New details about the three-week manhunt for the two convicted murderers in New York show a history of hesitation and interagency conflict, and also of lucky breaks for law-enforcement officers.
After tunneling out of maximum-security cells, Richard W. Matt and David Sweat waited for the Jeep, driven by a cooperating prison employee, that would take them to Mexico.
It never arrived. Eighteen days of cabin stays and bushwhacking later, the partnership that spawned one of the most improbable prison escapes in New York history crumbled, as Sweat left his older accomplice behind for fear that he was slowing them down.
Until this weekend, investigators were a step slow, too, bogged down by dense vegetation, slow responses and miscommunication.
But Monday, a day after Sweat was shot and taken into custody by a state trooper in a freshly cut hayfield and three days after Matt was killed by a federal agent, new details surfaced about the three-week manhunt for the two convicted murderers that gripped remote stretches of northern New York.
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It was a history of hesitation and interagency conflict, and also of lucky breaks for law-enforcement officers who scoured the woods as the inmates’ labyrinthine escape plot devolved into haphazard flight.
In the end, neither convict made it more than 40 miles from the Clinton Correctional Facility, and in their last days the men — separated for the first time in years — showed signs of growing desperation as they left a trail of chocolate wrappers and opened bottles of grape gin and rum. Investigators capitalized, ending the inmates’ flight without allowing any known injuries to the public or law-enforcement officials.
A week distinguished by DNA discoveries and well-organized sweeps was the final stage of a 23-day slog that was hampered, at times, by missed signals.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a large cadre of nonstate law-enforcement personnel out of the command center as the manhunt got under way.
And, in the swamps and forests where the inmates hid, investigators sometimes spurned the assistance of local officials and hunters.
In the dawn hours of June 6, after Matt and Sweat’s cell beds were found to be holding dummies fashioned out of sweatshirts, investigators initially believed the inmates were stuck in the prison’s system of tunnels.
Only after they discovered an open manhole about 400 feet outside the prison did the police understand the killers had emerged from it, David Favro, the sheriff of Clinton County, said. Favro was informed of the open manhole at 8:30 a.m., three hours after the men were found missing, he said.
By then, a sighting by a resident who lives near the manhole had gone stale. The resident, Leslie Lewis, 29, said he saw two men run through his backyard and hurry down the street shortly after midnight. It was not until 9 a.m. that a state trooper knocked on his door for an interview.
Lewis’ mother, Dawn Mattoon, said it was around 3 p.m., after Cuomo had come to look at the manhole, that she saw state troopers arriving with dogs to sniff for a scent in the backyard.
Without clear orders, Favro acted on his own hunches. He drove to Lyon Mountain, about 10 miles from the prison, after he learned of the escape, thinking it might offer the kind of rural, out-of-the-way route the men might take.
He said he imagined himself bringing them in. “Local hero comes in with two guys in the back of his truck would have been nice,” he said. “Never saw anything.”
Favro’s frustration was compounded when Cuomo arrived at the command center and told him and all the other nonstate employees to leave, said a close friend of the sheriff’s, David Andrews, the director of the local radio station WIRY. Andrews said Favro was angered at being notified of the escape so late and was astonished that Cuomo had asked him to leave.
“At first they were asked to leave, and he said, ‘But I’m the sheriff,’” Andrews recalled. “Then they were told they had to leave. He was furious and went home.”
Favro declined to discuss the governor’s arrival in detail, but he said after that, he and his team of deputies got little guidance from the State Police officials who were directing the investigation. The deputies “just kind of roved around hoping to get lucky,” he said.
In a statement, a spokesman for Cuomo, John P.L. Kelly, did not dispute that Cuomo had asked nonstate officials to leave.
“It is customary for state officials to do confidential briefings to relay sensitive information to other state officials during the initial stages of any investigation,” the statement read. “However, the State Police and other state agencies have coordinated extensively with local and federal law enforcement authorities.”
Yard full of cops
The search soon began pinballing across quiet pockets on the eastern edge of the state and to towns along its southern border. Several local officials and county sheriffs said they learned of the developments only by chance.
In Willsboro, N.Y., 35 miles southeast of the prison, Shaun Gillilland, the town supervisor, said he drove to the local command center after a friend told him, “My yard is full of cops.” There had been a sighting of two men on foot near a rural road. He found several state and federal officials gathered around the back of a pickup, scrutinizing a map whose scale he said was too small to show the uneven geography.
“The command and control did not seem in my opinion to be real firm,” Gillilland said. “They were always referring to some command post in Dannemora for direction.”
Residents kept in the dark about search plans were sometimes startled by officers climbing into their garages or homes.
Beth Schiller, of Willsboro, came home to her 100-acre property, where she rarely locked the doors, to find her .22-caliber rifle missing from the corner of her sunroom. There was no note saying officers had entered the home, and a group of troopers who went inside with her said they had no idea why it was missing. They told her to call her husband, a physician, to see if he had it with him at work.
“The anxiety,” Schiller said. “Imagine going into your own home and seeing a gun is missing when there are two people supposedly out in your area.”
Only later was she able to determine that officers had found it during a search and taken it for safety. That night, after several rounds of paperwork, the State Police gave it back to her and her husband.
The State Police kept a tight lid on information about the search during its first two weeks, but that appeared to change June 19 when, at nearly midnight, they sent a release saying there had been a sighting in the Elmira area. News conferences and daily news releases soon delivered substantial information on the locations of search efforts, and what credible witnesses had reported.
Around five days before he was caught, Sweat split from Matt, he told investigators on Monday, concerned that Matt was holding him back. Matt, 14 years older than his partner, also may have been struggling with blisters on his foot, officials have said, citing bloody socks left at a hunting cabin they discovered June 20.
The search effort seemed to gain momentum when, on June 24, officials discovered evidence of a break-in by Matt at a hunting cabin in Malone, N.Y.
It was a vast area of rolling hills and soggy swamps made more difficult to navigate by heavy rains, suddenly flooded by up to 1,500 officers, the Franklin County sheriff, Kevin Mulverhill, said. “Nobody questioned assignments,” he said. “Everyone who was there was all about how can I help.”
Few state or local officials had experience with such an elaborate search over such difficult terrain, Mulverhill said. “I don’t think anybody really prepares for a manhunt that’s going to use 1,200 people,” he said. “I don’t think that’s something you train for.”
State troopers and sheriff’s deputies stood guard along roadways, listening for rustles in these woods. Tactical teams from specialized units of the Department of Corrections or federal Customs and Border Protection swept the woods, hoping to push the escapees toward a road.
Trail cameras posted on trees took photos of any movement they detected.
On June 26, the owner of a hunting camp, Bobby Willett, found bottles of grape gin and rum out of place in a cabin, a neighbor and cousin said. The neighbor, Jonathan Chodat, said investigators also removed evidence from a nearby abandoned trailer where they believed Matt had been staying that was 50 feet into the woods from Route 30 in Malone.
When Matt fired a shot at a moving camper trailer, in what some officials described as an effort to steal it, investigators blanketed the woods and heard him cough. He was shot three times and killed by a federal agent.
That same day, investigators found a chocolate wrapper in an area off Webster Street in Malone, north of where Matt was killed, that they later determined had traces of Sweat’s DNA, Mulverhill said. Over the weekend, officers left a 22-square-mile search area that had been set up farther south, and moved north to an area around Constable.
Late Sunday afternoon, Sgt. Jay Cook of the New York State Police noticed Sweat jogging north along a roadway, only a few miles from Canada.
The son of dairy farmers, Cook is a dedicated outdoorsman who hunts and fishes and runs a small maple-sugaring operation on his property.
After joining the Air Force and working as a corrections officer, Cook fulfilled his dream of joining the State Police, said his mother, Judith Cook.
“He is an excellent shot; his career revolved around that,” said Billy Jones, the chairman of the Franklin County Legislature and a friend.
He got his chance to end the manhunt when he chased Sweat across a hayfield. A tree line drew closer and closer.
He shot Sweat twice in the torso, and the search was over.