DANNEMORA, N.Y. — Exactly five years ago, two convicted killers escaped from their adjacent cells on a Friday night with the help of ‘hacksaw’ blades — and navigated the steam pipe system to break out of Clinton Correctional by way of a manhole.
The stunning getaway by cop killer David Sweat and Richard Matt — doing life for hacking his ex-boss to death — made international headlines and cost New York State more than $23 million in police overtime, in a manhunt that lasted more than three weeks.
The sensational details behind the breakout involved a prison seamstress, Joyce Mitchell, who got involved with both men in the tailor shop. A correction officer also got in trouble for giving the killers too many perks and unwittingly allowing them to carry the blades to their cells in the meat.
Clinton County Sheriff David Favro said he got the the call about the escape at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 6, 2015.
When he later saw the perfect lines on the steam pipe David Sweat had cut, Favro thought, “the corners on this were so clean, if he did it with a hacksaw, then he missed his calling. He should have been an iron worker.”
Favro said it looked like a plasma cutter — something that would involve a torch — was used to cut the pipe.
He said the prison always had construction projects going on inside.
The sheriff said he’s still bothered he didn’t follow his hunch to search west of the prison. He was starting to assemble ATVs to look for the escapees near Lyon Mountain when he received word that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was heading to the scene.
The New York State Police took over the investigation and decided to start going east for the search, toward Cadyville. A police dog had picked up one of the killer’s scent from the manhole.
“To this day, I still regret not following my gut instincts, my police feeling that I should have done something a little different,” the Sheriff said.
After more than a thousand state police, correction officers, federal agents and local cops searched east for nearly two weeks, underwear found in a hunter’s camp to the west was connected to Richard Matt through DNA.
The killers had traveled 50 miles in those first 14 days on the run.
Matt was caught Friday, June 24, when he drunkenly fired a gun toward a camping vehicle driving on Route 30 South, near Malone. David Sweat had already separated from him.
A Border Patrol tactical team used a helicopter to swoop down on Route 30. One of the agents shot Richard Matt in the head, killing him.
Two days later, David Sweat was cornered in Constable, just two miles from the Canadian border. A State Police sergeant shot and wounded Sweat, who remains behind bars to the present day.
“He got shot in the hayfield,” Malone Police Chief Chris Premo recalled in February, when we visited Clinton and Franklin counties before the pandemic.
Joyce Mitchell, known as Tillie, had just been released from prison after four and a half years, for her role in the caper. We found her back home in the North Country, going out to the car with her husband, Lyle.
Mitchell had told us in Bedford Hills Correctional, a women’s prison in Westchester, that she didn’t like what she’d heard about Ben Stiller’s hit Showtime series, “Escape at Dannemora.”
David Sweat, turning 40 on June 14, apparently still has a thing with the ladies. A Long Island woman told the New York Times last year she was his girlfriend and she goes to visit him.
Sweat has been moved around several times since the escape. He’s currently incarcerated at Wende Correctional with no chance for parole.
When we asked the New York State Department of Correction about changes it’s made since the brazen escape, it sent us a lengthy list of initiatives below.
"DOCCS has implemented recommendations from the Office of Inspector General (OSIG) and continues to work cooperatively with the OSIG, as well as actively engage with the unions on other initiatives to ensure the safety and security of staff and incarcerated individuals. These changes are in line with best practices in other prison systems and recommendations from the State Inspector General. These updates include:
- Expanding the internal Office of Special Investigations by hiring outside investigators, moving supervisory positions from union to appointed management-confidential positions, and partnering with outside agencies.
- Developing and implementing new training for newly hired civilian staff and increasing the frequency of several trainings; updating.
- Boundaries training, which deals with employee and incarcerated individual interactions, which is offered to staff annually.
- Implementing a Department-wide grievance tracking system for complaints by incarcerated individuals involving alleged employee misconduct.
- Investing millions of dollars in technology, such as the new, highly sensitive “Cellsense” metal detectors, infrared detectors, and installing rounds tracker to track security rounds.
- Banning hooded sweatshirts and eliminating canned goods from facility commissaries to prevent the use of can lids as weaponry.
- Nearly doubling the number of K-9 units used for drug detection and interdiction.
- Implementing new protocols statewide for all staff who work correctional facilities, including more scheduled metal detector searches and the issuance of clear bags that are provided to staff and are required to transport their personal items in and out of the facilities, and establishing a list of allowable items that staff may carry into a facility.
- Updating security protocols dealing with the assignment and search of living quarters and cell integrity checks.
- Instituting targeted reforms to facility audit procedures as a result of a National Institute of Corrections (NIC) review in 2015, which have been set forth within Directive # 4599. According to the updated protocol audits, the Commissioner shall mandate both announced and unannounced audits of all correctional facilities.
- Implementing unannounced facility staff compliance inspections conducted by DOCCS OSI and OSIG."