Manhunt for Escaped Prisoners Echoes Search for Another Killer

It was about 1 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, and I was driving back from my job in New York City along I-84 in Pike County, Pa., within a few miles of home.

In the coal-mine-at-midnight darkness came a burst of strobe lights atop the roofs of two cars in my rearview mirror.

They were closing in.

Fast.

Damnit, I thought. Was I speeding? Sometimes in these wee hours, I did have a tendency to leadfoot it.

But no, the two vehicles – one a Pike County sheriff’s patrol car and the other from the Pennsylvania State Police – went roaring by and never gave me, the lone motorist on a darkened highway, a second thought.

Hours later I would come to understand why.

***

The shrill ringing of our landline woke me out of a deep sleep. I had finally hit the rack around 1:30 a.m. and now through my blurry vision I could see it was about 8 a.m.

It was my wife, Meg, and she was taking our youngest son to track practice at school.

The words came pouring out of her like coffee beans from a torn burlap bag:

“I know you were sleeping, love, but I wanted to tell you that we were turned around on Route 402 getting to school because there was a shooting at the State Police barracks last night. Apparently two troopers were shot in an ambush. The place is crawling with cops and we had to take a detour.”

The news hit my brain like a jolt of electricity. Here? In the Poconos of Pennsylvania? Ten minutes from our house?

Not a month earlier, I had quit my job as executive editor of the local daily paper, the Pocono Record of Stroudsburg, Pa., to join the Metro desk as a staff editor at The New York Times.

I immediately called my successor at the Pocono Record to tell him the news and then stayed glued to my computer for updates.

For the next 48 days, being glued to the news for updates would be the MO for thousands of residents in the Poconos whose lives were disrupted in the huge dragnet for Eric Frein, the man sought in the sniper shootings that killed one trooper and seriously injured another at the State Police barracks in Blooming Grove, Pa.

http://www.ama-pdx.org/

I am drawn back to those whirlwind weeks of the search for Frein, a former high school marksman with a reputation as a stellar shot, as I stay equally glued following the developments in the search for the now one remaining  escapee from the Clinton County Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y.

I have a foot in both worlds, being a former resident and reporter in the North Country and a newsman and resident of the Poconos.

Though the searches were sparked by different events — one an ambush shooting involving a single person and the other a breakout by two inmates from a maximum-security prison — the searches share a good deal in common.

Hence, my empathy for what North Country residents are enduring.

Like the Dannemora breakout, the Frein search drew national headlines and launched rounds of speculation on social media about his whereabouts.

And like the search for David Sweat and, up until yesterday,  Richard Matt, there were armchair sleuths who criticized or second-guessed the work of the searchers.

While not as rugged as the Adirondacks, the Pocono woodlands where Frein was hiding posed huge logistical challenges for the army of law enforcement that descended on Pike and Monroe counties.

Swamps, dense vegetation and greenways of no man’s land gave Frein ample places to hide. Plus, he was a practiced survivalist and war games re-enactor, so he was a bit on his home turf.

But for locals, this was anything but a game.

Posters with his face were plastered in stores, bulletin boards and even a huge electronic billboard approaching the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City.

For the first time since we moved into our house, I concerned myself with making sure our car doors were locked and our outdoor lights were left on overnight.

School schedules were disrupted as the search pressed on for a killer on the loose. My son lost an entire week that he had to make up at the end of the school year.

Meanwhile some residents were left shut out of their homes or in them as officers locked down certain roads during the most intensive searches.

Federal, state and county assets were pressed into service, including new-fangled machines, including one called The Rook, to help in the search.

It felt like every day was a game of Whack-a-Mole with new leads popping up, then being squashed and new ones surfacing to replace them.

Out of the highs and lows of the search emerged a sense of community spirit and support for law enforcement.

Blue ribbons were tied to trees as a symbol of community backing. Businesses, local residents and firehouses donated food, water and other needed supplies by the truckload to sustain the searchers.

In the end, it was during a sweep of a search area that a team of U.S. marshals spotted and arrested Frein.

He had been using an abandoned airplane hangar as a base of operations.

He was peacefully taken into custody and the 48-day siege that had consumed the Poconos came to an end.

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