6 months after ambush, trooper on long road to recovery

| 19 Mar 2015 | 03:44

— Alex Douglass ran a 50-mile ultra-marathon last year. Now he's learning to get around on an artificial hip.

Six months after a sniper's bullet tore into his body, the Pennsylvania State Police trooper has undergone 15 surgeries to repair the damage — and No. 16 is on the horizon.

“He's doing as well as can be expected," said his boss at the Blooming Grove barracks, Lt. Christopher Paris. “He is determined to continue to improve."

Eric Frein, 31, is charged with opening fire outside the barracks on Sept. 12, hitting Douglass in the pelvis and killing Cpl. Bryon Dickson. The accused gunman led police on a tense 48-day manhunt through the northeastern Pennsylvania woods before U.S. marshals caught him outside an abandoned airplane hangar about 30 miles from the shooting scene.

Frein spoke of wanting to start a revolution in a letter to his parents and called Dickson's slaying an “assassination" in a police interview after his Oct. 30 capture, according to court documents. He has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Surveillance video played at Frein's preliminary hearing showed Douglass crawling into the barracks lobby on his stomach after he was shot, his legs trailing behind him.

His superior physical fitness has helped him endure a long, grueling recovery. Before the ambush, it wasn't unusual for the 32-year-old trooper, who joined the state police in 2005, to hit the gym after working an overnight shift, running 10 or 15 miles at a clip or lifting weights. He'd run several marathons.

“All of that, I think, helped him to not only survive the incident, but helps him now as he's moving along the road to recovery," said Paris, commander of the Blooming Grove barracks.

Ambush never far from mindDouglass has said little about his rehabilitation, but he did post a Facebook message ahead of his late-January hip replacement surgery.

“I will hopefully be walking with minimal assistance after this surgery," said the message, posted to a Facebook page called “Support for Trooper Alex Douglass."

“I read my support page everyday and smile every time I read all of your postings. It truly motivates me through these hard times. You all mean so much to me. I will always be PSP Strong!" the message said.

The $11 million manhunt for Frein involved as many as 1,000 law enforcement officials and unnerved residents, shut down roads and schools, and hurt businesses in the primary search area.

It almost forced Capri Pizza to shut down as tourists avoided the area and locals stayed home.

Slowly but surely, patrons are coming back.

“It's about as back to normal as you can expect after an episode like that," said Joe Kastrati, the pizza shop's owner. “People are moving about freely, and you don't have that concern."

At the barracks, life, too, goes on. Blooming Grove is a busy place, responding to more than 1,000 calls for service a month, including, recently, a murder-suicide and a traffic fatality. In the same lobby where Douglass sought refuge after being shot, crime victims show up at all hours of the day seeking help.

But the ambush is never far from the surface. Two troopers and a police communications staffer have yet to return to work, still too traumatized. In a secure portion of the barracks, framed photos on the walls portray scenes from Dickson's funeral.

There's also a poster that shows Frein being loaded into a squad car on the night of his capture. Printed, in large yellow block letters: “WE TOLD YOU WE WERE COMING FOR YOU. 48 DAYS LATER CPL. DICKSON'S CUFFS WERE PLACED ON YOUR WRISTS AND YOU WERE TRANSPORTED IN HIS PATROL CAR."

A committee is working on a permanent memorial to Dickson, 38, a seven-year veteran of the force who left behind a wife and two children.

“I want it to be respectful, I want it to be in good taste, and I certainly know that it will be fitting, whatever we do," said Paris, the station commander.

State police, meanwhile, are in the midst of a systematic review of security at all of its barracks and other facilities. The review is focusing on security cameras, with an eye toward making upgrades where necessary or installing additional cameras.

But no camera, nor any other security measure, can prevent the kind of sneak attack that took place last fall. Police stations are, after all, public places.

“Blooming Grove did have security cameras in certain locations — and security cameras alone would have no impact on the outcome for those intent on ambushing our troopers," said state police spokeswoman Maria Finn.