Loaded weapons, sleep­less nights

More than a week af­ter two in­mates es­cape pri­son, fear and vig­i­lance per­vade a New York town.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Tina Susman tina.susman@la­times.com

DANNEMORA, N.Y. — Richard Matt and David Sweat are ev­ery­where.

They are at high­way rest stops, where the killers’ faces peer out from “wanted” posters. They are at check­points dot­ting the wind­ing, forested roads, where troop­ers stand guard with ri­fles ready.

They are in the loaded weapons that lo­cals place be­side their beds at night, and they are in the porch lights that shine un­til dawn, when day­light brings a mea­sure of re­lief to peo­ple living near the pri­son that Matt and Sweat fled more than aweek ago.

The pair re­main out of sight, but ev­ery­one knows they are out there, and if po­lice are right, they haven’t gone far. That’s no com­fort to peo­ple living in and around Dannemora, where the hulk­ing Clin­ton Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity seems to devour the quiet vil­lage of clap­board houses and small busi­nesses.

“I wish it could just be over. I haven’t been able to sleep,” said Amy Daust, who lives down the block from the man­hole through which the pris­on­ers emerged af­ter cut­ting their way out of their cells and tun­nel­ing out of the pri­son. They were dis­cov­ered miss­ing dur­ing a 5:30 a.m. bed check on June 6. Since then, it seems life has turned up­side down in tiny Dannemora, whose pop­u­la­tion of 4,000 in­cludes the nearly 3,000 pri­son in­mates.

“You feel like the roles are reversed. It’s like we’re in pri­son now,” said Daust, who hasa clear view oft he cor­rec­tional cen­ter and can hear the an­nounce­ments blasted to pris­on­ers through its speaker sys­tem.

Peo­ple avoid go­ing out­side at night. They lock their doors and win­dows, a change of habit in a town where many res­i­dents used to think noth­ing of leav­ing keys in their cars. Since the es­cape, no­body has been able to drive through town with­out stop­ping at check­points and open­ing their car trunks for troop­ers to peer in­side. Daust, her fi­ance and their three young boys keep the house lights on dur­ing the night.

It has al­ways been a bit creepy, know­ing the kinds of peo­ple living be­hind the walls at the max­i­mum-se­cu­rity pri­son, said Daust, who grew up in the re­gion. But with so many cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers living nearby, and with the pri­son look­ing so im­pen­e­tra­ble, it seemed plenty safe.

Onthe morn­ing of the es­cape, Daust woke up un­aware that any­thing un­usual had oc­curred at the fortress up the hill. She looked out a win­dow and was star­tled to see some­one look­ing backat her. It was an in­ves­ti­ga­tor, one of hun­dreds search­ing for Matt and Sweat.

On Satur­day, searchers were out again, comb­ing the thick woods, fields and swampy ar­eas of ru­ral north­east­ern New York.

Of­fi­cials say a civil­ian pri­son worker named Joyce Mitchell pro­vided some con­tra­band to the men weeks be­fore the es­cape. A crim­i­nal com­plaint says Mitchell, 51, brought them hack­saw blades, a screw­driver bit and chis­els.

Mitchell pleaded not guilty Fri­day to a felony and a mis­de­meanor in con­nec­tion with the es­cape and­was jailed in lieu of $110,000 cash bail. Clin­ton County Dist. Atty. An­drew Wylie says the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Mitchell’s in­volve­ment con­tin­ues, and he has not ruled out ad­di­tional charges.

Of­fi­cials have not ex­plained how the pris­on­ers man­aged to cut through thick brick walls and a steel pipe. They have said Matt and Sweat used power tools but have not said where they got those tools or how they were able to use them with­out the noise drawing at­ten­tion.

Po­lice said they had no rea­son to be­lieve the men had fled to Canada, about 20 miles north, or to neigh­bor­ing Ver­mont. The check­points are cen­tered on a tight cir­cle around Dannemora, and most of the in­ten­sive ground searches have oc­curred in the im­me­di­ate vicin­ity.

De­spite the man­power, the search dogs and a $50,000 re­ward for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to ei­ther man, there have been no con­firmed sight­ings, leav­ing even peo­ple who do not live in Dannemora on edge.

In Platts­burgh, about 15 miles to the east, Dan My­att said he had loaded his ri­fles, just in case, and he ad­mit­ted to hav­ing felt a bit un­easy Fri­day night as he emerged from an evening kayak trip to find him­self alone in near dark­ness.

My­att has tried not to let the knowl­edge that two killers are on the loose al­ter his rou­tine. He still jogs by him­self in the morn­ing, but My­att, who nor­mally does not watch TV, has be­gun fol­low­ing the lo­cal news for search up­dates. He planned to take an­other pad­dling trip Satur­day evening, and he hoped he would not find him­self alone again.

Dana Har­nish, a cus­tomer in the Kayak Shack, where My­att and Ali Harpp were tend­ing cus­tomers, spec­u­lated that Matt and Sweat were long gone from the area. Har­nish, who lives on a dead-end road in an iso­lated camp that has not yet be­gun to see sum­mer vis­i­tors, said they might have jumped on a train pass­ing on the nearby tracks.

Even if they haven’t fled by train, Har­nish noted, the pair have been on the loose for plenty of time to have gone far on foot. “I could’ve gone 70 miles by now,” said Har­nish, who nev­er­the­less is keep­ing his shot­gun close at hand. “Bet­ter safe than sorry,” he said.

Harpp agreed. The pri­son es­cape, she said, was a wake-up call to peo­ple who for decades had lived nearby, as­sum­ing they were safe froma break­out.

“I don’t think any­one re­ally thought it could hap­pen,” Harpp said. “But now they re­al­ize it can, and it’s nota s if th­ese guys just killed some­one. One guy chopped some­one up.” Richard Matt, 48, had been serv­ing 25 years to life for the 1997 killing and dis­mem­ber­ment of his boss.

David Sweat, 34, was serv­ing life with­out pa­role for killing a sher­iff ’s deputy in 2002.

The pair have de­fied the odds in re­main­ing free this long, ac­cord­ing to pri­son es­cape data com­piled by the New York State Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Com­mu­nity Su­per­vi­sion.

Of 29 in­mates who es­caped from New York state prisons from 2002 to 2012, none were loose for more than three days be­fore be­ing re­cap­tured.

Mike Groll As­so­ci­ated Press

LAW EN­FORCE­MENT of­fi­cers walk a field near Dannemora, N.Y. Po­lice think David Sweat and Richard Matt haven’t gone far — lit­tle com­fort to lo­cals, who avoid go­ing out at night and keep their doors locked.

Gabe Dick­ens Press-Repub­li­can

JOYCE MITCHELL, a pri­son worker, is charged with pro­vid­ing con­tra­band to the es­capees.

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