Pennsylvania Trooper Ambush Suspect Could Lose Advantage as Leaves Fall

For the past month, ambush suspect Eric Frein has capitalized on relatively mild temperatures, dense tree cover and his own survival skills to successfully elude a manhunt in the woods of Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains.

Now that it's getting colder and the leaves are starting to fall, the advantage could soon shift to law enforcement, experts say. But the challenge remains no less daunting as police track an armed suspect — already accused of killing one officer and injuring another — in a wilderness that offers plenty of places to hide.

"I wish people could understand how hard it is to find people in the woods," said Patrick Patten, who helped track Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber who eluded authorities for years in the woods of western North Carolina. "It truly is a massive undertaking."

The Sept. 12 ambush outside the Blooming Grove state police barracks killed Cpl. Bryon Dickson, seriously wounded Trooper Alex Douglass and touched off a manhunt whose scale and intensity is unrivaled in modern Pennsylvania history.

Day after day, tactical teams looking for Frein creep through the woods around his parents' home in Canadensis, using sticks and ski poles to prod the dense underbrush. Dogs sniff for explosives, weapons and ammunition — and any sign of the suspect. Troopers maintain a perimeter.

A month after the attack, residents have grown accustomed to the constant police presence in this rugged corner of the state. A woman fetching her mail seemed unfazed last week as more than a dozen camouflaged officers surrounded a vacant home across the street. She walked back up her driveway without so much as a glance.

Others are more unnerved.

Vonya Galunic, 35, said the sight of tactical teams in the woods behind her house, or along the creek where she often spends time, is upsetting.

"This is where I go for my solitude," said Galunic, who grew up here but lives part-time in New York City.

Spreading mulch along her driveway as black-clad, heavily armed state police rendezvoused next door, she said: "It's really uncomfortable. What do you do?"

The massive manhunt has upset daily life in other ways, with schools closed and whole neighborhoods blocked off in the early days of the search, and retail businesses still foundering. An upcoming Halloween parade has been postponed and trick-or-treating this year is canceled.

State police Lt. Col. George Bivens acknowledged the manhunt's toll.

"I know this has been a very trying time for everyone, and I can only imagine the stress this is putting on families caught in the middle," he said.

Yet most residents remain supportive, Bivens said, citing the blue ribbons that adorn mailboxes and tree trunks, the letters from schoolchildren and Scouts, and the handshakes offered up by civilians.

At Lewis' Supermarket, near the search area, a fundraiser for the victims' families sold more than 300 "PSP Strong" T-shirts in just a few hours last week.

"There's a lot of support in the community for the police to catch his guy," said Eric Roeder, 53, who bought one of the $15 shirts. "I live next to the woods and he could be running around my house."

At times, law enforcement has seemed tantalizingly close to Frein, the 31-year-old self-taught survivalist, war re-enactor and expert marksman believed to harbor a hatred of law enforcement.

Police were able to determine Frein's direction of travel from a campsite he had used and say they've even laid eyes on him — from a distance.

But he has proven to be elusive, and the dense forest canopy has allowed him to avoid the prying eyes of police helicopters outfitted with thermal imaging cameras.

That could change once the trees are bare, giving the cameras a better shot at detecting him, said Patten, the tracking expert. Yet the lack of foliage could also work in Frein's favor, he said, allowing him to see law enforcement from a greater distance and potentially putting officers in more danger.

"Whatever works for the good guys, works for the bad guys, and whatever works for him works for us," said Patten, founder of Tactical Woodland Operations School in North Carolina.

At one point during the long, frustrating search for Rudolph, Patten walked 600 miles in a single 10-month span but found no sign of his quarry.

Similarly, it's not clear that authorities in the Frein manhunt have any idea where he is hiding within the 5-square-mile area they are targeting.

"Not being there, I can't criticize what they are doing," said Larry Wilkinson, president of Tactical Tracker Training School in North Carolina.

But the evidence suggests "they are still shooting the dark," he said. "If you have guys in the woods and guys around a house" several miles away, "they have no idea where he is."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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