Insane escape plot of 'brutal murderers’

Six months of planning was about to pay off for prisoners Richard Matt and David Sweat. The nights of secret tunnelling through a wall in the cell; the favours called in from a guard who had taken a romantic shine to both of them; the 85 different test runs undertaken in the dead of night - it had all been building up to this moment.

Moments earlier, a corrections officer at the Clinton Correctional Centre, a maximum-security prison five-and-a-half hours north of New York, had done the standard 11pm night check. The pair swiftly put dummies fashioned out of jumpers and prison pants inside their beds, only crudely resembling sleeping bodies.

They packed supplies: 20 packs of peanuts, 12 sticks of pepperoni, and 40 granola bars, plus cayenne pepper to mask their scent from tracker dogs, a trick they learned from the film Cool Hand Luke.

They also filled a soft-bodied guitar case with clothing - a vessel chosen because Sweat believed a guitar case was a self-contained excuse for two guys walking around town in the middle of the night.

"If somebody sees a guitar case, they're not thinking you escaped," he later explained. "They're going to think you came back from playing in a band or hanging out with your friends."

Over the past few months they had travelled through this tunnel system numerous times. Sweat had spent 85 undetected nights inside the tunnel, digging and plotting. One night, he had actually climbed through two separate manholes, one which led into a power plant courtyard, the other to a street intersection.

Both led to the outside world, but Sweat decided not to risk freedom at that junction. Besides, he had promised Matt they would escape as a team.

Richard Matt and David Sweat
Richard Matt and David Sweat

 

Matt left two taunting goodbye notes in his cell, reading, "You left me no choice but to grow old & die in here. I had to do something," and more flippantly, "Time To Go Kid!" with the date they escaped. Sweat placed further notes along their escape route, including a Post-It that read "Have a Nice Day" with a racist drawing on it.

On the night of June 5, 2015 shortly after 11pm, the pair climbed through the hole they had dug, and through tunnels, between cell walls, and finally into the same steam pipe Sweat had almost escaped through weeks earlier.

The pipe ran under the prison and took them to yet another manhole, this one in the centre of town. It was still before midnight when they tasted freedom, less than an hour from when they were subject to their bed check.

As they climbed out of the manhole, they saw headlights and darted panicked into a backyard. Unfortunately, the car pulled into the same driveway and the owner hopped out, yelling at the pair.

Sweat improvised an excuse about cutting through the yard after realising they were on the wrong street. The guy eyed the guitar case and took the excuse as given. The pair left the backyard and ran to freedom.


A LIFE OF CRIME

Richard Matt and David Sweat had much in common. They were both avid painters. They were both canny and charming enough to bend those in authority to do their bidding.

They both came from broken homes, and were abandoned early by their mothers. Both ended up in foster care. Both had spent most of their adult lives in prison. Both were brutal murderers.

Matt had killed twice: The first was an attempted home robbery on his 76-year-old former boss, which ended in him and an accomplice killing the man, dismembering the corpse with a hacksaw, and throwing it into the Niagara River.

On the run, after his accomplice confessed, he crossed the border into Mexico and killed again, stabbing a man in a bar rest room in another robbery gone wrong. This time he was arrested and served nine years in a Mexican prison. He was later charged with the first murder and sentenced to 25 to life.

During his stint in Mexico, he attempted a prison break and was shot. It was one in a long line of escapes for Matt, the first of which was from his group home in his early teens.

Disliking his new housing situation, he stole a horse and rode to freedom. In 1986, in prison on a forgery charge, he scaled a barbed wire fence and escaped, before being captured hiding out at his brother's house four days later.

 

Correctional officers watch an intersection in front of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Picture: AP
Correctional officers watch an intersection in front of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Picture: AP

 

While on trial for the murder of his former boss, authorities were so concerned he was planning a courthouse escape that they removed the glass from the bench, for fear it could be suddenly shattered and used as a weapon.

They also fitted Matt's body with tasers that could be triggered to send a 50,000 volt jolt into his body, should he attempt anything. Luckily for all concerned, the trial was without incident.

Sweat was 14 years younger than Matt, and although he didn't have the same long history of prison escapes, his criminal career was tied together by an inordinate attention to detail. At just 16, he drew extensive blueprints of a group home he was living in, from which he was planning to steal computers and cash.

At 22, he repeated the same process, drawing up a detailed floor plan of a firearms store he and a friend were planning to rob.

While they were moving the stolen weapons between trucks, a deputy sheriff foiled their plan. The pair shot him numerous times, before Sweat ran over the still-alive officer in his truck. He was sentenced to life without chance of parole.

Despite their pasts, both Matt and Sweat were model prisoners once they reached Clinton Correctional Facility. Sweat entered Clinton at 2002, aged just 22, while Matt arrived in 2008, then aged 41.

They became close in 2010 when both were transferred to the "honour block" where prisoners were given more mobility, allowed to wear regular clothing, and could even cook their own meals.

To be allowed in the honour block, you needed to serve nine months without incident, and participate in prison programs.

The pair shared a workstation in a tailor shop, then later lived in adjoining cells for a year. They were separated for three months, but successfully requested to be moved back together in January 2015. This was when Matt and Sweat began planning their escape.

 

Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Picture: AP
Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Picture: AP

 

TRADING FAVOURS

Although Matt had a long history of escapes, and Sweat was a meticulous planner, their escape wouldn't have been possible without the help of two corrupt prison employees.

Joyce Mitchell was an instructor at the tailor store in the "honour block".

She was on friendly terms with both Sweat and Matt when the pair began working at the store in early 2013, and soon became flattered by the pair's constant flirtatious attention.

"I was caught up in the fantasy," she told NBC News after the pair escaped and her role was discovered. The bond was noticed by others, and Sweat was moved out of the store after it was suspected he and Mitchell were having an affair.

 

Joyce Mitchell. Picture: AP
Joyce Mitchell. Picture: AP

 

Matt stayed behind and kept up the flirtation, which slid into a physical relationship. By November 2014, before the pair had become physically intimate, he began to ask her for gifts, ostensibly to help him paint at night: Glasses with lights attached, padded gloves - all tools for escape later found in the tunnel.

"She's f***ing nuts, she'll bring us whatever we want, just tell me what you need and I'll get her to bring it in," Sweat had told Matt.

With this in mind, his requests became more brazen.

In February, 2015, she supplied the pair with six hacksaw blades, which she simply carried into the prison, and handed to Matt, who taped them to his body until he got back to his cell.

By April, 2015, Matt and Mitchell had kissed. By May, they were physically intimate. On top of this, Mitchell was also passing along nude photos of herself to Sweat.

This was the same month she realised the pair were carving holes in their cells, but by this point, she was too far in, having supplied them with numerous tools, including screwdrivers, concrete drill bits, and chisels.

Matt and Sweat were also trading favours with a corrections officer named Gene Palmer. Palmer was close to both men and would forego the usual frisking of the inmates before taking them back to their cells, bypassing the metal detectors along the way.

His belief was that offering favours reduced violence and made for a more peaceful environment.

 

Gene Palmer.
Gene Palmer.

 

This lax approach is how Matt was able to strap six hacksaw blades to his person and bring them back to his cell.

Palmer also delivered two pounds of hamburger meat to the men in their cell, a present from Mitchell which would have still been against prison rules even if it didn't happen to be concealing two chisels, two concrete drill bits, and a punch.

Although the actions of Mitchell and Palmer seem brazen, they were working at a facility that systematically failed to enforce the rules.

Each time Mitchell snuck tools inside the prison, she simply walked through security without a bag search. While Sweat was exploring the tunnels each of those 85 separate nights, bed checks were done in a haphazard manner, with the required "flesh check", where officers conducting rounds are required to observe "human flesh in a sleeping inmate to ascertain that it is a human and not a dummy", clearly skipped over.

The New York State Office of the Inspector General released a report that totalled more than 400 required checks that should have taken place while Sweat was tunnelling through the prison walls on those nights, any of which would have seen him caught.

The same report also explains how Sweat's cell was never searched, and while Matt's was, the officers somehow failed to find the 46cm hole in the rear wall.

Joyce Mitchell originally planned to have an even larger role in the escape - she was to pack her Jeep with clothing, tents, a gun and other survival gear and pick up Matt and Sweat at a designated meeting point.

 

Mitchell cries in court. Picture: Rob Fountain/AP
Mitchell cries in court. Picture: Rob Fountain/AP

She was going on the run with the pair, but panicked that day and instead drove to the local hospital and admitted herself.

"I believe I helped Inmate Matt and Inmate Sweat escape because I was caught up in the fantasy," she told New York State Police two days later, after they quicken cottoned onto her involvement. "I enjoyed the attention, the feeling both of them gave me and the thought of a different life."

She was sentenced to between two and seven years for her role in the escape, and was denied bail last month, the third time she has been denied. She can apply again in two years.

Gene Palmer got off relatively lightly, serving four months of a six-month sentence after pleading guilty to two counts of promoting prison contraband and one count of official misconduct. He was, not surprisingly, fired from his job at Clinton Correctional Facility, where he worked for 28 years.

 

She is led away after sentencing. Picture: Rob Fountain/AP
She is led away after sentencing. Picture: Rob Fountain/AP

 

THE LAW CATCHES UP

Richard Matt was shot dead by border control officers just three weeks after the escape. State police responded to a call from a man who complained someone shot at a caravan he was towing.

This led police to a cabin just 16 kilometres from the Canadian border. There was the distinct smell of gunpowder, and agents suspected someone had recently fled.

Police combed the area, and at one point heard human coughs. Customs and Border Protection teams helicoptered in, and quickly zeroed in on Matt.

He was holding a shotgun and refused to surrender. With no other option, officers started firing. Matt was killed just 64km from the prison.

Sweat lasted two further days, and was only captured due to bad luck.

He was near the border, jogging along the shoulder of a road during a rainstorm. Thinking this behaviour odd, a police officer patrolling the stretch of road stopped to question him and recognised Sweat.

 

David Sweat was recognised by police when stopped for questioning. Picture: Twitter
David Sweat was recognised by police when stopped for questioning. Picture: Twitter

 

Beckoning him over, Sweat instead dashed across an open field towards a tree line. The police officer gave chase and fired two bullets into his torso.

Sweat survived, and returned to prison, where he was placed in solitary confinement. He quickly hatched an elaborate escape plan which he revealed to correctional officers, hoping the information may be exchanged for extra privileges.

They instead moved him to another prison.

 

Fugitive David Sweat was shot and wounded as he attempted to escape over the Canadian border. Picture: Twitter
Fugitive David Sweat was shot and wounded as he attempted to escape over the Canadian border. Picture: Twitter

 

Sweat is now 38 years old. He boasted to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision about "his perception of security vulnerabilities", explaining how he was aware of similar vulnerabilities in three New York State prisons.

"I just have this ability to take things apart and put them back together," he told the department during a long interview in which he detailed how he would, in theory, escape.

His confidence doesn't seem to be rattled by the Clinton Correctional escape, which was completed in less than an hour. And with a life sentence and no possibility of parole, Sweat has very little to lose, should he once again attempt to gain his freedom.

As he once famously boasted, "Shawshank ain't got sh*t on me."

Nathan Jolly is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @nathanjolly