HARRISBURG - The state police commander who helped lead the manhunt and capture of accused cop-killer Eric Frein has been demoted and stripped of his rank.
Lt. Col. George Bivens, the public face of law enforcement during the grueling, weeks-long hunt for Frein in the Poconos in 2014, will "revert to the rank of major" and be reassigned to head the agency's Bureau of Gaming Enforcement, according to an email sent Friday morning to agency employees.
State police spokeswoman Maria Finn confirmed that Bivens had been reassigned, but could not say why. Bivens, 53, of Cumberland County, was unavailable for comment.
Two people familiar with the move, which takes effect late next week, said Bivens was forced out as the agency's second-in-command by Gov. Wolf's most recent choice to lead the state police, Tyree C. Blocker.
Bivens, a well-liked and respected veteran among the agency's roughly 4,600 troopers and 1,600 civilians, was asked to retire or revert to a lower rank, the sources said. When Bivens refused to leave, he was reassigned. He was not given a reason for the change.
Wolf named Blocker to the job last year after controversy kept his first choice, Marcus Brown, from confirmation. Blocker did not respond Friday to a request for an interview. The governor's spokesman declined to comment.
Bivens' profile grew during the seven-week manhunt for Frein, a self-styled survivalist now awaiting trial in the fatal shooting of one trooper and severe wounding of a second in a September 2014 ambush. Bivens was the one regularly briefing reporters, while helping lead the operation with federal and local officials.
"Eric, you are a coward," was a message he delivered several times during the manhunt.
Alex Douglass, the trooper who survived Frein's ambush, said Friday that he was shocked by Bivens' demotion.
Douglass said he spoke with Bivens about the transfer, and believes it was a political decision. He described Bivens as a great person and commander who stood by him through multiple surgeries and a long recovery.
"I took it to heart when I heard about his demotion," said Douglass, who has vowed to return to the force.
One of Frein's defense lawyers was also taken aback when told of the demotion. "I thought Col. Bivens handled himself with absolute credibility, integrity, and professionalism," lawyer Michael Weinstein said Friday.
Edward J. Hanko, who retired last summer after serving as the FBI's top agent in Philadelphia, echoed the sentiment. Hanko worked closely with Bivens during the Frein manhunt and said the state police commander ran day-to-day operations without ego or letting anger or fear cloud the goal of capturing a killer.
"He doesn't only lead from the top, he also leads from within," Hanko said. "That quality is what is intrinsic in George and in great leaders. If your people know you will take care of them, they will follow you off a cliff."