Two convicted murders who used power tools to cut their way out of a prison near the Canadian border could be nearby or “in Mexico by now,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday.
The intense manhunt focused on the fields and Adirondack woods near the prison in upstate New York after the inmates’ escape was apparently hampered by a prison employee’s decision to back out as their getaway driver nine days ago.
The inmates, David Sweat and Richard Matt, planned to have the now-jailed prison worker drive them about seven hours away to an unknown destination, District Attorney Andrew Wylie told CNN.
But prison tailor shop instructor Joyce Mitchell backed out of the plan at the last minute, Wylie said.
“One of the reasons that she didn’t show up was because she did love her husband and didn’t want to do this to him,” Wylie said.
Even as hundreds of law enforcement workers stalked the rural area about 20 miles from Canada, Cuomo said it was unclear the men were still nearby.
“We don’t know if they are still in the area or if they’re in Mexico by now,” Cuomo said in response to a question at a news conference on school aid in the New York City suburbs.
Roads on the western edge of Plattsburgh were open only to local traffic and a state police helicopter was parked in a field where 24 hours earlier a contingent of 40 officers had marched into the adjacent woods on yet another grid search.
While many local residents remained locked in their homes at the advice of authorities, the outpouring of appreciation for the search effort continued. A restaurant was urging people to tie blue ribbons around trees and mailboxes.
“The locals have been awesome,” said Sgt. Barry Cartier of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, part of a crew from a neighboring county working 12-hour shifts. “They come around with food all the time. We’ve got too much to eat.”
But residents were very much on edge, with some saying they were keeping firearms handy just in case. Both men are considered extremely dangerous.
Sweat was serving a life sentence for killing a sheriff’s deputy. Matt was serving 25 years to life for the 1997 kidnap, torture and hacksaw dismemberment of his 76-year-old former boss.
The men used power tools to cut through the back of their cells, shimmied down a six-story catwalk, broke through a brick wall then cut into a steam pipe they used to reach a manhole outside the prison walls.
Mitchell, 51, was arraigned Friday on a felony charge of promoting prison contraband and a misdemeanor count of criminal facilitation. She is accused of befriending Sweat, 35, and Matt, 48, and smuggling in hacksaw blades, chisels, a punch and a screwdriver bit to help the men escape. Her lawyer entered a not guilty plea on her behalf.
Mitchell’s son Tobey told NBC that she would not have helped the inmates escape.
Cuomo said there will be “zero tolerance” for any assistance the escapees may have received.
“If an employee was facilitating or an accomplice to this escape, they will be fully prosecuted,” Cuomo said.