DiBernardo was the lead detective on the murder case that put Matt, 48, in prison. Now he’s out, having engineered a brazen and seemingly inexplicable escape alongside a fellow inmate from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. The breakout set off a frantic manhunt across the area. Roads and schools have been closed and neighborhood streets swarmed with police officers as the low whine of search planes and a hum of anxiety cut through the summer air.
Meanwhile, those who know Matt — acquaintances, an old girlfriend, police officers from his past, even his own family — are horrified that the man they describe as charming, brutal and savagely brilliant has escaped from prison. Again.
“You know he has escaped before. He has a genius IQ. I can’t believe they let this happen,” Matt’s son, 23-year-old Nicholas Harris, told the Buffalo News.
But Matt has a history of doing things that seemed unbelievable, either because they were too improbable or too brutal. Often, they were both.
His checkered history began early. Growing up in the small city of Tonawanda, N.Y., about 12 miles north of Buffalo, he was known as a troublemaker, a schoolmate told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
“He would terrorize kids on the (school) bus,” Randy Szukala said. “Friends of mine knew him. He would just terrorize people. Even in elementary, junior high, he had issues.”
But Harris, Matt’s son, said that his father was plagued by a troubled upbringing.
“He was left as an infant in a car. Everybody is born innocent, but he was raised around crime,” Harris told the Buffalo News.
David Bentley, a retired detective from Tonawanda who attempted to mentor the troubled teen, told the New York Times that Matt ran away from a youth home at age 14, escaping on a stolen horse.
“He was in and out of jail constantly,” Bentley told the Buffalo News. “Burglary; they alleged he committed a horrific rape, but I think he beat the charge on that; stolen cars; everything but drugs.”
In 1986, at age 19, Matt was convicted and sentenced to a year in the Erie County Correction Facility. But that term was interrupted when Matt, taking advantage of a guard’s mistake, slipped out of his cell, scaled a 9-foot brick and metal wall topped with razor wire and hopped a freight train to his brother’s house in Tonawanda. When police finally tracked him down five days later, they found him brandishing an ax handle in his brother’s apartment.
Harris can recall his father showing off the scars he got during that breakout, he told the Buffalo News.
Matt was in and out of jail after that, according to Tonawanda officers who knew him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Tonawanda Police Captain Frederic Foels described him as a small time thug to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
“We always knew him as Ricky: ‘Ricky Matt did this, Ricky Matt did that.’ We were very well familiar with him at the time,” he said.
Harris barely knew his father during that period, but his stories about him are frightening — he told the Buffalo News that Matt broke into his mother’s house and beat her when he was a baby. But at the same time, the young man knew how charismatic his father could be.
“He makes an impression that lingers with you,” Harris said. He told the Buffalo News how Matt had charmed his mother, Vee Marie Harris.
“He had a crush on my mother and would say to her, ‘If I were older, would you be my girl?’” Harris said. “He’d lower his head and kick his foot against the ground when he asked. She would tell him he was so young. But then she met him later when he was in his 20s and he was a good-looking guy. They started dating and she got pregnant with me.”
That squares with Bentley’s recollection of Matt.
“When [Matt’s] cleaned up, he’s very handsome and, in all frankness, very well-endowed. He gets girlfriends any place he goes,” he told the Daily Beast.
There are several reports that Matt and his fellow escapee may have been helped by a female prison employee, who allegedly agreed to drive their getaway car but later got cold feet and never showed up. According to NBC, the employee may have been “charmed” by the charismatic Matt. The Washington Post cannot independently confirm these reports.
Matt was also powerfully persuasive when he wanted to be. In 1991, while imprisoned in Erie County yet again, he convinced a fellow inmate — California socialite David Telstar who was jailed for embezzlement — to pay his $15,000 bail. Telstar then offered to pay Matt to murder his wife and her parents, according to a 1992 Los Angeles Times story, not knowing that Matt was a jailhouse informant. Telstar later pleaded guilty to the murder-for-hire scheme.
Matt exercised his chilling combination of charisma, coercion and cruelty again in 1997, in the murder for which he was serving 25 years to life before his breakout last weekend. According to the Associated Press, he convinced an accomplice, then 21-year-old Lee Bates, to help him kidnap, torture and murder Matt’s former boss, businessman William Rickerson. Bates told authorities that the duo dumped Rickerson in a car dressed only in his pajamas, driving from New York to Ohio and back while Matt tried to get the older man to tell him about large sums of money Matt was convinced Rickerson had hidden somewhere. At one point, Matt opened the trunk and bent back Rickerson’s fingers until they broke, Bates said. Then he snapped Rickerson’s neck with his bare hands.
DiBernardo, the lead investigator in the Rickerson murder case, told the Buffalo News that Bates was probably terrified into helping Matt.
“[Matt] was very imposing, a big muscular man and very strong. So out of fear, yes,” he said.
“Ricky [would] dominate,” Johanna Capretto, Matt’s ex-girlfriend, testified at his 2008 trial, according to the Daily Beast. She described Bates as “pretty much [a] follower.”
Weeks later, Matt showed up at the apartment of his half brother, Wayne Schimpf. At Matt’s trial a year later, Schimpf said he was unnerved by Matt’s sudden appearance.
“He said that he was in a lot of trouble,” Schimpf testified, according to the Daily Beast. He added that Matt showed him an article about Rickerson’s killing, saying he thought he may have killed the man by accident.
“I just kind of looked at him like, ‘Are you for real?’” Schimpf said. “And I just says — I mean, I couldn’t believe that he did it. I says, ‘How did you do it? How did you hack him up, with a chainsaw or something?’
“He turned and looked at me, and with a grin that I won’t forget, he said, ‘With a hacksaw,'” Schimpf testified. “This whole time I’m still thinking he’s full of crap, he’s just trying to sound big. You know, I really didn’t want to believe it.”
Later, Matt told Schimpf that he needed to get out of town and asked to borrow his car, Schimpf testified. When Schimpf refused, Matt reportedly told him, “You’re my brother, you’re my blood. I love you but I’ll kill you.”
Schimpf made copies of his keys, the Daily Beast reported, and soon after his car was gone. Matt had fled to Mexico, where he quickly got into trouble again. In 1998, according to the Buffalo News, Matt was imprisoned for killing another American in a fight outside a bar.
Matt attempted to escape from there too, his son said.
“He said he made it up to the roof of the prison and got shot in the shoulder. He pulled down his shirt and showed us the bullet wound,” Harris told the Buffalo News. “This guy has bullet holes on his body. He’s been shot like nine times. It’s like they can’t kill him.”
In 2007, Matt was extradited back to the U.S. along with a drug cartel kingpin. According to Rick Pfeiffer, a court reporter who covered Matt’s trial for the now-defunct Tonawanda News, the U.S. government hadn’t negotiated for Matt. He just showed up.
“There had been no discussion with the American government about extradition,” Pfeiffer told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “He had just been such a difficult prisoner — if you can imagine a guy who seemed too difficult to stay in a Mexican prison.”
At his 2008 trial for the Rickerson murder, officials went to great lengths to ensure that Matt could not escape or endanger anyone, the New York Times reported. The glass that covered courtroom tables was removed for fear that Matt might break it and use one of the shards as a weapon. A sniper watched over the courthouse and double the usual number of deputies were posted as guards. Matt wore an electric stun belt aimed at preventing an escape.
“It can never be overdone with Rick Matt,” DiBernardo told the Times. “He’s a cunning individual, and a strong individual, physically strong. There’s no question he can handle himself.”
Even Matt’s attorney, assistant public defender Matthew P. Pynn, seemed wary of his client’s charisma.
“I can’t explain it,” he said, according to the Buffalo News. “I can see him as a guy who would have a lot of friends. … Rick Matt was a fun but dangerous guy to hang around with.”
One of the jurors in the trial, Brett Sawyer of Lockport, N.Y., said that Matt looked like “a cult leader,” dressed in stylish suits donated by a friend.
“It seems he has a way of manipulating people to do things,” Sawyer told the Buffalo News.
After four weeks of testimony, Matt was convicted in only four hours. That night, Bentley — the Tonawanda officer who knew Matt when he was growing up — got a letter from the man who he once had tried to mentor.
“You lied in court to [expletive] me over for the DA,” the note read, according to the Buffalo News. “You also make it very clear that we are not friends. I’ll remember both …”
“Dot-dot-dot. Like there’s more to come,” Bentley said back in 2008.
There was. On June 6, Matt and a second inmate, 34-year-old David Sweat, broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility by drilling through steel walls and pipes with power tools.
“It was really unbelievable,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) told CNN. “If it was a movie plot, you would say that it was overdone.”
Those who have dealt with Matt before are less surprised. Bentley told the New York Times that he’s prepared to defend himself against Matt. DiBernardo said he’s uneasy that the man he helped put behind bars is out again.
“It’s not a good feeling to know he’s out there. … Anything is possible with Rick Matt,” he told the Buffalo News. “I keep watching the news and I hope they stop him before he does something violent again, because he is full of violence. That’s his life.”