By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nearly three weeks after Eugene Palmer parked his pickup truck along a densely wooded state park 30 miles from New York City and vanished, the whereabouts of the elderly man considered the prime suspect in the killing of his daughter-in-law remain a mystery.
The morning of Palmer's disappearance, his daughter-in-law, Tammy Palmer, 39, was shot to death at her home shortly after her children left for school. The New York Times reported that Palmer, 73, was upset with her over a restraining order she had filed against her husband, who is Palmer's son.
Local police, who declined to comment further on the September 24 killing near the town of Haverstraw, have been unable to find Palmer, an experienced outdoorsman, despite a search of Harriman Park's 46,000 acres of mountainous woods, streams, lakes and caves. The manhunt involved officers in bulletproof vests, tracking dogs and helicopters with thermal imaging equipment.
Although he is a diabetic, Palmer is described as the sort of hardy woodsman who could plausibly survive for weeks in the wild, armed only with his wits and, possibly, a gun or two, according to police and local residents.
"He hunted, he ate off the land as his forefathers did, he lived that type of life. There are so many places, so many caves in the mountain he could hide in," said Brenda Earl, a warden at St. John's in the Wilderness, a 19th-century church in a desolate section of the park.
Earl told Reuters on Friday that life was beginning to return to normal in the area after a period in which the missing suspect seemed like an ominous, lurking presence.
About 85 people attended Sunday's service at her church, she said, and "it was happy and joyous, and nobody seemed to be afraid that he was lurking in the corners or anyplace."
Hikers and fishermen, who three weeks ago were urged to steer clear of the park, have returned in their usual numbers, park officials say, even if they may still encounter Palmer's bearded face on posters dotting the trails.
"People should still use caution, we just don't see any reason for extraordinary measures," said Jim Hall, executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, who doubts anyone could survive long in the park without "a fair amount of equipment and wherewithal."
Survivalist experts say Harriman would not have to go hungry if he is as skilled a hunter as he is said to be. The park has plenty of deer, raccoon and rabbits, although other creatures - poisonous rattlesnakes and copperhead vipers - pose a threat.
Even Palmer's diabetes may not slow him down since a fugitive surviving in the woods would maintain an active, meat-rich, low-carb lifestyle.
"What he's done here is gone on a perfect dietary treatment regimen, the sort before we had medicines," said Daniel Lorber, a doctor and diabetes expert at the New York Hospital of Queens.
Haverstraw police would not discuss the case on Friday other than to say authorities were still looking for Palmer, declining to elaborate on whether he may be dead or alive. Police said previously that Palmer might have fled the area long ago, perhaps leaving his truck at the park as a ruse.
"People will always be looking even if they don't find him," said Earl. "Maybe it's always going to be a mystery - the mystery of the mountain."
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Peter Cooney)