DANNEMORA, N.Y. — Investigators believe a female prison employee had agreed to be the getaway driver in last weekend’s escape by two killers but never showed up, a person close to the investigation told The Associated Press.
The person said that was one reason the manhunt was focused on the woods only a few miles from the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility. The person was not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
David Sweat, 34, and Richard Matt, 48, used power tools to cut through steel and bricks and crawled through an underground steam pipe, emerging from a manhole outside the 40-foot walls of the prison, authorities said.
The person close to the investigation said authorities believe Joyce Mitchell — an instructor at the prison tailor shop, where the two convicts worked — had befriended the men and was supposed to pick them up June 6, but didn’t.
Mitchell has not been charged. Her son, Tobey Mitchell, told NBC that she checked herself into a hospital with chest pains June 6. He said she would not have helped the inmates escape.
In a renewed burst of activity near the prison, police using dogs and helicopters blocked off a main road and concentrated their sixth day of searching June 11 on a swampy area just a couple of miles from the institution, situated about 20 miles from the Canadian border.
Schools were closed, and residents received automated calls warning them to lock their doors, close their windows and leave outside lights on.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that investigators had received tips that the convicts were in the area, and that tracking dogs had picked up the scent.
But he added: “Look, they could either be four miles from the prison or they could be in Mexico. Right? So you just don’t know.”
Law enforcement officers walking an arm’s length apart were conducting a grid search through a cordoned-off area consisting of mud, woods, thick underbrush and several houses, Sheriff David Favro said. He said there had been no reports of stolen or abandoned vehicles, break-ins or abductions.
State Police said they bolstered the force looking for the fugitives to 500 officers from 450 a day earlier.
Jennifer Hilchey-Reyell, who lives on the edge of the search area, heard low-flying helicopters all night and watched state police SUVs race by all day.
She said she is prepared for any intruder. She now carries a .22-caliber gun when she walks to her mother’s house next door, where she sleeps in a recliner near her weapon and her pit bull, Layla.
“My dog will slow them down, and that’s all I need,” she said.
Authorities suspect the inmates also had help from the inside in obtaining the power tools. Guards and other staff members have been questioned by investigators, but no one has been disciplined or charged.
On June 10, New York State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico said Mitchell was being questioned and “may have had some role in assisting” the convicts. He would not elaborate.
Matt was serving 25 years to life for the 1997 kidnap, torture and hacksaw dismemberment of Matt’s 76-year-old former boss, whose body was found in pieces in a river.
Matt and an accomplice stuffed William Rickerson in a car trunk in his pajamas and drove around with him for 27 hours because he wouldn’t tell them the location of large sums of money he was believed to have.
According to testimony, Matt at one point opened the trunk and bent back the elderly man’s fingers until they broke. Later he snapped Rickerson’s neck with his bare hands.
After the killing, Matt fled to Mexico, where he killed a man outside a bar.
Sweat was doing life without parole for his part in the 2002 killing of Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia, who was shot 15 times and run over after discovering Sweat and two accomplices transferring stolen guns between vehicles.
(MICHAEL HILL and MICHAEL VIRTANEN)