Possible sighting of escaped convicts draws swarm of police to small New York town

Brazen New York prison escapees may have been spotted in sleepy upstate town

The sighting of two suspicious men in a sleepy upstate New York town early Tuesday morning sent law enforcement officials scrambling toward Willsboro, N.Y. in search of two convicted murderers who escaped from a maximum-security prison over the weekend.

David Sweat, 34, who killed a sheriff's deputy in 2002, and Richard Matt, 48, who kidnapped a man, beat him to death and dismembered him in 1997, escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. early Saturday morning after an elaborate plot that involved power tools and decoys and was worthy of Hollywood.

The escape sparked a massive police dragnet involving nearly 300 law enforcement officials across upstate New York, and a $100,000 reward had been offered for any information leading to their arrest.

Police turned their attention to Willsboro, a town of 2,000 that sits near Lake Champlain, early Tuesday morning after a motorist reportedly spotted two suspicious individuals on a rural road in town, Town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland told the Los Angeles Times.

Gillilland said the two men, who were walking along the roadside through a "driving rain storm," fled into a nearby field as soon as the driver approached.

Officers with the New York State Police, state Department of Corrections and U.S. marshal's service quickly descended on the town, but Gillilland said no one had positively identified Sweat and Matt as the men who had been spotted.

While a shelter-in-place order was not given, police warned Willsboro residents to remain vigilant while the search continued, something that Gillilland said might not come natural to the people who call the bucolic upstate town home.

“This is a very rural upstate area, and people tend not to remove keys and a lot of people leave their doors unlocked because it’s a very safe town," he said.

While attempts had been made, no inmate has ever escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., in 150 years. That was true until Saturday morning.

Sweat and Matt, who resided in side-by-side cells, each cut a hole in the wall behind their beds and climbed onto a catwalk that hung six stories in the air. The two men piled several items under on their beds, essentially creating decoys to fool guards into thinking they were asleep. 

The men proceeded to climb down the catwalk, armed with power tools, and scurried into a network of tunnels and pipes, officials said.

Sweat and Matt were then able to chisel through a brick wall and cut open a 24-inch steel steam pipe, which they crawled through until they reached a secured manhole cover outside of the prison.

The men were last seen by guards at 10:30 p.m. Friday. They were not discovered missing until 5:30 a.m. the next day.

It remains unclear how the men got the power tools. 

Times Staff Writer Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report.

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