The search has generated more than 1,600 tips from the public as investigators wade through a muddle of rumors and sightings just this side of plausible. But they cannot exclude the possibility that one may blossom into a much-needed break.
If the eyewitness were to be believed, the two men who made a dramatic escape from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., two weeks ago had sneaked their way into the town of Willsboro, 40 miles south of the prison.
Another tip put the two convicted killers more than 700 miles away in Prince Edward Island, Canada, where security-camera footage showed two men in a store. And after the search shifted Saturday to Friendship, N.Y., near the Pennsylvania border, drawn there by a sighting of two suspicious-looking men by some railroad tracks, a man called in to report two men hitchhiking on Route 305, which runs through the town.
All the leads met the same fate. “Negative results at this point,” a searcher radioed after investigating that last tip, another dead end broadcast over Allegany County emergency communications radio.
As the search for David Sweat and Richard W. Matt has dragged on for more than two weeks, generating more than 1,600 tips from the public, investigators have waded through a muddle of rumors, calls from jumpy homeowners and sightings just this side of plausible.
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Some have been ruled out as false; others are merely unconfirmable. But as in previous high-profile manhunts, the searchers cannot exclude the possibility that just once, a bystander’s tip may blossom into a much-needed break.
The fugitives are everywhere, according to the callers. Yet they seem to be nowhere.
“Most of them turn out to be rabbit trails; you follow down a rabbit trail, and you run out of room,” said David Turk, the in-house historian of the U.S. Marshals Service, which regularly leads or helps with fugitive manhunts. Still, he said, “Probably one of the most valuable tools is the public’s eye, because they can see things that we obviously can’t.”
Rewards and media coverage can help prompt tips. Thirteen years ago, an observant refrigerator repairman alerted the authorities that the Washington snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, were at a highway rest area, where they were arrested. Last week, a florist driving to work guided the authorities to Dylann Roof, the man accused of fatally shooting nine people in a church in Charleston, S.C.
Mostly, however, the leads are no more than tantalizing dead ends.
During the manhunt for Christopher Dorner, the former police officer who killed three people and terrorized the Los Angeles area in 2013, false sightings were the rule rather than the exception.
Police officers swarmed a KFC after a tip and arrested a man who had just bought a bag of chicken, only to realize that he did not resemble Dorner. And there were more serious consequences: Officers shot two women in Torrance, Calif., because they thought their car looked like Dorner’s.
In New York, dozens of investigators are following up on every lead from the manhunt’s command post in Dannemora, evaluating the credibility of each, said Beau Duffy, a spokesman for the State Police.
“When we first receive a lead, we don’t have any idea where it may lead us, and some leads lead to other leads,” Duffy said. “Each lead is a piece of the puzzle.”
A possible sighting near a road in Willsboro, N.Y., drew several hundred searchers to the rural, swampy landscape around the town, three days after the prisoners were discovered missing. But after a thorough scouring, Duffy said, investigators could not put the lead to rest. It remains simply unconfirmed.
A lead in Steuben County took a more meandering path. Witnesses spotted two men June 13 walking near a rail yard in the town of Erwin, 375 miles from Dannemora in the western part of the state, and two men meeting the same description were seen walking along a road in Lindley the next day.
The sightings were not called in until Tuesday. Even though investigators have not confirmed the sighting, Duffy said, they decided, “for safety reasons,” to notify the public in case it could generate other tips.
In Friendship, state troopers and other searchers converged on the area after a woman called 911 on Saturday afternoon to say she had seen two men matching the descriptions of Sweat and Matt walking on railroad tracks near her home. Investigators quickly interviewed her and determined that the sighting was credible, Duffy said.
Yet as Saturday turned to Sunday, the men remained at large — though not, according to local residents, unseen.
An older woman said she thought she had walked her dogs past the escapees, because she had walked near a wooded area. A man in a pickup said he thought they were hidden in a nearby swamp. A woman said she heard that the fugitives had asked a woman in a car to borrow her gas can, then tracked her down at her home to return it.
“I didn’t see or hear anything when I walked my dogs this morning,” said one resident, Donette Shelly. “But that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”