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Why it took 23 days to catch David Sweat: Pepper (+video)

Escaped convict David Sweat is in police custody after three weeks on the lam. How a jar of pepper helped Mr. Sweat and his accomplice keep searchers at bay.

In a case of life imitating art, the two killers who escaped from a prison in upstate New York in early June may have evaded capture for as long as they did with the help of an unlikely ingredient, authorities say.

Richard Matt and David Sweat, who broke out of the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility on June 6, may have used black pepper to throw off their scent from the dogs that were tracking them, Joseph D’Amico, superintendent for the New York State Police, told the Associated Press after authorities recovered Mr. Sweat’s DNA from a discarded pepper shaker at a camp where the fugitives may have spent time.

The con was used in the 1967 film, “Cool Hand Luke."

“We did have difficulty tracking, so it was fairly effective in that respect,” Mr. D’Amico told The New York Times. “If you were writing a movie plot, they would say that this was overdone.”

The three-week manhunt for the two men – which stretched from Pennsylvania to the Canadian border, sent 1,300 law enforcement officers into the woods of northern New York, and forced residents to endure armed checkpoints statewide – ended Sunday afternoon when Mr. Sweat, shot and captured by a state police sergeant who spotted a suspicious man walking on a road in Constable, N.Y, was brought to an Albany hospital in critical condition.

Sweat’s capture came two days after Mr. Matt was killed while holding a shotgun in a confrontation with authorities, the AP reported.

“The nightmare is finally over,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said at a news conference.

The two convicts had cut their way out of Clinton Correctional, about 30 miles from where they captured, with a set of power tools. Authorities said the men, who had adjacent cells, had then filled their beds in their with clothes to trick guards into thinking they were sleeping. On a cut steam pipe at the prison were a caricature of an Asian face and the words, “Have a nice day.”

It was, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson put it, a “bold plan ... by two wily prison buddies who sweet-talked their jailers into smuggling them chisels and other tools, then used rudimentary engineering skills to crack the prison’s defenses and steal away.”

Authorities have charged two prison workers with aiding in their escape. Correction officer Gene Palmer, is due in court Monday for promoting prison contraband, tampering with physical evidence, and official misconduct; investigators said Palmer gave the prisoners frozen meat that contained hacksaw blades, a bit, and a screwdriver, according to the AP.

Tailor shop worker Joyce Mitchell, who investigators said became close to the two men while working with them, has pleaded not guilty to charges that include felonies related to the escape.

Sweat, who as of late Sunday had not been formally interviewed by officials, will be charged with escape and burglary – authorities suspect he and Matt broke into cabins throughout the area to steal food and other supplies, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie told the AP.

Sweat was serving life sentence without parole for killing a sheriff's deputy in Broome County in 2002. Matt was serving 25 years to life for killing and dismembering his former boss.

Investigators are waiting to see whether Sweat will recover enough to be interviewed. Governor Cuomo said many questions remain unanswered about the prisoners’ escape, including whether or not the two men had any other accomplices.

“We have already started a full investigation,” Cuomo said. “But today ends with good news. These were dangerous, dangerous men.”

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