The suspect in the deadly ambush of Pennsylvania state police barracks was deeply involved in the military re-enactment community and played a variation on paintball in which he posed as a Serbian soldier during weekend war games.
Police who are hunting for Eric Frein, 31, say the role he once played on faux battlefields appears to have consumed him in real life before he shaved his head and allegedly shot two troopers last Friday night. They say Frein — the son of a retired Army major and a member of his high school rifle team — harbored a long-standing grudge against law-enforcement and government, though provided no details.
That portrait of Frein, who was added to the FBI’s most-wanted list Wednesday, disturbed several friends and acquaintances who know him from the Eastern Wolves, a Serbian-themed group that was part of the military-simulation wing of a hobby known as Airsoft.
“That stuff about wanting to commit mass murder and kill cops? I never heard him say anything like that,” said Stephen D’Arcangelo, who has known Frein for six years and last spoke to him about a month ago.
D’Arcangelo said there are some “odd” characters in the Airsoft military scene. “You might look at someone and say, I have to keep this guy at arm’s length. He [Frein] was not that guy.
"With the mohawk thing and the military uniform, they're making him sound like Travis Bickle from 'Taxi Driver' and he wasn't that dude," he said.
Another Eastern Wolves member, Ben Lang, 36, said he remembered "general griping" about the federal government from Frein, but nothing extreme.
He worried that the group's motivations were being misconstrued. "It has nothing to do with anything political in any way shape or form," Lang said.
He said Airsoft was similar to paintball, but involved a larger field of play and replica guns that fired plastic BBs instead of paint pellets. Those involved in military simulation pick a uniform to wear and stage battles based on historic events.
"It's just dressing up and playing," said Zach Nielsen, who did Airsoft with Frein for about a year.
"I don't know what made him snap," Nielsen said. "He was a really smart, intelligent guy."
Jessica Furin, 25, another former Eastern Wolves member, said she was shocked to hear him described as anti-cop because when younger members spoke about going into law-enforcement, "he would say it's good discipline."
State police have said Frein carried a grudge against the police since 2006. That coincides with three months that he spent in jail on a theft charge.
Frein was accused of stealing World War II memorabilia from an upstate New York re-enactment. After he didn't show up for an April 2006 trial, a warrant was issued and he surrendered, officials said. He was locked up until he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to time served and restitution.
"He was a normal, easy-going guy. He liked to have fun. He cared about his friends."
The Schuyler County district attorney said that when police executed a search warrant in the barracks ambush case at his parent's house in Canadensis, they found papers on his nightstand "which included documents associated with his arrest and conviction in Schuyler County."
Frein does not seem to have a social media profile under his name or an Eastern Wolves handle he used, Vucko. A Facebook account under his alias was taken down Thursday, D'Arcangelo said.
Police have declined to specify where they found the anti-police and anti-government materials.
D'Arcangelo, 27, said he never got the sense Frein was "a loose cannon, or irrational or weird."
"He was a normal, easy-going guy. He liked to have fun. He cared about his friends," he said. "I want to believe that he didn't do it, that he didn't have the capacity to do that. But if that's the case, the part that's missing is where is he then?"
NBC News' Stephanie Gosk and John Brecher contributed to this story.