With one New York escapee killed, more insight into bold bid for freedom

Three weeks after two convicted murderers escaped from a New York prison, one was shot and killed by a US Border Patrol agent. David Sweat, the second prisoner, is still on the run.

Mary Altaffer/AP
New York State officers stand near the road block at the perimeter of the search area for convicted murderer David Sweat, Saturday in Malone, N.Y. Convicted murderer Richard Matt was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent in a wooded area about 30 miles from the Clinton Correctional Facility on Friday. Sweat is on the run, authorities said.

A perplexed traveler who found a bullet hole in his camper is being credited with alerting police to the whereabouts of at least one of two convicted killers who escaped from New York’s largest prison three weeks ago.

Members of a massive law enforcement posse thick on the heels of escapees David Sweat and Richard Matt on Friday killed Mr. Matt after hearing him cough outside a cabin near where the camper owner located the gun shot. A US Border Patrol agent fatally shot Matt after he refused to put his hands up. Although he was found with a stolen shotgun, Matt did not fire the weapon, nor exchange words with officers, police said.

Police say they believe Sweat is also in the same area, but acknowledged that the escapee had not yet been spotted. CNN reported Saturday morning that the search appears to have “intensified” overnight.

The shooting of Matt, who faced life in jail for killing and dismembering his boss, gave nearly 1,000 law enforcement officers a fresh area to focus on, near Lake Titus. And by locating Matt, police were also able to add clarifying details to a dangerous, but bold plan – including a murder plot – 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, emerging from a manhole in the middle of a street.

But their plan had a hitch. When a female prison tailor turned alleged accomplice failed to show up with a getaway car, the men were forced to hoof it into the woods, where the broken terrain served in part to conceal them, but also complicated what appears to be a plan to march into Canada. The men were apparently able to cover just 10 miles a week as they made their way to the northwest. 

“For all the intricate planning that helped the inmates cut holes in their cell walls and slither through pipes underneath the prison, the killers were apparently forced, in the last days of their getaway, to move between hunting cabins under the cover of dense woods and darkness, stealing some items along the way,” William Rashbaum and Benjamin Mueller write in the New York Times.

The manhunt, which has swept from Pennsylvania to near the Canadian border, has ratcheted up tensions in rural New York, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the pair “dangerous, dangerous men.” Mr. Sweat was facing life in prison for shooting a Broome County, N.Y. sheriff's deputy 22 times, then running him over with a car. But interest in the story has also been driven by the pair’s rudimentary engineering skills, an alleged murder plot against an accomplice’s husband, and a taunting goodbye note left behind by the pair on a prison pipe: “Have a nice day.”

The two men were found missing on June 6. They managed to slip through a maze of underground tunnels, only to emerge through a manhole in the middle of a street. While successfully avoiding police until Friday, the pair appear to have found food and supplies in part by breaking into rural cabins not far from where they made their original escape.

The prison tailor has been charged with felonies related to allegedly aiding the escape, and on Friday, police charged another guard at the Dannemora, N.Y., facility with illegal promotion of prison contraband by smuggling tools hidden inside frozen meat to the two men. The guard, through his lawyer, said he didn’t know the tools were in the meat.

Because of the manner of escape, the violence the men have shown they’re capable of, and law enforcement reaction, the New York escape has drawn massive media coverage. It is one of over 130 open prison escape cases in the US, though one of those dates back to 1929. Indeed, the total number of prison escapes are down dramatically in the US, from a high of 14,000 in the early 1990s to around only 2,000 in 2014.

Despite improvements in prison design and jailing tactics, prison escapes are inevitable, especially given the human dimensions of incarceration, Elizabeth Bracco and Richard Culp write in a 2005 paper for Corrections Compendium. "In a correctional setting populated with potential escapees, dependent upon sophisticated and functioning security technology and staffed by rotating shifts of correctional officers of varying levels of skill and experience, the possibility  of escapes is omnipresent."

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