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Fake Firefighter NYC's Most Wanted

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He's not a killer, a gangster or even a bank robber.

But a bizarre home invasion, a cat-and-mouse manhunt and a tabloid feeding frenzy have combined to make a failed fashion writer named Peter Braunstein the city's most wanted man.

Detectives say they want to question Braunstein, 41, in a Halloween night episode in which an armed man bound and molested a woman in her Manhattan apartment after starting a fire and posing as a firefighter coming to her rescue. But police cannot find him — despite a $12,000 reward, a mug shot that has become a front-page mainstay and repeated appeals by his father to give himself up.

"If only he would turn himself in because he needs help very, very badly," said Alberto Braunstein.

Police have been grappling with a slew of possible Braunstein sightings and a barrage of questions about why he has evaded capture for nearly three weeks — a drumbeat so persistent that even Mayor Michael Blooomberg was asked about Braunstein at a Thursday news conference.

The latest sighting on Thursday — by a Brooklyn shop owner who believes he sold Braunstein a cup of coffee — fueled the latest breathless headlines — "I SAW THE FIEND!" (Daily News) and "KEEP THE CHANGE: Fire fiend flees coffee shop & cops" (New York Post).

Keeping with the drama, the shop owner John Arena told a pack of reporters he felt like he "saw a ghost."

"He caught on right away," he said. "In other words, he knew that I knew who I was."

It appears Arena was mistaken.

Officers converged on the area. Bloodhounds led them to a vacant four-story building where a SWAT team moved in as a police helicopter circled overhead. Still no Braunstein.

A law enforcement official said on Friday detectives have fresh evidence indicating the suspect may have left the city within the last week. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the investigation isn't complete, declined further comment.