CLINTON, New York—The state of New York on Sunday offered a reward of $50,000 per inmate for information leading to the arrest of two convicted murderers who escaped from a maximum security prison close to the Canadian border.
Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a “crisis situation”, as the two men were still on the run more than 24 hours after their escape. At a media briefing, Cuomo said Richard Matt and David Sweat could be in Canada, anywhere in New York state or in a neighboring state such as Vermont – or even further afield if they had access to a car or assistance.
“The truth is we have a number of leads but nothing that would lead us to a specific conclusion about where they are,” he said.
He also said that the complicated escape operation, in which the two men cut holes in their steel cell walls and a long network of pipes leading out of the prison to a manhole cover in a public street, could have taken days to accomplish.
Matt and Sweat escaped from adjoining cells by cutting holes in pipes in the prison’s heating system and had the time and nerve to leave a note bearing a smiley face and the words “Have a nice day”. They escaped in the early hours of Saturday morning from Clinton correctional facility, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border.
“This is a crisis situation for the state,” Cuomo said. “These are dangerous individuals and they are capable of committing grave crimes once again.”
Cuomo said authorities did not know how the pair acquired the power tools they would have needed. It was confirmed that the prison’s inventory of tools was intact and the focus was on outside contractors doing refurbishment work at the prison, which houses 3,000 inmates in the village of Dannemora, and was built in 1865.
Officials think the men cut their way out from the inside, and were not reached by outsiders. Cuomo said the manhole cover through which the two men emerged in a street in Dannemora was secured with a steel lock and chains from underneath.
“I would not put it past them whatsoever that they could have acquired an automobile or have had a rendezvous with someone on the outside,” he said.
New York state police were joined in a manhunt by investigators from the FBI, heavily armed Swat teams, forest rangers and local police. K-9 teams searched with bloodhounds and other trained dogs. Three helicopters made aerial sweeps, one of them from the federal Department of Homeland Security.
“They could be anywhere,” said Charles Guess, a major with New York state police, on Sunday afternoon. “They could have gone out of state by now or they could be holed up here in Dannemora.”
Guess said there was only limited video surveillance in the vicinity of the prison and authorities did not have any tapes that captured images of the escape. He added that a very limited number of cutting tools that may have been used in the escape had been recovered, but not the sophisticated tools authorities think were central to the project.
Investigators do not know if the prisoners are still together or have gone their separate ways. Both are from upstate New York and were serving long sentences for brutal killings.
Matt, 48, was serving 25 years to life for beating to death and then dismembering his former boss, William Rickerson, in 1997. Matt had worked at a food warehouse but had been fired. He kidnapped the 67-year-old, whose torso and legs were found in the Niagara River.
Matt fled to Mexico in 1998 and there stabbed a man to death outside a bar. He was extradited to the US in 2007. He has a history of jailbreak. In 1986 he escaped from the Erie county jail by scaling a fence.
Sweat, 34, was serving life without parole for the murder of a deputy sheriff on 4 July 2002. Broome County deputy Kevin Tarsia was driving alone in the early hours when he spotted two men acting suspiciously in a park. It was Sweat and another man, dividing the spoils of a burglary. When Tarsia challenged them they shot him dead, hitting him with 22 bullets.
At Clinton on Friday night, the inmates had their last “standing count” at 10.30pm. Prisoners are checked every two hours during the night, but it is a simple, visual check. Cuomo said the inmates had made replicas of themselves with clothing to make it look as if they were sleeping with sweatshirt hoods pulled up, “a usual” sleeping style for many inmates.
Their disappearance was not discovered until the next full standing head count, at 5.30am.
Many residents of Dannemora and surrounding settlements were staying inside and locking their doors on Sunday, although others ran their businesses and let their children play outside as normal, according to Dannemora mayor Michael Bennett.
Investigators were searching in dense forest and farmland with abandoned buildings, as well as using road blocks and conducting house-to-house checks.