenienced but understood the work of law enforcement.
“There is frustration, but I don’t think it’s due to the troopers or local responders doing their jobs,” he said. “It’s an inconvenience, obviously. … We’re frustrated because the search is still ongoing and we have a dangerous criminal in our backyard. … Everybody that’s talking about being locked out or being locked down, they understand why it’s happening. But yes, they’re frustrated. They’re upset.”
Area schools opened Tuesday for the first time since the middle of last week, although some school buses were kept off roads because of heavy police activity. There was increased security throughout the Pocono Mountain School District, and students would remain indoors, according to the district’s website.
“This is an extremely difficult situation for our community,” the website said. “Schools will be in session but, ultimately it is your decision as parents whether to send your children to school. The District will respect your decision and all absences will be excused and will not impact a student’s perfect attendance.”
For the moment, the reopening of schools and roads Tuesday provided a sense of relief vof a community under virtual lockdown.
On Wednesday, attendance in the 9,800-student district was up to 84% after dropping to 70% the day before. After-school athletic practices were moved indoors and home athletic competitions canceled.
“I talked to a mom or two that hadn’t sent their children to school but wanted to know how things were going,” district spokeswoman Wendy Frable said. “Once I reassured them, they said they were considering sending their children to school. They’re concerned about the safety of the students.”
Bivens said an examination of Frein’s notes and reading material as well as interviews with relatives and others reveal that he probably had planned the shootings for months, if not years. The distance and rugged terrain separating officers from the suspect during recent sightings meant “he has had the ability to disappear,” Bivens said.
Authorities have said that Frein hated law enforcement and that they believe that he’s solely focused on hurting more officers but not civilians.
“We’re not going away,” Bivens said. “We’ll be here until we apprehend him.”
For residents, life in the Pocono Mountains has changed.
“We’re the country, but it doesn’t seem very country-ish right now,” Frable said. “It’s not the normal routine.”