Prosecutors recount deadly ambush on Troopers as Frein trial opens

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MILFORD, Pa. – Cpl. Bryon Dickson spent the last moments of his life lying alone on a sidewalk outside the state police barracks where he worked, trying to lift his head, moving his eyes back and forth, and making gurgling sounds as his lung filled with blood.

His assassin, meanwhile, remained hidden in darkness.

That was the scene a Pike County prosecutor described for jurors Tuesday, as the high-profile death penalty case against Eric Frein went to trial.

On Sept. 12, 2014, First Assistant District Attorney Bruce DeSarro said in his opening arguments, Dickson had come to the Blooming Grove state police barracks “to engage in another day of service on behalf of all of us.”  

That same day, DeSarro said, Frein was on his computer, doing “research about how police respond to shootings.”

Frein, 33, is charged with first degree murder, terrorism, and other crimes for the death of Dickson and the shooting of Trooper Alex Douglass at the state police barracks that night. Frein, a Canadensis resident, eluded capture during a 48-day manhunt in the Poconos after the shooting, drawing national attention and more than 1,000 law enforcement officers to Pike and Monroe Counties.

In his brief opening statement, Frein’s defense lawyer called the deadly ambush and standoff “a tragedy I don’t know how this county will ever recover from.” 

The lawyer, Michael Weinstein, said Frein will not testify during the trial, and he did not seek to explain or refute the alleged crimes. He simply asked the jury to remember that Frein must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

“That cloak of innocence remains on that defendant unless and until the Commonwealth can remove it,” Weinstein said. “Hold them to that responsibility.”

The trial, expected to last five weeks, is in Pike County’s historic courthouse. A jury from Chester County will determine Frein’s fate, and will be sequestered here for five nights a week.  

Large areas outside the courthouse were roped off or had barriers around them Tuesday morning, to accommodate media coverage and attention that is far from typical in the small town of Milford. The county raised taxes this year to pay for the trial, for which commissioners budgeted $250,000.

A church a block from the courthouse displayed large flue ribbons around its exterior – a sign of support for police. Inside the courtroom, many seated in the gallery wore blue ribbons fastened to their shirts.

Frein, dressed in a suit and tie and wearing glasses, looked at his parents and sister as he entered the courtroom. He sat quietly between his lawyers, looking intently at prosecutors’ slide show during opening arguments.

DeSarro’s statement to jurors detailed the shooting and the manhunt, complete with a preview of the photos, videos and other evidence they will be shown. Among the prosecution witnesses will be Douglass, the injured trooper.

DeSarro played a recording of a barracks dispatcher’s phone call that caught the loud popping noise of the gunshot that felled Dickson. He showed photos of the barracks and frames of surveillance footage showing the shooting.

From the spot on the sidewalk where Dickson died, DeSarro told jurors, he would have seen two flagpoles, with the United States and Pennsylvania flags, and “a rural night sky, representing the heavens above.”

He portrayed Frein, meanwhile, as a man who lived with his parents and wanted to start a revolution by shooting police officers. DeSarro showed photos of Frein’s bedroom, where police had found guns, packing lists, and materials to make explosives. He walked jurors through the evidence found while Frein was on the run, including a journal entry left at a campsite describing the shooting in graphic detail.

Frein’s lawyers told jurors to pay close attention to Frein’s demeanor during a videotaped interview with police on the night of his capture. Weinstein had argued before trial that the tape should be excluded from evidence, but after Judge Gregory Chelak ruled Monday afternoon to permit it, Weinstein told jurors the tape will be useful for them to get to know Frein.

“It was a candid conversation,” Weinstein said. “It will give you a chance to meet Eric. It will give you a chance to see what he’s like.”

The trial will resume Tuesday afternoon, when prosecutors begin calling witnesses.

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