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‘Literally hunting humans’: Eric Frein, sniper who killed Pa. trooper, sentenced to death

Eric Frein is led away by Pennsylvania State Police troopers at the Pike County Courthouse after his preliminary hearing in Milford, Pa., in January 2015. (Butch Comegys/Scranton Times & Tribune via AP)

Eric Frein may be most remembered for the massive 48-day, 300-square-mile manhunt for him that gripped the nation in 2014 after he hid in the brush outside a Pennsylvania State Police barracks and, with his sniper rifle, fatally shot one trooper and severely injured another.

More than 1,000 law enforcement officers on foot, in military-style vehicles and in helicopters combed the Poconos in Pennsylvania while residents sheltered in place and schools closed.

Finally, on Oct. 30, 2014, the cop-killer billed in the media as a “survivalist” and military “reenactor” was found and placed in the handcuffs that belonged to the Pennsylvania state trooper he killed.

People in the rural Poconos countryside where he had been hiding out with his sniper rifle, his handgun and, at one point, an explosive charge, breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The rattle of search helicopters finally ceased. The schools reopened. And Halloween was no longer canceled. “Trick or treating is on tomorrow night,” declared township board chairman Ralph Megliola. “We as a town think the kids have gone through enough.”

Late Wednesday, a Pike County, Pa., jury recommended the death sentence for Frein.

But as the killer did not testify and put on no defense, whatever motivated his burst of violence remains murky.

In the end, the best answer prosecutors could come up with was terrorism. Based on his own rant in a letter addressed to his parents, Frein thought his crime would start an uprising against the government.

“Our nation is far from what it was and what it should be,” he had written to his parents while on the run. “There is so much wrong and on so many levels only passing through the crucible of another revolution can get us back the liberties we once had. … Tension is high at the moment and the time seems right for a spark to ignite a fire in the hearts of men. What I have done has not been done before and it felt like it was worth a try.”

But the letter gave no specifics. Nothing about “big government” or taxes or land. No complaints about a president or some group or the other taking over the country. Just a nation “far from what it was and what it should be,” and “the liberties we once had.”

Frein, Pike County District Attorney Raymond J. Tonkin said, was “a terrorist with murder in his heart, a plan in his mind and a rifle in his hand.”

The trial left no uncertainty about the careful planning that went into Frein’s assault.

Pike County Assistant District Attorney Bruce DeSarro told jurors, as the Morning Call reported, that Frein had researched a number of police stations for their suitability for an attack before choosing Blooming Grove, which is surrounded by state game lands into which he could retreat and underbrush where he could set up his .308 semiautomatic rifle.

He was “literally hunting humans,” Tonkin told jurors.

Sometime before 11 p.m. on the night of Sept. 12, 2014, Frein “slithered” into the brush, as the prosecutor put it, set up his rifle and scope, and took aim at the doorway to the barracks in northeastern Pennsylvania from a distance of about 87 yards.

Soon after, Cpl. Bryon Dickson II, 38, the father of two children and a Marine, opened the door and stepped outside, allowing his silhouette to be illuminated by the light from inside.

Dispatcher Nicole Palmer was on the phone, listening to someone complaining about fireworks in their neighborhood, when she heard a loud bang outside. She looked out and saw Dickson lying motionless. She knelt over him. “When he was trying to speak,” she testified, “all I heard was blood in his throat. He just mouthed the words ‘help me.’ ”

One bullet hit him in the chest, instantly felling him. Another hit a tree. Yet another passed through Dickson’s shoulder, shattering his spine.

He wanted to be dragged inside, Palmer said, but she couldn’t. She feared for her life and retreated to the lobby to protect herself.

Trooper Alex Douglass, 33, was putting a bag of running clothes into his car in preparation for a run the next morning. “I heard what actually sounded like fireworks going off,” he would say later in an interview with WNEP-TV. “There’s actually a gentleman who sells fireworks a little ways down from our station so it wouldn’t be unusual.”

But not knowing where the noise was coming from, the 10-year veteran walked back toward the barracks to find out. As he neared the entrance, he saw Dickson on the ground. He started yelling for help.

But then, “as I walked over to Corporal Dickson to see what the issue was, that’s when I got shot. I went down to my knees. Luckily,” he said, “I was by the front doors and was able to crawl into the station. At that point, I knew someone was shooting at us. … I didn’t know if it was an ambush. I didn’t know if there were 12 guys out there, if there was one or two guys.”

“It felt like I got hit in the back with a baseball bat,” he testified of the bullet that crashed into his back, the Morning Call reported.

He managed to get back into the lobby of the building, warning another trooper coming toward him, “Don’t come out, someone’s shooting at us from across the road.”

Douglass, once an ultramarathoner who now walks with a leg brace, has had dozens of surgeries since. The bullet tore through his hip and pelvis, leaving a wound “probably the size of a silver dollar,” he testified.

Frein took off. A diary he kept, later discovered by police as they searched for him, described some of his movements.

“Had to run,” he wrote on Sept. 13. “Jeep stuck. Ditched the (rifle.) Went on foot, heading southwest to stream under (Interstate) 84.

“Slept all day in abandoned camper,” he wrote the next day. “Crossed 84. No (police) activity. Started campfire.”

“Set up shelter and cleaned up,” he wrote three days later. Called home via cellphone “to let them know I’m still alive. Got text saying I’m a suspect. Saw patrol. Not spotted. They stuck to the trails. Listened to radio. News media calling me a ‘survivalist.’ Ha! Catchy phrase I guess. Shelter-in-place (ordered) by spooked cops.”

His last entries were between Oct. 25 and 29. “Found two packages of crackers. Broke into a place. … Took rice, Ramen and oil. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.”

Forty-eight days from the moment he opened fire at the barracks, Frein was captured. A team of police and U.S. marshals had been searching an abandoned air strip and resort in Tannersville, Pa.

One of the marshals spotted Frein just as Frein spotted him.

“He turned towards me,” the marshal, Scott Malkowski, said in an interview with ABC6. “I told him to get on the ground. He pronged out, he was about five feet away. I said ‘Who are you? What’s your name?’ He said ‘Eric Frein.’ ”

Malkowski told ABC6 that Frein seemed disappointed that it was over. “Sad and defeated that’s what I would describe it as,” he said. “He knew it was over.”

Unarmed, Frein offered no resistance.

In a phone call with his mother after he was arrested, the two spoke about the number of interview requests coming in from news organizations. Frein, according to a recording of the call introduced by prosecutors, said he was “not giving the story away for free. The story goes to the highest bidder.”

Only Frein’s family and his lawyer pleaded for his life during the sentencing phase of the trial.

His mother said that he was not a monster but rather “a sweet person.”

His father, who holds a PhD in microbiology, said, “I failed Eric as a father,” and testified about the lies he told his son, including phony stories about combat injuries in Vietnam he never suffered.

Eugene Frein, as the Morning Call reported, testified that although he served 28 years in the Army and National Guard, he never saw combat. Still, he told his son he was a sniper and told tales of “covering himself with excrement so enemy soldiers would think he was dead.”

“Young Eric,” as the Morning Call wrote, “soaked up his father’s tall tales, his defense attorneys said, and was influenced by Eugene Frein’s anti-government rants.”

Frein’s sister, Tiffany, 20, said her father would hit her and drag her around by her hair. Eric would comfort her, she testified. “He made me feel like someone actually loved me.”

But despite the family’s pleas, the jury decided not to spare Frein.

Afterward, following an old local tradition, the Pike County sheriff rang the bell on top of the courthouse eight times, signaling that Eric Frein, 33, had received a death sentence.

Whether it will be carried out is another matter entirely. Pennsylvania hasn’t executed anyone since 1999. And Gov. Tom Wolf has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

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