(CNN) — Law enforcement on Thursday converged on a site in upstate New York where bloodhounds picked up the scent of what authorities suspect came from convicted murderers-turned-prison escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat, sources said.
A large-perimeter search area has been set up around this hit, which is about 3 miles from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, according to a state official and another source briefed on the investigation. Guards found out about Matt and Sweat’s escape from the maximum-security prison during a bed check at 5:30 a.m. Saturday.
In addition to the scent, investigators also found an imprint either from a shoe or boot, as well as multiple food wrappers in the area, one of the two sources said. And Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said that possible bedding — in the form of an indent in grass or leaves — has also been discovered.
If this all came from the fugitives, how long did they spend there, and how long ago were they there? That’s all still to be determined, though former FBI agent Jonathan Gilliam says this is still a “good clue” because it indicates Matt and Sweat weren’t picked up right away and might have to resort to crime now in order to survive.
“If they are not good in the woods, it’s an instant trap when they get out,” Gilliam, also a onetime Navy SEAL, told CNN. “… If you have to steal food or steal a car, that’s going to leave more clues.”
Thomas LaSalle, who has been told to stay locked in his house as authorities do their work, said this is rugged terrain with fallen trees, moss-covered boulders and thick forest everywhere. Even as a Scout growing up, he and others knew never to tackle this country for more than a day or two at a time.
“The mosquitoes, the black flies and the ticks, it’s got to wear you down,” LaSalle said. “It’s rough stuff … I can’t imagine that they’ve gotten much left in them.”
Vermont governor: The escapees are dangerous and desperate
The jailbreak and leads that have followed have transformed this rural, idyllic swath of northeast New York from a place where people go to get away from the crowds, crime and commotion connected to urban life into something closer to a “military state,” as one resident described it.
“Life has been insane,” Steve Lashway, who runs a meat market and deli in Dannemora, told CNN on Thursday. “We have … officers on every corner with shotguns, and there are roadblocks up everywhere.”
It was not immediately clear if the discovered scent and wrappers relates to what’s happening on New York State Highway Route 374, parts of which authorities closed down Thursday “until further notice” because of a lead from the previous night, New York State Police spokesman William Duffy said. Checkpoints were set up along a stretch from Dannemora east to West Plattsburgh, while authorities inside that area looked for clues.
The heavy law enforcement presence and prospect of killers on the loose prompted the cancellation of classes Thursday in the Saranac Central School District, which includes Dannemora. LaSalle called the whole ordeal “very unnerving,” with police visible everywhere he can see and helicopters overhead.
“I got the shakes, it’s a lot of excitement,” he said. “It’s like a lockdown.”
And this isn’t the only place law enforcement is looking. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said there’s an indication that Matt and Sweat “had a canoe or something in mind they could paddle” — the idea being the two could quietly get across Lake Champlain, which presumably would be “cooler” without as much police around.
This possibility has prompted Vermont to join New York authorities in being on high alert, searching the lake as well as campsites. Shumlin, though, acknowledges “we really have no idea where they are.”
“This is a governor’s nightmare,” he added. “We’re trying to protect the public safety and take care of our folks (because) these guys are dangerous, they are desperate, and they would do anything to continue their freedom.”
‘It’s been crazy with all the rumors’
While the focus appears to be in Dannemora and nearby Cadyville, those aren’t the only places authorities are looking.
Hundreds of officers have scoured neighboring woods, looking “behind every tree, under every rock and inside every structure” for Matt, 48, and Sweat, 34, New York State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico said.
Earlier this week, they searched farms, fields and woods in Willsboro after a driver saw two “suspicious” men run off during a late-night driving rainstorm. Then there was a turn toward Vermont because of “information that would suggest (that state) was discussed as a possible location,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday. Vermont state police vessels and troopers looked for the fugitives on Lake Champlain, which straddles the two states, as well as in nearby campsites.
That said, authorities don’t have any hard information that Matt and Sweat have left New York. Nor can they discount the possibility they have left the area, perhaps heading to Canada — which is just 20 miles north of the prison — or most anywhere in the United States or beyond. To this point, 50 digital billboards with the fugitives’ photos have gone up in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
“(Authorities) are not just staying local,” Lenny DePaul, a former regional task force commander for the U.S. Marshals Service, told CNN on Thursday. “(People should) not think that they’re cornered somewhere in New York. So they have to keep their eyes open and be vigilant.”
Lashway, the Dannemora market owner, called the whole ordeal “a little scary (and) a lot frustrating” for people in his neck of the woods. The whiplash of all the reports and stories is part of the nightmare, like the Philadelphia taxi driver’s claim that he spotted the fugitives — a claim that two law enforcement sources briefed on the investigation aren’t giving much credibility to.
“It’s been crazy with all the rumors,” Lashway said. “Just about every day, somebody comes into the shop and says, ‘They’ve got ’em. They’ve got ’em.’ But nope, they don’t.”
Remarkable escape, time on the lam
In many sinister ways, Matt and Sweat have already proved themselves remarkable.
First, there was what landed them in jail. Matt held a businessman hostage for 27 hours, and then tortured and killed him after he wouldn’t give him more money. Sweat was serving a life sentence without parole for fatally shooting and then running over Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia.
Then, there’s how they escaped — using power tools to get out of their cells and cut into a steam pipe, navigating a tunnel of pipes and finally surfacing out a manhole.
And lastly, there’s the matter of how they’ve remained on the loose for so long. Authorities have been looking for them since Saturday morning. To put that in perspective, state data show that most escapees in New York are captured within 24 hours. Of 29 inmates who fled between 2002 and 2013, only one was free for more than two days.
Source: Matt made prison employee feel ‘special’
How have they done it?
With help, many believe.
D’Amico said Joyce Mitchell, an industrial training supervisor the past seven years at the prison who worked with the convicts in a tailoring shop, had befriended the men and “may have had some sort of role in assisting them.”
The state police superintendent did not elaborate. But according to a source close to the investigation, authorities believe Mitchell planned to pick up the inmates after their escape but changed her mind at the last minute. Her cell phone was used to call several people connected to Matt, according to another source. It’s unclear who made the calls, when they were made or whether Mitchell knew about them.
Mitchell told investigators that Matt made her feel “special,” though she didn’t mention being in love with him, a source familiar with the investigation said.
While she didn’t warn authorities about the escape, she has answered all their questions each time they’ve gone back to her, a New York state official said.
Authorities are holding off on any move to charge her with being an accomplice, hoping instead to have her continued cooperation and worried any legal action may stop this, a New York state official told CNN. Wylie, the Clinton County District Attorney, declined to comment on any such decision.
Meanwhile, her family is standing behind her, with her daughter-in-law telling CNN that “95% of what is being said” is not true.
Paige Mitchell denied that her mother-in-law was to be the getaway driver and that she helped provide power tools used in the escape. She added that Matt may have persuaded her mother-in-law to contact people for him who knew about art, saying, “Her heart was in the right place.”
“They don’t have the facts to prove this,” she said of Joyce Mitchell’s alleged involvement. “This is just slander and rumor.”