A three-week manhunt that began when two convicted murderers staged a brazen prison break involving stolen power tools and hacksaw blades hidden in frozen hamburger meat ended Sunday when a single state police sergeant spotted a suspicious man walking down on a rural road near the Canadian border.
David Sweat’s capture came two days after his fellow escapee, Richard Matt, was killed in a confrontation with law enforcement while holding a shotgun. Sweat was unarmed when he was shot twice by Sgt. Jay Cook as the fugitive ran for a tree line.
“If you were writing a movie plot, they would say that this was overdone,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
Cook, a 21-year veteran, was alone and on routine patrol when he stumbled upon Sweat in the northern New York town of Constable, about 30 miles northwest of the prison, and recognized him. He gave chase when Sweat fled and decided to fire upon fearing he would lose him in the trees, state police said.
“I can only assume he was going for the border,” Superintendent Joseph D’Amico said.
The arrest ended an ordeal that sent 1,300 law enforcement officers into the thickly forested northern reaches of New York and forced residents to tolerate nerve-wracking armed checkpoints and property searches.
“The nightmare is finally over,” Cuomo declared at a news conference.
Authorities said Sweat was struck in the torso and taken to a hospital in Malone before being transported to Albany Medical Center, which has a trauma center. Sweat, who was listed in critical condition, was being evaluated by a team of doctors including emergency medical physicians, trauma specialists and others who would determine whether surgery was necessary, Dr. Dennis McKenna said.
Monday morning, Cuomo told CNN Sweat is in “critical but stable” condition at Albany Medical Center.
Sweat had not been formally interviewed by investigators as of late Sunday, but any information he provides could be critical to the investigation, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said.
Sweat will be charged with escape, burglary and other charges, Wylie said. He and Matt are suspected of breaking into some of the region’s many cabins during their time on the lam. Wylie said prosecutors would wait for Sweat to recover before charging him.
The men had been on the loose since June 6, when they cut their way out of a maximum-security prison about 30 miles away using power tools. Two prison workers have been charged with helping them.
D’Amico said the men may have used black pepper to throw off the scent of dogs that were tracking them; he said Sweat’s DNA was recovered from pepper shakers found at one camp where the fugitives may have spent time.
Cuomo said many questions remained unanswered in the case, including whether the inmates had other accomplices.
“We have already started a full investigation,” he said. “But today ends with good news. These were dangerous, dangerous men.”
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 Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.
Sweat was serving a sentence of life without parole in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy in Broome County in 2002. Matt was serving 25 years to life for the killing and dismembering of his former boss.
An Amish dairy farmer said Sweat was captured on her property near a tree line, just feet from an electrified fence where the cows graze.
Verba Bontrager, 38, who has run her family’s farm in Constable for the last nine years, said she was chatting with visitors inside when she heard two gunshots. Her children and a family friend went outside, saw a caravan of police cars and ambulances, and learned from a trooper that Sweat had been captured.
She said her children had been home alone earlier, and even though she knew police were looking for Sweat, she never thought to be worried. Now, she said, they’re a little shaken.
“I think it’s kind of hard for them to go back to bed and sleep because of everything that went on,” Bontrager said. “We’re all kind of scared, I guess.”
In nearby Malone, Cathy Leffler cheered outside Alice Hyde Medical Center, where Sweat was initially taken after being shot. She said she had gone to the hospital to “see it through.”
“This has been going on for three weeks and our town was in an uproar and we haven’t been able to sleep,” Leffler said. “This is a relief for the town of Malone.”
The manhunt broke open Friday afternoon when a person towing a camper heard a loud noise and thought a tire had blown. Finding there was no flat, the driver drove eight miles before looking again and finding a bullet hole in the trailer. A tactical team responding to the scene of the shot smelled gunpowder inside a cabin and saw evidence that someone had fled out the back door.
A noise — perhaps a cough — ultimately did Matt in. A border patrol team discovered Matt, who was shot after failing to heed a command to raise his hands. He was shot three times in the head, according to an autopsy.
A coroner who attended the autopsy said Matt was clean, well-fed and dressed for the elements at the time he was killed.
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 in the escape. Authorities also said Mitchell had discussed killing her husband as part of the plot.
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.”
Prosecutors said the inmates apparently used tools stored by prison contractors, taking care to return them to their toolboxes after each night’s work.
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 the frozen hamburger meat 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. Palmer is due in court Monday.