Authorities search ‘behind every tree’ as manhunt for escaped killers expands

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Richard Matt (left) and David Sweat

NEW YORK — As the search for two escaped prisoners entered its sixth day Thursday, New York and Vermont intensified security over fears the convicted killers may have crossed the border into the latter state.

Authorities are looking “behind every tree, under every rock and inside every structure” for fugitives Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, according to New York State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico.

The pair made a brazen escape over the weekend from the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. Their search involves more than 400 law enforcement officers and a $100,000 reward.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said the search area had expanded to his state.

The inmates believed “New York was going to be hot and Vermont … cooler in terms of law enforcement,” he said.

Vermont state police vessels and additional troopers will conduct patrols on Lake Champlain, which cuts across the two states. Searches will include campsites and public campgrounds.

“We have information that would suggest that Vermont was discussed as a possible location,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Under an agreement with Vermont, New York state troopers will be allowed across state lines if needed, officials said.

However, D’Amico said, authorities had no hard information the men had left New York state.

Spotlight on prison employee

A woman who worked with the convicts in the tailoring shop at the prison may have played a role in the elaborate breakout, law enforcement officials said.

Investigators believe prison employee Joyce Mitchell had planned to pick up the inmates after their escape, only to change her mind at the last minute, a source familiar with the investigation told CNN.

D’Amico, without elaborating, said Mitchell had befriended the men and “may have had some sort of role in assisting them.”

She has not been arrested or charged in connection with their escape, nor has anyone else. The source added that Mitchell is cooperating with police.

Her cell phone was used to call several people connected to Matt, according to another source with knowledge of the investigation. It’s not clear who made these calls, when they were made or if Mitchell knew about them.

Mitchell went to the hospital this weekend because of panic attacks, according to one of the sources. By then, authorities had discovered during a 5:30 a.m. Saturday bed check that Matt and Sweat had escaped.

Mitchell has worked at Clinton for seven years as an industrial training supervisor.

Rural area ‘can be deadly’

CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes said the inmates’ desperation makes them more dangerous.

They’d have to find food, water and money, while also trying to get their hands on weapons or a vehicle.

“That would put every family in that rural (area) in extreme danger,” Fuentes said. “If they’re feeling like cornered animals out there, they are going to do something drastic to try to ensure their physical survival and their continued freedom out of that prison.”

Without any help like a getaway driver, someone who escapes from Clinton can easily get lost, said Jeff Hall, who teaches at the City University of New York and did his dissertation on northern New York prisons.

“The environment is formidable,” said Hall, who grew up near the Dannemora prison. “It’s rough terrain and, if you’re not familiar with it, it can be deadly.”

Possible sightings

There have been two possible sightings of the escapees in upstate New York.

The first came in Dannemora after midnight Friday, about five hours before authorities discovered the men had escaped.

Another focus is about 40 miles southeast in Willsboro, a town of about 2,000 people along Lake Champlain.

That’s where a resident spotted two men overnight Monday walking in a torrential rainstorm on a rural road, Willsboro Town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland said. As the witness’ car approached them, they took off.

Both reports could be false leads, as often happens in manhunts. Former U.S. Marshal Service regional commander Lenny DePaul said he thinks it’s important that people be on the lookout.

Authorities are focusing on the rural swath of New York near Vermont and on the Canadian province of Quebec.

The escape

Matt and Sweat’s escape was extraordinarily complex.

Using power tools, they cut through a cell wall that included a steel plate, maneuvered across a catwalk, shimmied down six stories to a tunnel of pipes, followed that tunnel, broke through a double-brick wall, cut into a 24-inch steam pipe, climbed through the steam pipe, cut another hole so they could get out of the pipe and finally surfaced through a manhole.

Aside from the mystery of how they got the necessary power tools, many wonder how they could have used them without detection.

Their time on the lam is also remarkable. Most escapees in New York are captured within 24 hours, according to state data. Of 29 inmates who fled between 2002 and 2013, only one was free for more than two days.

Sweat was serving a life sentence without parole for fatally shooting and then running over Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia in 2002.

Matt was convicted for kidnapping a businessman for 27 hours and — when he didn’t comply with his pleas for money — killing him.

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