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Debris from failed relationships litters New York prison escape

When Richard W. Matt and David Sweat escaped from the maximum security prison in upstate New York, Plan A was allegedly to hitch a ride from a friendly female prison employee, kill her husband and head straight to Mexico and freedom. When the employee failed to show, the pair of inmates went to Plan B: Run like hell.

The pair did indeed run, beginning overnight June 5 or the very early morning of June 6 when they exited the prison property through a manhole. Then they fled through the streets of Dannemora, N.Y., which owes much of its existence to the Clinton Correctional Facility with its 3,000 or so inmates and about 1,500 jobs in the state’s sparsely populated, pristine Adirondack region.

The murderers hid in the dense forests, breaking into empty hunting cabins that became supply depots for supplies like camouflage pants, maps, tools, bug repellent and even Pop Tarts, officials said. The fugitives’ last hope was crossing the northern border into Canada.

But that hope was dashed on Friday, the 21st day of an intense manhunt, when authorities closed in on Matt near Malone, N.Y., about 30 miles from the prison. There was a sound, perhaps a cough, in a wooded area. Police said a federal agent told Matt to surrender. When he refused, the agent fired and killed Matt. A stolen shotgun was recovered.

On Sunday, Sweat was shot twice by a New York State Police sergeant, who spotted him running along a road in Constable, less than a 10-minute walk from the Canadian border. He remains hospitalized in fair condition but has talked to investigators about the odyssey.

The saga of the most daring escape from a maximum security prison in New York doesn’t end with death and capture. It just takes a different twist as officials seek answers.

So far, 12 prison employees, including the top superintendents, have been placed on administrative leave while the escape is being investigated, the state announced on Tuesday. Two prison employees, including a guard, have been criminally charged with aiding the escape. Federal officials were reported by CNN this week to have launched a corruption investigation at the prison.

In many ways the escape is the story of failed relationships, between the inmates and the prison employee they hoped would help them, between that employee and a guard who says he unknowingly smuggled contraband, and, in the end, between the convicts themselves, who decided to separate and met different ends.

Sweat, 35, has been in and out of prison since he was 17. He grew up in Binghamton, a city in Broome County in the state’s central region near the border with Pennsylvania. According to authorities, he was in and out of foster care and group homes.

On July 4, 2002, Sweat and a cousin were caught by a deputy as the pair were moving stolen guns. They shot the deputy 15 times then ran him over before fleeing, authorities said. Sweat was caught five days later in the woods. He eventually pleaded guilty to murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Matt, 49, was convicted in 1986 of possessing a forged document, then escaped from a jail in Buffalo, officials said. After a checkered criminal career, Matt kidnapped, tortured and killed a Buffalo-area food broker a few weeks after being fired from a warehouse job in 1997. Matt fled to Mexico, where he killed a man outside a bar in Matamoros. Matt served nine years in a Mexican prison and then was turned over to authorities in New York, where he was convicted in the Buffalo case and sentenced to 25 years to life.

The pair met at Clinton, a prison that is home to many of the state’s toughest inmates. Even in maximum security prisons there are oases, known as honor blocks, which is where Matt and Sweat had been housed for the past five years. Inmates with good behavior can get a piece of land to farm and a place to cook on hot plates. They can get softer jobs like one in the tailor shop, where the inmates' alleged accomplice, Joyce Mitchell, worked.

Officials wouldn’t publicly discuss the case, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in news conferences and TV and radio interviews, has revealed some details of the questioning of Sweat by state police.

“They would kill Mitchell's husband, then get in the car and drive to Mexico on the theory that Mitchell was in love with one or both of them,” Cuomo said. “Then they would go live happily ever after.”

Mitchell, 51, had worked at least five years in a $57,700-a-year job overseeing inmates including Matt and Sweat in the tailor shop. She has been married for 14 years, has adult children and served as a tax collector in her hometown near the prison.

She is accused of giving chisels, a screwdriver bit and hacksaw blades to Matt and Sweat. The contraband was concealed in frozen hamburger meat, according to prosecutors. Mitchell has pleaded not guilty to prison-contraband and criminal facilitation charges.

“How can it happen?” Lyle Mitchell asked his wife, he later told NBC's “Today” show.

She explained that she had been unsure of his love and flattered by attention from Matt, who had tried to kiss her a few times, Lyle Mitchell said. But he said her fondness turned to fear when she told Matt she'd changed her mind about being their driver and Matt threatened to have her husband killed.

“I got over my head, and I was scared,” she said, according to her husband, also an industrial instructor at the prison.

Guard Gene Palmer, 57, who has worked at the prison for 27 years, allegedly delivered the meat to the inmates. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of giving contraband and tools to the inmates and is free after posting $25,000 bail.

The relationship between inmates and their jailers is complex, and investigators say they will examine Palmer in depth to determine if he crossed any line or was simply duped by Mitchell, who they say prepared the beef with the blades.

“Matt provided me with elaborate paintings and information on the illegal acts that inmates were committing within the facility,” Palmer said in a statement reported by the Albany Times Union. “In turn, I provided him with the benefits such as paint, paintbrushes, movement of inmates, hamburger meat, altering of electrical boxes in the catwalk areas. I did not realize at the time that the assistance provided to Matt and Sweat made their escape easier.” 

The catwalk would be part of the escape route, and it led Matt and Sweat to tunnels where they found a contractor's toolbox and tools used to escape, Cuomo said.

It was originally reported that the inmates had used power tools, but that remained unclear as of Tuesday. Sweat reportedly told his interrogators that they had used only hacksaw blades to cut through walls.

Authorities didn’t realize that the inmates had escaped until the morning of June 6, when they looked in on the adjoining cells on the honor block. The pair had apparently squeezed through holes in the steel wall behind their beds, past a brick wall and a steam pipe. They had left behind some lumps in their bunks that were artfully positioned sweatshirts. They also left a note, saying: “Have a nice day!”

Mitchell was allegedly supposed to pick up the inmates, but she never showed because of a panic attack. That put the inmates on their own and on the run.

Bonded in breakout, the pair stayed together. But days before the final act to their drama, they separated after Sweat became concerned that the older Matt was more of a burden than an asset.

“Sweat actually disengaged from Matt about five days ago,” Cuomo said in a radio interview Monday. “Which answers why there was no DNA of Sweat in the last cabin that they were in or the previous cabin, because Sweat felt that Matt was slowing him down.”

The autopsy report for Matt showed that he had blisters, bug bites and abrasions. He died from three gunshots to the head.

Follow @latimesmuskal for national news.

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