MALONE — The shooting death of one escaped killer brought new energy to a weeks-long hunt for a second escaped murderer as helicopters, search dogs and hundreds of law enforcement officers converged on a wooded area 30 miles from the prison.
“Of course our preference would always be to capture them alive,” New York State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico told a news conference as he announced late Friday the killing hours earlier of Richard Matt, one of two escaped killers from an update maximum-security prison.
He credited a tip from the public, one of over 2,300 received so far, for crucial information leading to the deadly confrontation in Malone.
D’Amico said Matt was shot by a border patrol agent when he failed to comply with commands in the woods near a cabin where a shot had been fired earlier in the day at a camping trailer. A 20-gauge shotgun was found on him, though he did not fire it at officers, he added.
“They verbally challenged him, told him to put up his hands. And at that time, he was shot when he didn’t comply,” D’Amico said.
A second convicted murderer, David Sweat, has not been spotted since he escaped, though evidence was found a week ago indicating he was with Matt in a cabin that was burglarized about 3 miles from any paved roadway, the superintendent said.
An intense search of the area led to a discovery Friday morning of a camp where somebody apparently had laid down, leaving behind candy wrappers and other items, D’Amico said.
The breakthrough Friday came shortly before 2 p.m., when a person towing a camper heard a loud sound and thought a tire had blown. Finding the tires intact, the driver went another eight miles before looking at the trailer and finding a bullet hole.
Authorities converged on the location where the sound was heard and discovered the smell of gunfire inside a cabin, where a weapon had been fired. D’Amico said there also was evidence someone recently had fled out the back door.
“As we were doing the ground search in the area, there was movement detected by officers on the ground, what they believed to be coughs. So they knew that they were dealing with humans as opposed to wildlife,” he said.
After Matt was killed, a 20-gauge shotgun that was believed to be missing from the cabin he broke into last weekend was recovered from his body, D’Amico said.
“Based on that, we continued to search. We have a lot of people in the area. We have canines and we have a decent perimeter set up and we’re searching for Sweat at this time,” he said.
D’Amico said he had no information that Sweat was not with or near Matt so a heavy search of the area would go on.
The pair escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility together early June 6. Gov. Andrew Cuomo called them “dangerous, dangerous men.”
Police blocked off roads officers hunted for Sweat in an area around Titusville Mountain State Forest in Malone and spanning 22 square miles.
Mitch Johnson said one of his best friends checked on his hunting cabin in Malone Friday afternoon and called police after noticing the scent of grape flavored gin as soon as he stepped into his cabin and spotting the bottle that had gone untouched for years resting on a kitchen table.
Johnson said his friend, correction officer Bob Willett, told him he summoned police about an hour before Matt was fatally shot and then heard a flurry of gun blasts.
Matt and Sweat used power tools to saw through a steel cell wall and several steel steam pipes, bashed a hole through a 2-foot-thick brick wall, squirmed through pipes and emerged from a manhole outside the prison.
Sweat, 35, was serving a sentence of life without parole in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy in Broome County in 2002. Matt, 49, was serving 25 years to life for the killing and dismembering of his former boss. They were added to the U.S. Marshals Service’s 15 Most Wanted fugitives list two weeks after getting away.
A pair of prison workers has been charged in connection with the inmates’ escape.
Prosecutors said Joyce Mitchell, a prison tailoring shop instructor who got close to the men while working with them, had agreed to be their getaway driver but backed out because she felt guilty for participating. Authorities also said Mitchell had discussed killing her husband, Lyle Mitchell, as part of the plot.
Joyce Mitchell pleaded not guilty June 15 to charges including felony promoting prison contraband, which authorities said included hacksaw blades and chisels.
Authorities said the men had filled their beds in their adjacent cells with clothes to make it appear they were sleeping when guards made overnight rounds. On a cut steam pipe, the prisoners left a taunting note containing a crude caricature of an Asian face and the words “Have a nice day.”
On June 24, authorities charged Clinton correction officer Gene Palmer with promoting prison contraband, tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct. Officials said he gave the two prisoners frozen hamburger meat Joyce Mitchell had used to hide the tools she smuggled to Sweat and Matt. Palmer’s attorney said he had no knowledge that the meat contained hacksaw blades, a bit and a screwdriver.
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