It came down to a surprise stroke of luck. After scouring the Pocono Mountains for seven weeks for a cop-killing suspect who became more a phantom with each passing day, police in Pennsylvania stumbled upon Eric Frein without warning Thursday evening.
The takedown of one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives didn’t come through a tip or a sighting but a routine sweep of an abandoned airport hangar, police said Friday morning following his arraignment on murder charges. Since the Sept. 12 ambush at a state police barracks near Scranton, 31-year-old Frein disappeared into the dense, deep woods, confounding authorities and keeping residents on edge.
A number of unconfirmed sightings and false alarms fueled the frustrating search, and police found clues and campsites that pointed to a person on the run. They uncovered scraps of food, a brand of Serbian cigarettes that Frein is known to have smoked and soiled diapers. Police also noted more chilling items: a pair of homemade pipe bombs, an AK-47 and even a diary with his alleged writings detailing the police shootings.
“Got a shot around 11 p.m. and took it,” he wrote in a Sept. 12 diary entry. “He dropped. I was surprised at how quick. I took a follow-up shot on his head, neck area. He was still and quiet after that,” the narrative read.
“Another cop approached the one I just shot. As he went to kneel, I took a shot at him and jumped in the door. His legs were visible and still.”
Frein, a military-reenactment buff and self-taught survivalist, went on to describe how he fled in his Jeep but only got a half-mile before he encountered a roadblock. He made a turn, turned off his lights when he heard helicopters above, and ended up driving into a pond.
“Disaster,” he wrote, adding that he took off and ditched his AK-47, leaving him with a .308 caliber sniper rifle. The jeep was discovered in the pond days later.
His retreat — and the trail of false leads — was a “game,” authorities said. But that all changed at around 6 p.m. Thursday. A team of U.S. marshals making a routine sweep of the woods — about 35 miles from the police barracks — spotted Frein standing in a field outside of a hangar at an old airstrip in the Poconos. They ordered him to surrender. He got down on his knees and raised his hands quietly.
His face was visibly bruised and bloodied, but police say he did not put up a fight during the arrest. In a show of symbolism, police said they slapped the slain trooper’s handcuffs on Frein and placed him into his patrol car.
The suspect was “surprised” by his arrest and spoke with authorities, State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens told reporters Friday. He declined to detail what Frein said or give a motive for the attack. “I characterized his actions in the past as pure evil, and I would stand by that,” Bivens added.
“I characterized his actions in the past as pure evil, and I would stand by that.”
He may also have been planning for such a showdown for months, according to a criminal complaint released Friday. On Internet searches of his home computer, police say, they found the terms “SWAT raid tactics,” “police raid training” and “how to escape a manhunt.”
Frein was arraigned on nine charges in Pike County court, including murder, attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and having a weapon of mass destruction. The prosecutor has said he would seek the death penalty should Frein be convicted.
Police had appeared stymied as they methodically searched the rugged landscape of the eastern Pennsylvania hills for any trace of the survivalist. Officials didn’t discuss whether they had previously searched that same abandoned hangar. They long suspected that Frein never stayed in one place for too long. “He was able to get into cabins, into other unoccupied structures, find food,” Bivens said. “In other cases, he had things hidden. He was able to find shelter and get out of the weather, much as we were expecting.”
There was heavy police presence Friday as Frein was taken from a patrol car to the Pike County courthouse. He spoke politely when answering the judge’s questions, and was ordered held without bail.
Outside, a bruised and shackled Frein was led back to a patrol car and faced a crowd of media and hecklers. They jeered at him: “You’re a coward” and “Rot in hell.”