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Rural Pennsylvania's Survivalist Manhunt Saga Is Finally Over

America's fetish for militarized policing was on display during the frenetic search for Eric Frein, who disappeared after killing one cop and wounding another in September.

by Nick Keppler
Nov 3 2014, 4:06pm

Eric Frein arrives for arraignment to court on October 31, 2014 in Milford, Pennsylvania. Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images

It ended where it all began for Eric Frein.

After US marshals pulled him out of an abandoned airport hangar in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains on Thursday evening, they took Frein back to the same state police barracks where, on September 12, he allegedly shot and killed Corporal Bryon Dickson and injured another state trooper in an ambush. To add another layer of poetic justice, state troopers delivered handcuffs that had been assigned to Dickson to the arrest site so they could be slapped on Frein, who was transported in Dickson's car. His associates say that Frein, an intermittently employed 31-year-old who lived with his parents and had a taste for war reenactment and a fetish for Serbian army gear, had spouted anti-cop rhetoric, but no specific motive has been given for the shooting.

After his abandoned car identified him as the shooter at the police barracks, Frein hid in the wilderness for 48 days. During that time, the Poconos--a rural stretch of eastern Pennsylvania containing a few villages, a stretch of rugged terrain. and some decent skiing--resembled an occupied territory.

The ranks of law enforcement in the area swelled from 200 immediately after the shooting to 400 at the end of September to 1,000 at the end of the manhunt. Helicopters buzzed overhead. Officers in SWAT gear patrolled country roads. Possible Frein sightings shut down schools. Residents carried weapons while walking their dogs and feeding their chickens. On Twitter, they exchanged photos of assault-rifle-wielding, camo-covered cops and videos of surveillance copters under the hashtag #EricFrein. The Ohio Department of Transportation donated a silent weather balloon to the aerial surveillance effort. A 39-year-old carless man who matches Frein's build and walks to work through the woods says he was accosted at gunpoint several times. Pictures of Frein, dressed in his Serbian army outfit and carrying a rifle, were plastered in nearly every gas station, grocery store, and post office in eastern Pennsylvania and lit up highway signs. "Considered armed and dangerous," they read.

During the manhunt, all indications suggested Frein was a self-trained survivalist and expert marksman, and that he still had the AK-47 he used to kill Dickson. In an oft-cited quote, Frein's father, a retired Army major, said his son "doesn't miss" with a rifle. For weeks, all police could find of him was a campsite of soiled diapers, empty packages of Serbian cigarettes, and a diary that seemed to contain a confession. ([Got] a shot around 11 PM and took it," it read. "He droped" [sic].)

Residents were particularly on edge because police warned them that Frein might try to take shelter in a vacation home or hunting cabin, or even break into a year-round residence.

"My house was lit up like a Christmas tree," says Nan Scharth, a resident of Price Township. "We had every floodlight on all of the time. When we came home, I would look in every closet and under every bed." During the search, Scharth says she never drove down a road without eying at least one police car or officer on foot.

The search eventually drew bounty hunters and desperate entrepreneurs. Michael DeSenzo, a 48-year-old unemployed father of three, scoured the woods for Frein, hoping to earn the $175,000 reward on his head.

"I would find out where the authorities were focusing and search just outside of the area," says DeSenzo. He "used Google Earth and [his] knowledge of the area to identify the most likely area Frein would be.

"My goal was never to confront," says DeSenzo, who was armed with only a small knife. "I simply wanted to identify him and call it in like any resident would do. The only difference is I went into the woods to do it."

DeSenzo spent nine days on the prowl and found "nothing terribly exciting: a banana peel, several piles of bear dung, a homeless guy squatting in an abandoned house," but no AK-carrying psycho.

Still, as employment had recently eluded DeSenzo, it seemed as good a way as any to feed a family in this economically desolate place. In Monroe County, the heart of the search, the percentage of children who are at or near poverty soared to 76 percent during the last recession.

The manhunt for Frein highlighted some of the symbols of Poconos' economic rust. For several days, police focused on the Inn at Buck Hill Falls, a 400-room resort and conference center closed and left to rot in 1991. The air hangar at which he was collared is part of the Birchwood-Pocono Air Park, a onetime honeymoon spot accessible by commuter plane which has been shuttered since the 90s.

Other than general antipathy for the cops, no one is sure why, exactly, Frein targeted the police barracks.

Catherine Stock, a professor of history at Connecticut College and author of Rural Radicals: Righteous Indignation in the American Grain, says the case bears several marks of a pattern of political violence in the American boonies.

"People in rural areas see all the power in urban centers," Stock says. "They don't feel powerful or think white privilege extends to them."

Often, the military is idolized in such places, both because bases tend to be stashed there and because enlistment rates among the rural population are so high. Many turn to the armed forces for work and distinction, two things that can be in short supply when the big employers in the area are Sunoco and Walmart.

"The military offers a job with honor when there might not much else available," Stock says.

In some cases, the men who become terrorists of the sticks previously served in the armed forces, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, or they just play dress-up, like Frein. The insignia and speech of a soldier is a sign of manhood, one that can replace ability to feed a family or subsist independently.

Authorities in the Poconos had good reason to go all out to catch a crazed gunman in their midst, but military equipment and tactics have become increasingly routine in police work. According to Stock, that feeds back into the minds of camo-wearing "sovereign citizen" types. Add in easy access to firearms and a cultural worship of the gun, and you have a history of backwoods anger-cum-radicalism that stretches back to the Whiskey Rebellion.

"There is a militarization of our culture right now," Stock tells me. "The signal to some people who might feel threatened by the way the country is changing is that it is the military's job is to defend the culture, and they may move to take an active part in that."

Nick Keppler is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Nerve.com and Pittsburgh City Paper.