FRIENDSHIP, N.Y. (AP) — Investigators tracking two murder convicts who escaped from a northern New York prison scoured a rural area near the Pennsylvania border Sunday, saying an unconfirmed but credible report of a sighting had shifted the search across the state.
About 300 law enforcement officers searched the neighboring towns of Amity and Friendship, where two men who resembled the convicts were spotted Saturday near a railroad line that runs along a county road.
While state police called the sighting unconfirmed, the intense hunt that had focused for two weeks around a prison near the Canadian border was quickly refocused on a rural, mountainous area 350 miles away, dotted with sheds, trailers, summer homes and other potential hideouts.
“We will search under every rock, behind every tree and structure until we are confident that that area is secure,” State Police Maj. Michael J. Cerretto said at a news conference Sunday.
Concentrating in the area along County Route 20 and Interstate 86, officers walked railroad tracks, checked car trunks and deployed search dogs as a helicopter flew back and forth overhead. At one point, state police outfitted in camouflage could be seen heading into some woods.
David Sweat and Richard Matt broke out of the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora on June 6 using power tools and leaving behind dummies under bedcovers in their adjoining cells.
If the two escapees are still together, that’s not surprising, experts said.
In the wilderness, fugitives often stick together for survival’s sake, unless they have pre-planned to split up and reunite at a camp or other hideaway, said Patrick Patten, who trains law enforcers on woodland tracking.
That can be true in urban settings, too. Five of seven inmates who broke out of a Texas prison in December 2000 were staying in the same Colorado motor home when authorities caught up with them about six weeks later; the other two were captured together days later in a nearby hotel.
While escapees may risk drawing more attention than they would alone, they may not separate partly out of concern that one will blunder, get caught and give up the other or others, said Terry Pelz, a former Texas prison warden who now teaches criminal justice at the University of Houston.
Also, “they probably have an understanding that they’re better off together” because they can help each other, such as by trading off lookout duty, he said.
Until Saturday, the search for Matt and Sweat was concentrated in a several-mile radius around the prison in the Adirondacks. After a woman called in Saturday’s possible sighting in Friendship, police interviewed the witness at length and decided she was credible and the tip bore investigating, Cerretto said.
Authorities also said Friday that two men fitting the descriptions of Sweat and Matt had been seen a week ago in Steuben County, east of Allegany County. Two men were seen walking near a rail yard in Erwin on June 13, and then spotted the next day in Lindley, heading toward the Pennsylvania border.
Investigators also have conducted interviews in both communities and sent surveillance video to Albany for further analysis. Cerretto on Sunday wouldn’t say whether there had been any further reports of sightings.
Two railroads in the area, the Western New York & Pennsylvania and the Norfolk Southern, referred inquiries Sunday to the state police. Another, the Buffalo and Pittsburgh Railroad, hadn’t been contacted by authorities but had advised its employees to be extra-vigilant in looking for anything out of the ordinary, general manager J.L. Pope said.
State police asked residents who live around Friendship to be on alert, warning that the escapees are “very dangerous” and should not be approached.
Sweat, 35, was serving a life sentence without parole for killing a sheriff’s deputy. Matt, 48, was doing 25 years to life for the 1997 kidnapping, torture and hacksaw dismemberment of his former boss.
Prison worker Joyce Mitchell remained in custody on charges she helped the two men escape by providing them hacksaw blades, chisels and other tools. She has pleaded not guilty.
Officials said a corrections officer also has been placed on administrative leave as part of the investigation into the men’s escape.