For months before a pair of convicted murderers made their brazen escape from a maximum security facility in upstate New York, prison tailor Joyce Mitchell used baked goods to win favors for Richard Matt and David Sweat, going so far as to ask prison officials to put the inmates in cells next to each other, a law enforcement official told CNN.
Among the apparent favors: asking one guard to pass frozen hamburger meat to Matt, bypassing the Clinton Correctional Facility ‘s metal detector in a violation of policy, the source said Tuesday.
Mitchell, who has been charged with aiding the escapees, has admitted she smuggled hacksaw blades into the meat, the official said.
Gene Palmer, the guard on the block where Matt and Sweat were held, was unaware of the meat’s contents when he was asked to get it to Matt, according to Palmer’s attorney Andrew Brockway, who says his client was conned by Mitchell. Palmer is now on paid leave but hasn’t been arrested or charged with anything.
“The only mistake he made was trusting Joyce Mitchell,” Brockway told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, saying his client feels “extremely guilty” about his unwitting role in the breakout.
At the time of their escape, Matt, 48, and Sweat, 35, were housed next to each other on the prison’s honor block, which awarded inmates who showed good behavior special privileges such as having hot plates and refrigerators in their cells.
The two convicts cut holes through steel cell walls, then sneaked along catwalks and through pipes before clambering out of a manhole beyond the prison gates and disappearing June 6. The vast manhunt for them is now in its 19th day.
Accused of helping the fugitives by supplying the blades, chisels, a punch and a drill bit, Mitchell is in jail and has pleaded not guilty. Her attorney did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said Tuesday there were “a number of ongoing probes” into how the pair escaped, but she wouldn’t comment on the details of those investigations.
Police trying to close the net in manhunt
The new revelations come as law enforcement officials chase the most promising lead yet in the manhunt for the pair. DNA from Matt and Sweat was found in a burglarized cabin not far from where the convicted murders broke out more than two weeks ago, a law enforcement source told CNN.
Personal items, including boots, were discovered Saturday inside the cabin in Mountain View, some 20 miles west of the prison, another law enforcement source briefed on the investigation told CNN’s Deborah Feyerick.
The items left behind, and the manner in which they were left, suggest the pair were surprised and left in a hurry, according to the source.
The boots left in the cabin suggest one of the fugitives may be barefoot, the source said, possibly hindering his ability to move through the dense brush. But there may have been other boots and shoes in the cabin that were taken by the pair.
Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill told CNN that the search area is about the size of the town of Bellmont, New York — roughly 170 square miles. Authorities have flooded the area with helicopters, cruisers and all-terrain vehicles.
As many as 1,000 people are working the search as law enforcement officials try to close a net around the escapees.
“Every rock, every nook, every cranny’s going to be looked at here,” former U.S. Marshal John Cuff said on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. “And it’s going to be very difficult with the challenges that are presented in the woods up there.”
Ravines, bogs, creeks and cliffs
Those challenges include a densely forested landscape riddled with ravines, bogs, creeks and cliffs — terrain that makes it very difficult to spot a person on foot, even if they’re only a short distance away.
Some more open areas like roads, wider trails, railways and power line cuts give searchers better visibility, but once night falls or bad weather moves in, that advantage fades quickly.
Authorities have thermal imaging gear among their tools in the hunt, but it has to contend with the clutter caused by the heat signatures of other searchers or large animals like deer and bears. In summer, the general heat creates background noise, as well.
Officials are also concerned that the escapees may break in to another one of the seasonal cabins, many used by hunters, and steal weapons.
Some residents flee, others stay put
In Owls Head, one of the communities engulfed in the wide search net, a lot of residents have left their homes while the manhunt unfolds. And many summer tourists appear to be staying away.
But some residents aren’t budging, like Joyce Lawson and Erwin Fleury, both of them in their 80s.
“I’m not really frightened,” Lawson told CNN. “If I really was frightened, I’d probably leave, but I’m not.”
She said the heavy law enforcement presence gave her reassurance.
“Half the night I’ve got troopers all over the place,” Lawson said. “And all day, too.”
Asked if he was scared of the escaped killers, Fleury, a Korean War veteran, was dismissive.
“These kids? Are you kidding me?” he scoffed. “After what I went through? No.”
Video shows convict being shot with blow gun
Authorities, however, say people have good reason to be afraid of the fugitives.
“Sweat and Matt have violent criminal histories and pose a significant threat to anyone who may come in contact with them,” the U.S. Marshals Service said in a statement last week when the two men were added to its “most wanted” list.
Before his escape, Matt had been serving a 25-year sentence for kidnapping a man, torturing him to death and then dismembering his body. Sweat had been sentenced to life without parole for shooting a sheriff’s deputy multiple times in the head and body and then running him over with the deputy’s squad car.
A video offering an idea of Matt’s mindset emerged Tuesday.
Obtained by ABC News, it shows him smiling and posing with a blow gun in 1997.
“We’re going to dip these in AIDS blood,” he says, holding a dart in front of the camera. “And we’ll put a patent on them, we’ll sell them as deadly weapons.”
Somebody off camera then uses the blow gun to fire a dart into Matt’s outstretched arm.
The video was taken nine months before Matt committed the murder that put him behind bars.