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As Frein manhunt goes on, a new normal in Poconos

CANADENSIS, Pa.- 7:30 a.m: A school bus cruises along a foggy country road, carrying children to school. A few cars back, a black armored vehicle rolls past a blinking sign. "Closed to hunting," it reads.

FBI agents gather Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014, for a briefing in Canadensis on the continued search for Eric Frein. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )
FBI agents gather Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014, for a briefing in Canadensis on the continued search for Eric Frein. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )Read more

CANADENSIS, Pa.- 7:30 a.m: A school bus cruises along a foggy country road, carrying children to school.

A few cars back, a black armored vehicle rolls past a blinking sign. "Closed to hunting," it reads.

Minutes later, a man waits for breakfast at the nearby Mountainhome Deli. "Did they get that guy last night?" he asks a woman behind the counter.

"No, no, no," she tells him, resigned.

It is Wednesday, the start of another day, the new normal in the Poconos.

"That guy" needs no introduction. He is Eric Frein, who state police say shot two troopers and disappeared into the woods, robbing many people of their daily rhythms and livelihoods.

One month has passed since Frein (pronounced "Freen") allegedly ambushed the officers at a barracks, and weariness among the residents is mounting. So are the costs of the 1,000-plus person manhunt, already estimated to be "several" million dollars.

The 31-year-old college dropout knew few people here besides his family.

But he clearly knows the land. Police say they believe Frein has been hiding in a five-square-mile area of rugged mountain terrain in Pike and Monroe Counties. His motive remains unclear, but as the weeks passed, details of his life have trickled out, helping to paint a fuller portrait of one of the country's most-wanted men.

He's a survivalist who participated in Cold War-era military reenactments; a sniper who may wear diapers and smoke Serbian cigarettes; a suspect who apparently stopped long enough to sit and write a detailed account of his attack.

Frein has been spotted at safe distances, has left supplies and bombs behind at campsites, and for a time may have had a radio and cellphone, police say. But they also believe the manhunt is like a game for Frein, whose obsession with the military and past minor clashes with police may have fused into a high-stakes cat-and-mouse gambit.

As the search presses on, every day starts to feel the same.

10:15 a.m.: A dozen FBI agents crowd around an unmarked red SUV at a tree nursery along Route 447, studying what looks like a map. They lean on the hood, pace, and occasionally spit on the ground.

About 30 yards away, nine reporters turn and watch from a gravel shoulder on the road that has become an informal media staging area. The media, mostly from local or other Pennsylvania outlets, snap photos of the agents and chat. One local cameraman says he started growing what he called "a playoff beard" when the manhunt began. Now it covers most of his face.

Much of their chatter is about the news conference police might have later in the day. The details, as always, are unclear.

This is not the first manhunt for a killer in the woods. Strikingly similar ones played out in New York state and North Carolina in the last decade or so. Both fugitives were caught, convicted, and imprisoned. Eventually.

The FBI spent nearly five years searching for Eric Rudolph - an antigovernment self-proclaimed "survivalist" who bombed abortion clinics, a gay bar, and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta before fleeing into the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

Much like Frein, Rudolph was believed to be hiding in a five-square-mile area, said Chris Swecker, a former FBI special agent in North Carolina.

"You would think that would be a pretty easy area to search," Swecker said. "But when you think of the up and the down and the sideways of it, it's probably five times that. Mountains are harder to search."

Bill DeBlock, a retired deputy superintendent with the New York State Police, helped lead a 91-day search in 2006 for Ralph "Bucky" Phillips, who had escaped from an Erie County jail.

"It's not like it is on TV," DeBlock said. "These guys are a step ahead of us in the woods. . . . And it makes it a little more difficult when you know a guy will shoot at you."

Phillips shot three troopers before his capture. One died.

During one chase, a state trooper who spotted Phillips 500 feet away unleashed his dog, only to see Phillips hustle up a rock ledge the animal couldn't climb.

"Within an instant," said former New York State Police Superintendent Wayne Bennett, "he was no longer in sight."

Noon: Capri Pizza owner Joe Kastrati turns up the volume on the local newscast at his business along Route 390 in Mountainhome.

Ebola now tops the news. Frein follows.

"It's become a second-hand story now," Kastrati said, keeping an eye on the television set.

As the manhunt story makes the broadcast, Steve Heller walks in for his daily slices.

"They were searching my neighbor's yard this morning," Heller shouts over the television to another table of diners. But it's not all bad: Heller feels safe with so many police officers surrounding his home.

Barrett Township, which includes the villages of Canadensis and Mountainhome, has about 4,000 residents and one stoplight. It's a place where neighbors wave and greet one another by name. Many say they know Frein's mother and his father, a retired Army major.

By early afternoon, Justine Knipe, owner of Mountainhome Candle, has not made a single sale, a discouraging sign for a merchant around here. The fall foliage season, which often peaks around Columbus Day, usually means thousands of dollars in business. The manhunt, she says, has made Barrett Township "a ghost town."

The only visitors streaming into the area are the ones with cameras, microphones, and satellite trucks.

Much of what is known about Frein has trickled out every few days. Dozens of journalists and media crews scramble to the Township Building in Blooming Grove, miles from the search area, and not far from the barracks where Frein allegedly gunned down Cpl. Bryon K. Dickson and wounded Trooper Alex Douglass on the night of Sept. 12.

Sometimes police gather to confirm information that's already been leaked or published. Sometimes they hand out court documents with new details.

It was at such a briefing last month that police first disclosed they had found diapers and cigarettes they believe Frein left behind in the woods. Later, they acknowledged he had been planning the attack for years. Then they disclosed finding two homemade pipe bombs and released photos of the explosives. They think he stashed other provisions, and is surviving on tuna and ramen noodles.

They've acknowledged Frein sightings - some from as close as 75 yards - but said he always flees back into the woods - his woods.

Frein's one misstep - turning on his cellphone one night early in the manhunt - enabled them to shrink the search perimeter. But five square miles is still more than 3,000 acres.

Sometimes at the news briefings, they have addressed Frein directly, as though he were listening.

"Eric, you are a coward," said state police Lt. Col. George Bivens, a message he's delivered more than once.

For most of the monthlong hunt, Bivens, a state police veteran both on the force and in dealing with the media, has been its public face. At times, he's been flanked at the lectern by federal agents or local officials.

But when news comes, it usually comes from Bivens.

3 p.m.: Standing before a few dozen reporters - police usually give a few hours notice before a briefing, enough time for media to scramble from New York or other spots - Bivens confirms that investigators have discovered what they say is a journal Frein left behind in the woods.

He quotes from it: "Got a shot around 11 p.m. and took it. . . . He dropped . . . I was surprised at how quick."

The disclosure confirms an earlier report from CNN. But Bivens shares more. Police found the journal pages at a campsite, he says, along with clothing, food, ammunition, and Frein's checkbook and cellphone.

The briefing lasts about 30 minutes, and ends up being the only one of the week. At points, reporters repeatedly ask how much the investigation has cost.

Someone ventures into another topic that has become routine:

How long? How long can it go on?

Bivens acknowledges the search is disrupting daily life. He pleads for patience.

"I can only imagine the stress this is putting on families caught in the middle of this manhunt," he says.

Fatigue mounted during the search for Phillips in western New York. There, like in the Poconos, some locals began to insist Phillips had left their area.

"The longer the search went on, the less cooperative the public seemed to be," said DeBlock, the retired New York deputy superintendent. "They were tired of seeing troopers. They had gone through too many roadblocks. People wanted to get back to their normal routine."

6:53 p.m: The sun sets. A helicopter hovers. Troopers fasten headlamps to their helmets and pile into armored vehicles, heading back toward the woods.

Not long after, only two tables are occupied in the dining room of the Pour House restaurant. Customers at the bar talk about the manhunt.

A group enters after a Rotary Club meeting. Someone asks whether there was news from the Barrett Township supervisors' meeting that night.

There was.

Halloween is canceled. The 50th annual Halloween parade? The annual 5K scarecrow race? Trick-or-treating? Gone.

As they leave the bar to head home, some may encounter another grim reminder of the manhunt: State police roadblocks, limiting travel.

Through the night, helicopters rumble above. Troopers with rifles and search dogs scan forests and backyards.

And Eric Frein remains hidden.