As a massive manhunt continued for a pair of inmates who pulled off an elaborate escape from a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, authorities descended on Willsboro, a town about 40 miles from Clinton Correctional Facility, according to reports.
The Willsboro town supervisor, Shaun Gillilland, said there was a report of a sighting of two men on foot early Tuesday morning near Middle Road, at the southern end of the town, setting off a frenzy of law enforcement activity.
“The police reacted to it immediately,” Mr. Gillilland said, though he added that officials had not yet confirmed that the two men were the escaped prisoners.
CNN reported that “corrections officers, New York State Police troopers and Essex County Sheriff’s Office deputies took part in the search in Willsboro following a report of two suspicious individuals, said Nancy Crowningshield of the sheriff’s office.”
“No, no,” Gillilland said on CNN, when asked if he’d been in a situation like this before. “This is the first time … There’s a lot of law enforcement officers down there, but they’re being extremely professional and remaining calm.”
As the search entered its fourth day, officials continued to investigate whether civilian workers or contractors might have helped the two killers escape.
“I think they had help. I don’t believe they could have acquired the equipment that they needed to do this without help,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) told NBC News on Monday. “And we have a separate investigation that’s going through exactly that question.”
More than 250 law enforcement officers using bloodhounds, aircraft and other tools continued to search for 48-year-old Richard Matt and 34-year-old David Sweat while authorities investigating the pair’s brazen escape were “looking at everything” — though they were primarily focused on whether any assistance came “from the inside,” Cuomo said.
“I would be shocked if a guard was involved, and that’s putting it mildly,” Cuomo told CNN. “But we’re looking at the civilian employees now and the private contractors to see if possibly if a civil employee or contractor was assisting this escape, because they wouldn’t have equipment on their own, that’s for sure.”
After the escape, Cuomo announced a reward for information that would help investigators capture the inmates, who left the prison either Friday night or Saturday morning.
“This really could have been a movie script,” Cuomo told the “Today” show. “And, if you saw it as a movie script, it would have been unbelievable, frankly.”
Among those interviewed by authorities was a prison worker named Joyce Mitchell, a law enforcement source confirmed to The Washington Post on Tuesday. A New York Post report described Mitchell as training supervisor at the prison whose work with those housed there included tailoring instruction.
State, federal and local law enforcement agencies were investigating approximately 300 leads, New York State Police said in a statement. At the same time, the statement said, local, state and federal agents were conducting “grid searches of [the] region around the facility.” The statement added that “additional investigative services are being applied statewide and nationally.”
The two men were referred to as “dangerous individuals” by Cuomo, who joined searchers to examine the prisoners’ escape route before holding a news conference outside the prison.
“It was an elaborate plot,” he said, noting that it was the first time that anyone had escaped from the maximum-security portion of the institution, which has been open since 1865 and is known as “Little Siberia” because of its isolated location and the region’s harsh winters.
“You look at the precision of the operation,” he added. “It was truly extraordinary.”
The escape, in which the men used power tools to drill through the prison’s steel walls and pipes, brought to mind the infamous escape from Alcatraz by three inmates in 1962.
Authorities discovered that the two men’s adjoining cells were empty during a morning check at 5:30 a.m. Saturday, the New York State Police wrote on Facebook. Cuomo said the men left clothing and other items in their beds to make it appear that they were asleep, according to Reuters.
Officials immediately locked down the prison and began investigating the men’s disappearance, according to the New York Times.
“A search revealed that there was a hole cut out of the back of the cell through which these inmates escaped,” Anthony Annuci, the acting state corrections commissioner, told the AP. “They went onto a catwalk which is about six stories high. We estimate they climbed down and had power tools and were able to get out to this facility through tunnels, cutting away at several spots.”
Before exiting the prison, the men left a yellow sticky note on a pipe, according to news reports.
“Have a Nice Day!” it said.
“I have a lot of friends whose family members got calls from the officers on duty telling them to lock their doors and keep the kids inside,” one local resident, 41-year-old Francine Mitchell, told the Times Union. “It freaked the kids out. A lot of them slept with their parents last night.”
Cuomo said Monday that the escaped convicts may have crossed the Canadian border, about 20 miles from the prison, or gone elsewhere.
“They are killers; they are murderers,” Cuomo said on NBC. “They could be anywhere given this period of time.”
How did the inmates acquire power tools?
Cuomo said the facility undergoes regular maintenance and officials are looking into whether the tools came from outside contractors who enter the prison to work on various construction projects. Officials said their internal inventory of tools has been accounted for.
“I chatted with a couple of the inmates myself and said, ‘You must be a very heavy sleeper,'” the governor said, according to the Times. “They were heard, they had to be heard.”
Also in question, officials said, was how the men discovered their complicated escape route from the facility.
“We hope when we capture these individuals to learn from them how they discovered the right route to go to,” Annuci said. “It may have been over a period of time. It may have been trial and error. We don’t know.”
State police told CNN that Sweat is serving a sentence of life without parole after he was convicted of killing a Broome County sheriff’s deputy in 2002. Matt was convicted of three counts of murder and kidnapping and is serving a sentence of 25 years to life for the death of a man in 1997. He has at least one escape attempt from a jail or prison facility, according to a 2008 story in the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal.
The New York Times reports that Matt was convicted in the murder of his former employer, William Rickerson:
In 1986, he had escaped from a jail in Erie County. About a decade later, after Mr. Rickerson’s death, Mr. Matt fled to Mexico, where he killed an American man at a bar and served several years in prison before being brought back in 2007 to stand trial here in Niagara County.
“You can never have enough security with him,” said Gabriel DiBernardo, a retired captain with the North Tonawanda Police Department who was the chief of detectives leading the investigation into Mr. Rickerson’s death. “You can never trust him. You can never turn your back on him.”
Mr. DiBernardo, who retired in 1998, offered a sentiment echoed by others in law enforcement here: “He is the most vicious, evil person I’ve ever come across in 38 years as a police officer.”
The Buffalo News spoke with Matt’s 23-year-old son, who told the newspaper: “I can’t believe they let this happen.”
“I’m hoping for the best outcome for everyone involved,” Nicholas Harris told the News.
Matt and Sweat were last seen at 10:30 p.m. Friday during a standing count, authorities said.
Facility Supervisor Steven Racette told CNN that head counts occur every two hours during the night when guards visually confirm whether inmates are in their bunks.
Maj. Charles Guess, the State Police commander of the region said law enforcement is conducting a full investigation involving multiple agencies, including the FBI, New York State Police and the U.S. Marshals Service.
“We are putting on the full court press,” he said.
That effort included setting up checkpoints at crucial roads throughout the region, where motorists were engaged by law enforcement and trunks were searched.
Paula Ashley, who lives within several blocks of the manhole that the prisoners emerged from, told NBC News that she was shocked the escape was unfolding in her small town of 5,000 people.
“Is this a drill or is this for real?” she said. “This is very scary. This is my backyard. This is where my son plays outside.”
The prison is the state’s largest, with a population of 2,689 inmates, the corrections department reported, according to CNN. Officials told the New York Times that 2003 was the last year a prison escape occurred from the New York State system. That year, a pair of convicted murderers escaped a facility in Elmira, N.Y., before being apprehended the next day.
Should someone encounter the latest pair of escaped killers, Cuomo stressed that no one should engage the men.
“These are not people to be trifled with,” he said.
This post, originally published on June 7, has been updated.