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Everything We Know So Far About the Two Murderers Who Escaped from Prison in New York This Weekend

A cop who knew one of the escapees said he's "totally fearless, and doesn't respond to pain."
Photo by Darren McGee/via Flickr user governorandrewcuomo

It's more Hannibal than The Shawshank Redemption.

On Saturday, two convicted killers managed to escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, a town of about 5,000 near the Canadian border. And while prison movies might have taught us to root for an underdog, neither David Sweat, 35, nor Richard Matt, 49, have much in common with Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. In fact, both are said to be cold-blooded murderers, and the latter was deemed "the most vicious, evil person I've ever come across in 38 years as a police officer" by a retired captain who once investigated him.


David Sweat ended up at Clinton, a maximum security facility and the largest in the state—it's known locally as "Little Siberia"—after a fireworks store burglary on July 4, 2002 went wrong, the New York Times reports. Although the heist was pulled off, Deputy Sheriff Kevin Tarsia, who was working a night shift by himself, stumbled upon the criminals as they were dividing their spoils in a park. Sweat and a companion shot and killed the cop.

Richard Matt's path to the facility is much more meandering—and terrifying. He'd escaped from county prison once before, in 1986, near Buffalo. According to a Buffalo News article from January 2007, he was sent to prison in 1993 for charges related to a 1989 rape and a 1991 stabbing of a nurse.

Later, in what Niagara County District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy called "one of the most horrific crimes" he'd ever prosecuted, Matt killed a 76-year-old food warehouse owner he was working for after getting fired for poor performance. He and his accomplice, a video store clerk who wanted to become a cop, made away with $80 and jewelry before casting the senior citizen's dismembered torso into the Niagara River.

Afterward, Matt fled to Mexico, where he stabbed an American engineer to death outside of a bar, according to United Press International (UPI). In 2007, after serving about nine years in a Mexican prison, he was brought back to America and eventually thrown into Clinton, with no chance of parole before 2032, according to the Times.


Related: Read this history of prison escapes by famed author Donald Westlake.

On Friday night or Saturday morning, the two men set up dummies they'd crafted to fool guards checking on their cells. Then they used power tools to cut a hole in between their adjacent cells. Finally, they cut into a two-foot-wide pipe and shimmied through it until they popped up through a manhole about a block away from the prison. (The escapees apparently left a note to cops reading, "Have a nice day!")

According to Bryce Peterson, an expert on prison escapes at the Urban Institute, about 95 percent of them happen when prisoners take advantage of opportunities like a door left ajar at a minimum security facility. He adds that the same thing might have happened here, despite Clinton being a max prison.

"It sounds like a construction worker on site might have left the tools," Peterson told VICE. "I would be very shocked if someone was able to smuggle this in from the outside that wasn't employed by the facility. That would be a pretty big thing to smuggle in." (According to CNN, law enforcement interviewed an employee at Clinton who may have helped the men escape.)

In his research, Peterson has found that escapees will often either seek help from old friends once breaking loose, or else try to live in the woods for as long as possible. The latter might be the only recourse for the pair considering Clinton is surrounded by wilderness—which could make them incredibly hard to track down.


Then comes the question of how the men will obtain food, shelter and clothing that isn't a prisoner's uniform. According to Peterson, without some kind of help, escapees are prone to get desperate.

"That's when you tend to see violent incidents," he told me. "When you have someone who's extremely motivated to stay out of custody, they'll take to robbery or home invasions or whatever it takes to stay out."

If the past is any indication, Matt is someone you don't want anywhere near your house.

The Times reports that when he was on trial for killing his old employer, Matt was treated like Hannibal Lecter. Snipers were posted at the courthouse, and glass was removed from the chambers lest he smash it and try to shank someone.

"I'm very concerned that people are going to get hurt the longer he's out," a retired detective who used to lean on Matt as a criminal informant told the paper. "I've seen him inflict wounds on himself, cut himself; break his collarbone and not seek any treatment. He's just totally, totally fearless, and doesn't respond to pain."

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