NEW YORK (Reuters) - With the intense manhunt for a survivalist accused of gunning down two Pennsylvania State Police troopers in its second week, Governor Tom Corbett has vowed the quick capture of the man, Eric Matthew Frein.
But history suggests it could take years to track down the fugitive.
Frein, thought to be hiding in a remote part of the Pocono Mountains, has been added to the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List,” Nearly a third of fugitives named there are avid outdoorsmen with skills to hide for years – if not a lifetime – in the wilderness.
“He may have an elaborate plan that had multiple caches and multiple hides and be set up for a number of years. It doesn’t look like he just did it on a whim,” said Pat Patten, who owns Tactical Woodland Operations School in Franklin, North Carolina, which trains police to catch fugitives in the outdoors.
The FBI says it has been nearly 40 years since skilled camper and hiker William Bradford Bishop Jr., now 78, vanished after the 1976 beating deaths of his mother, wife and three sons in Bethesda, Maryland. He still has not been found.
And after more than a dozen years, the hunt is still under way for Robert William Fisher, now 53 and described as a physically fit outdoor enthusiast, accused of killing his young family and blowing up their house in Scottsdale, Arizona before fleeing in 2001.
A faster end to the search for Frein, 31, who police say role plays as a Serbian soldier in mock battles with a Cold War re-enactment group, could depend on something as simple as a cigarette.
“Taking an addiction to the woods is a very bad thing,” said Patten of Frein, who is a heavy smoker, according to the FBI. Police said on Wednesday they had found a discarded pack of Drina cigarettes, a Serbian brand.
Depending on how well prepared Frein was for his flight into the rugged forest, he may be in the throws of nicotine withdrawal or ready to tap a cache of tobacco that could help find him.
“At night in the mountains, when you have a downslope wind, you can smell a cigarette from a half-mile away,” said Patten, a former U.S. Park Police officer who was hired to help with the 2003 capture of Olympic Bomber Eric Rudolph after more than five years on the lam in the Appalachian Mountains.
Frein’s ability to remain on the run could be greatly enhanced if he planned ahead and stocked his escape route with food and other supplies, Patten said. If he is not caught during the most intense initial stages of the manhunt, Frein will likely “hunker down and stay put for a month or two,” moving only at night, he said.
“It takes a tremendous amount of food to sustain you because you’re sitting there. He can’t move around a lot or he’ll be detected by someone,” Patten said.
Longtime searches for criminals who have used survival skills to out-maneuver authorities have sometimes transformed them into folk heroes, especially backwoods burglars who passed over cabin owners’ valuables in search of food and fuel.
A U.S. marshal likened Utah’s “Mountain Man” Troy James Knapp, a snowshoe-clad survivalist who broke into vacation homes over six years before being caught in 2013, to American frontiersman Davy Crockett.
Cottage owners left out food for Maine hermit Christopher Knight, a reclusive thief apprehended last year, 27 years after he waded into the woods immediately following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
And a popular ballad depicting him as a renegade hero was written for Claude Dallas while he was on the run for months before being caught and convicted in 1982 in the slayings of two Idaho game wardens investigating him for poaching.
Shane Hobel, owner of Mountain Scout Survival School in Garrison, New York, said the search for Frein could “go on for a long time.”
“It’s easy to disappear if you have a good set of skills,” Hobel said.
Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Jill Serjeantand Steve Orlofsky