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A Look Back At the Escape From Dannemora And Its Aftermath

The morning of June 6, 2015 was to become historic for the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.  The facility had never had an escape occur from its maximum security wing – until that day. As part of our series on the biggest stories of 2015, WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley looks back at the 23-day manhunt and its aftermath.  
Officials awoke on June 6th to discover that convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat had cut through walls, accessed catwalks and crawled through an inactive steam pipe to eventually gain their freedom via a manhole.  

It led to an intensive 23-day manhunt with thousands of searchers from police, corrections, border patrol and numerous agencies across challenging Adirondack terrain, described by New York State Forest Ranger Captain John Streiff.   “This area contains mountains, hills and ravines.  The area is heavily forested.  The undergrowth on these lands is thick.”

A key break came nearly two weeks into the search.  New York State Police Troop B Commander Major Charles Guess announced that DNA of an escapee was confirmed in a cabin west of the prison.    “We have recovered specific items from that cabin.  We have forwarded them to the appropriate laboratories and reached a conclusive determination.”  

Based on that DNA evidence, the search web constricted to Franklin County, west of the prison.  Nearly three weeks into the hunt, a driver reported that someone had shot at the camper he was towing.  It was the break searchers had been waiting for.  New York State Police Superintendent Joseph  D’Amico described how it led to Matt’s demise.   “As we were doing the ground search in the area there was movement detected by officers on the ground and what they believed to be coughs. So they knew they were dealing with humans as opposed to wildlife. And a tactical team from Customs and Border Protection met up with Matt in the woods, challenged him and he was shot dead by Border Patrol at that time.”

But Sweat was still at large, with officials desperate to stop him from crossing the nearby Canadian border.  Two days later, they got their man. On June 28th  State Police Sargeant Jay Cook was on patrol near Constable.  .  D’Amico described how the manhunt came to an end about a mile and a half from the border.   “Sargeant Jay Cook  spotted a male.  He approached him and he recognized him to be David Sweat.  Sweat turned and fled on foot with the sergeant in pursuit. He realized that Sweat was going to make it to a tree line and he fired two shots hitting Sweat twice in the torso.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed relieved residents that evening.   “The nightmare is finally over.  It took 22 days. We can now confirm Mr. Matt is deceased and the other escapee Mr. Sweat is in custody.”

Once the fugitives had been captured, it was the courts’ turn.  “Anyone who we find who was culpable and guilty of cooperating in this escape will be fully prosecuted.”

During the search it came to light that a civilian employee at the prison, tailor shop supervisor Joyce Mitchell, had aided the convicts.  Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie agreed to a plea deal.   “Because the evidence was so overwhelming Miss Mitchell has acknowledged her guilt obviously by appearing in court and entering a plea.”

Under the deal, Mitchell was sentenced to 2 1/3 to 7 years for promoting prison contraband and criminal facilitating.  

A second case remains pending against suspended prison guard Gene Palmer. He is accused of promoting prison contraband, tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct.  Following his most recent court appearance in November, his attorney William Dreyer would only say discussions regarding the case are continuing.     “Somebody asked me if there are any discussions going on and there are.  And we’ll have further proceedings in January.”

The prison itself — and the prison system as a whole — also faced scrutiny in the wake of the escape.   Clinton Correctional  superintendent Steve Racette was among a dozen top officials suspended from their jobs.  The NYS Inspector General is piecing together the events that led to the escape but has yet to issue her report.

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