Members of the Pennsylvania Senate held a committee meeting in Pike County, June 15, to assess the impact of the unprecedented 48-day manhunt conducted through the Poconos in the fall of 2014, for Eric Frien, who gunned down two State Police troopers, killing one.
LORDS VALLEY - Members of the Pennsylvania Senate held a committee meeting in Pike County, June 15, to assess the impact of the unprecedented 48-day manhunt conducted through the Poconos in the fall of 2014, for Eric Frien, who gunned down two State Police troopers, killing one.
The assessment was called to determine what was learned from the event, how well prepared was the PA State Police, how anything could be done differently in the future and what toll was incurred by the citizenry including economic impact, school schedules and general shattering of the typical Pocono trademark of peace and calm.
Senator Lisa Baker (R-20th), whose district includes Pike and Monroe counties where the manhunt actually occurred, raised the idea the month following Frein capture on October 30, 2014, to hold a hearing locally. The plan was referred to the Vetarans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee, on which Baker is a member.
Senator Randy Vulakovich (R-38th), Committee Chairman, said the hearing was delayed until once Frein’s trial and conviction was reached. “We weren’t going to give that guy anything,” said Vulakovich. Frein was tried in Pike County Court, convicted on all counts and sentenced to the Death Penalty.
Baker stated that the purpose of the hearing was meant to be a constructive inquiry, and “not an inquisition by any means.”
They gathered at the Pike County Training Center in Lords Valley, the same place that became the PA State Police Command Center for several weeks, coordinating the massive search involving around 1,000 people and resources from multiple federal, state and local agencies. There is thought to have never been a manhunt like it in Pennsylvania history. The Pike County Training Center is within a couple miles of the Blooming Grove barracks on Route 402, where the ambush of September 12, 2014 occurred.
Senator Scott Hutchinson (R-21st) was also on the panel, as was the three local State Representatives, Rep. Rosemary Brown (R-189), Rep. Mike Peifer (R-139) and Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R-111).
Rep. Fritz called the hearing they held that day, “part of the healing process.”
PA State Police officials raised several lessons that were learned, including the need to upgrade radio communications in rural areas, and another look at equipment, such as more armored vests capable of withstanding rifle bullets.
County officials raised concerns with communications of another sort, the ability to communicate between state and local levels.
Regional tourism and economic development officials asked for their voice to be part of the conversation, following a devastating kick to Pocono area resorts and other businesses in the height of the fall foliage season.
Indeed, for a great swathe of woodlands across central Pike County and northern Monroe County, instead of hordes of licensed hunters seeking wildlife, an army of law enforcement was combing the State Game Lands for a single prey, who had both the ability and evident interest to shoot back.
School districts were also impacted and had to make decisions for the safety of students and reassurance of scared parents.
The night recalled
Major George L. Bivens, along with Major James E. Degnan, PA State Police, gave testimony about that tragic night of 9-12-14, and the aftermath. Bivens became a familiar face to the populace, as he presided over multiple press conferences throughout the ordeal, speaking to reporters both local, regional, national and even international. He was hailed as the “face and voice of calm” as he sought to reassure the public, provided selected and necessary safety information and ask for tips.
In many cases, he spoke directly to Eric Frein.
Frein was described several times at the hearing as a “coward” that was playing war games. He was thrilled with the chase, and planned his moves, his next potential attack. He had prepared for this for years, and even knew out in the woods where he could find free wi-fi to use his laptop and monitor the news. The State Police suspected this, and took advantage, aiming their comments at him.
As shots were fired from the dark during the 11 p.m. shift change, two troopers went down. Biven explained that their immediate priorities were to rescue the fallen, to ensure the safety of the personnel still in the barracks and to stage a perimeter around the barracks, which is surrounded by woods.
A tactical team was engaged. There was no way of knowing who did this, where he was or what was going on or about to occur. Was this a random event? Did the actor have a grudge against these troopers who were shot?
Troopers provided cover fire into the forest to protect the unarmed EMS crew which had to retrieve Trooper Alex Douglass, who was wounded, and get him to a Medivac helicopter.
Cpl. Bryon Dickson was dead. Although Dickson was wearing his bulletproof vest, Bivens said that it was no match for the rifle shots fired by the actor. One shot pierced the vest and hit Dickson in the chest.
A rescue team evacuated the barracks, not knowing if the unknown enemy was planning to invade. Road blocks went up.
Aircraft were deployed with thermal imaging cameras, but the technology proved useless due to the dense tree canopy. This could only mean armed personnel had to head into the woods. This would have to wait till the break of day.
A large number of law enforcement were needed to form a close line as they headed into the rugged woods, searching for evidence and keeping an eye out for a sniper that could be lurking behind the next tree or boulder.
The big break came on Tuesday when a resident found a Jeep, partly submerged in a swamp in the Blue Heron development, north of the station. The Jeep was chocked full of clues which revealed to the police, who they were looking for.
Why had it taken so long to find it?
Biven stated that the the aircraft flew low, in support of the searchers, and it would have taken just the right angle to spot the Jeep.
Meanwhile the temporary command center at the Blooming Grove Baptist Church had become much too crowded, as more and more personnel were needed. The County offered use of the Pike County Training Center, a couple miles away, which worked exceptionally well. The entire structure was taken over for the operation except for the necessary 9-1-1 dispatch center.
On September 18, a solitary and brief cell phone “ping” was picked up, which led to the conclusion that the actor was moving south. The wooded, rocky and hilly terrain of Barrett Township, Monroe County, continued their challenge in combing the landscape. Some of the command functions moved to the Barrett Township Fire Department.
PA State Police statewide were impacted, as commanders sent personnel to help.
Aircraft came in from PA, NY and NJ State Police, as well as the FBI.
The public provided numerous “Frein sightings,” each which had to be checked.
Bivens acknowledged that the community was on “lock down” as schools closed, outdoor recess was cancelled. Businesses suffered. Alarm and nervousness gripped residents. “Tourism fell to almost nothing,” Bivens said.
He expressed again their deep appreciation to the community, who rallied in “unwavering support,” providing food, putting blue ribbons on trees, etc.
The public, he added, were very patient, as they had to endure armored vehicles and heavily armed law enforcement walking through their neighborhoods.
The public offered water, and even provided “porta-potties.”
The Red Cross coordinated collection of food from many generous businesses, and delivery of meals.
Honesdale barracks of the PA State Police as well as Dunmore, had to provide coverage for regular patrol and response to Pike County, while the Blooming Grove barracks was closed.
Investigators had about 350 square miles to search, woodlands replete with abandoned homes, seasonal dwellings and cabins. Search warrants were required. They could not simply go in unless there was evidence of a break-in. He said they uncovered numerous past burglaries, not necessarily related to Frein.
Trail cameras with cellular uplink were brought in, to help save on personnel.
One of the biggest challenges they faced, Bivens said, was poor radio communications. Tactical teams were missing a lot as reception was poor or nonexistent. It was essential to improve communications. One agency brought on “cells on wheels” and put up antennas, but this did not solve the problem.
PA State Police were unable to tie in with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF).
They were also working with the U.S. Customs & Border Protection and U.S. Marshals Service. Each contributed their technology, know-how and manpower. “We used every tool to scour the area, with best rained people we could find,” Bivens said. But poor radio communications continued to plague them.
At last, the problem was solved with a system of VHF repeaters and transmitters, with the assistance of Motorola. This allowed use of their portable radios and links to other law enforcement agencies.
A hybrid radio system with VHF is recommended as a very good solution, he said.
In all, the PA State Police spent close to $11.9 million o the manhunt.
Approximately $50,000 was spent on trail cameras, money well spent, he stated. PA State Police is still using them.
“We recognized the very high cost,” Bivens said, citing his experience working with State Police budgets. They tried to mitigate costs.
“Many hours were not compensated,” he said. “We have a lot of good people who gave a lot of time, and never asked for anything.”
At their peak, the PA State Police accumulated over $4 million in overtime over a course of two weeks.
$10.5 million was spent on overtime.
$1.4 million was for operational expenses.
Among these costs:
$500,000 for lodging,
$125,000 for aviation fuel
$60,000 for radio equipment
$231,000 reimbursed to the New York State Police
$262,000 reimbursed to the New Jersey State Police
$2900 for the Ohio Department of Transportation for use of a helium balloon that carried high resolution surveillance cameras.
$100,000 reimbursed for use of night vision equipment
$4400 for repairs and cleaning at the Blooming Grove barracks
$10,000 to $15,000 just in batteries.
The costs would have been much higher, Bivens said, had it not been for the Red Cross, the many businesses that provided food, the Baptist Church, Barrett Township Fire Department and others who helped.
Asked about use of the National Guard Army helicopters from Fort Indiantown Gap, Bivens stated that their costs would have “tripled or quadrupled” and the law enforcement at their disposal was alreday highly trained to deal with the manhunt.
No mechanism was in place for reimbursing funds between counties and states.
Vests were ordered to stop rifle fire. A manufacturer in California worked around the clock to get them to Pennsylvania, and shipped them free, Bivens stated. The State Police loaned some to other law enforcement agencies that were helping. He said these special vests are not the type ordinarily worn day to day, as they weigh 25 to 30 pounds.
State Police have been issued ballistic vests for their patrol vehicles where there is an incident of rifle fire.
New patrol rifles with enhanced lighting capabilities were issued to the stations. Tactical night vision equipment was also purchased for tactical teams.
Station security has since been reviewed. “…There are some attacks that cannot be prevented, and unfortunately this was one of them,” Bivens noted. Improvements were made. A balance has to be found, however, in keeping their barracks accessible and welcoming to the public, and not make them like a fortress.
The lesson of good media relations was underscored, he noted.
“The bottom line is, thank God we got him, and we didn’t lose anyone else,” Bivens reflected. “I will tell you that throughout this operation, I was prepared for and fully expected that we might lose one ore more additional members of our department or law enforcement in this operation. I thought it entirely likely there would be an additional ambush…”
Part Two is planned for the next edition.