Richard W. Matt, one of the two convicted murderers who engineered an elaborate escape from New York’s largest prison, was shot and killed Friday by a federal agent, the authorities said, ending one prong of a three-week manhunt that extended across large stretches of the state’s northern terrain.
A team of agents from the federal Customs and Border Protection agency found Matt in the woods in Malone, New York, after he fired a shot at the back of a camping trailer, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at a news conference. Officers heard him cough as he fled on foot, and a federal agent killed him when Matt, still armed with a 20-gauge shotgun, refused orders to put up his hands, the authorities said.
On Friday night, officers closed in on the other escapee, David Sweat, 35, who was believed to be penned inside a perimeter of law enforcement officers, Superintendent Joseph A. D’Amico of the New York State Police said at the news conference.
The officers had not seen Sweat, but they believed that he had been near Matt when Matt shot at the camping trailer, the authorities said.
Matt’s killing drew the curtains back on a mystery that has hung over the search: how the fugitives, wily friends who won the good will of prison workers and learned rudimentary engineering skills, planned to elude more than 1,100 officers after their escape.
After a civilian prison employee failed to show up with a getaway car, any alternative plans did not carry them very far.
Matt, 49, was killed about 40 miles from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.
For all the intricate planning that helped the inmates cut holes in their cell walls and slither through pipes underneath the prison, the killers were apparently forced, in the last days of their getaway, to move between hunting cabins under the cover of dense woods and darkness, stealing some items along the way.
The developments were greeted with relief by residents of northern New York who had begun locking their doors and readying their firearms, some of them so on edge that they called the police when they heard a faint rustling in the woods.
“You never want to see anyone lose their life,” Cuomo said at the news conference Friday night in Malone. “But I would remind people that Mr. Matt was an escaped murderer from a state prison.”
The shot he fired at the camping trailer was Matt’s last known act of violence in a brutal criminal career. He was serving a sentence of 25 years to life after being convicted in 2008 of murdering and dismembering a former boss. Before his trial he fled to Mexico, where he was sentenced to 20 years for fatally stabbing another American during an attempted robbery.
Sweat was sentenced to life without parole in 2003 for killing a Broome County, New York, deputy sheriff. The police said Sweat shot the deputy sheriff 22 times and then, while he was still alive, ran over him with a car.
A search that has leapt from northern New York to the border with Pennsylvania and back again in the last three weeks zeroed in this week on Franklin County, after investigators found DNA on June 20 matching that of the two killers in a hunting cabin about 15 miles west of the prison, and about 3 miles from any paved road. The police believe Matt stole the shotgun from that cabin.
On Wednesday night, the police received a report of a break-in in another hunting cabin, this one in Malone, the authorities said. A window had been broken and a screen had been cut open, the authorities said, and evidence indicated that Matt had been there.
On Friday morning, the police found candy wrappers and other provisions in a nearby camp, and the search intensified, D’Amico said at the news conference.
Just before 2 p.m., someone towing a camper heard a loud noise, and pulled over to check for a flat tire. Finding none, the driver moved on. After pulling into a campground eight miles down the road, the person found a bullet hole in the back of the camper. The person called the authorities and law enforcement officers responded.
Investigators smelled gunfire in a nearby cabin, and then heard coughs as they pursued Matt into the woods. A team from Customs and Border Protection that had arrived by helicopter “told him to put up his hands,” but he did not comply and was shot by one of the team’s agents, D’Amico said.
Matt did not fire any shots at the agents, nor was he known to have said anything to the agents, he said.
Roadblocks set up Friday evening near Lake Titus in Malone kept residents and reporters away from what appeared to be tense law enforcement activity in the woods. Shortly after 5 p.m., a dozen state troopers with firearms stood 50 feet apart along Fayette Road near Route 30, just north of Lake Titus. They stared into the woods flanking the dirt road on the south, guns drawn. “The dogs are out,” one trooper said.
The police had closed off Route 30, a main north-south corridor through Malone. Tina LaMour, who lives near Lake Titus, said she was pleased at least one escapee had been stopped.
“I’m relieved,” she said. “I would rather that they caught them alive and brought them back. But I really didn’t think that either of them would want to go alive.”
Mitch Johnson, who lives in nearby Owls Head, New York, said his cousin was the one who alerted the police to suspicious activity at a cabin near his home Friday.
The cousin, Bobby Willett, of Malone, had been checking on his hunting camp when he noticed a bottle that had not been there earlier. “There was a bottle of liquor there today that wasn’t there yesterday,” Johnson said. “They probably saw him coming from the woods and then ran out,” Johnson added, referring to the escapees.
Willett called the authorities, according to Johnson.
The escape set off a statewide search on foot and by air, with hundreds of officers marching in tight formations through woods and checking on more than 2,300 tips.
The breakout, rare in its complexity and precision, relied on a combination of power tools and trickery, as well as alleged assistance from inside the prison.
The men used dummies fashioned from sweatshirts to trick corrections officers into believing they were in bed and asleep. The men, who were in adjoining cells, each cut through the walls of their cells, then made their way into the bowels of the prison, cutting through steel, and emerged from a manhole into a neighborhood of vacant storefronts and clapboard houses just outside the prison. Officials said the inmates escaped late Friday, June 5, or early Saturday, June 6.
But their getaway plans seemed to grow more haphazard after a civilian prison employee, Joyce E. Mitchell, failed to meet them with a getaway car, instead checking herself into the hospital for a panic attack. She was later arrested and charged with supplying the men with tools that aided in their escape, including hacksaw blades, chisels, a punch and a screwdriver bit.
A corrections officer, Gene Palmer, is accused of giving the men needle-nose pliers and a flathead screwdriver in exchange for paintings by Matt. Palmer, who was placed on administrative leave, was arrested and charged with promoting prison contraband, tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct.
In recounting the crimes committed by Matt and Sweat, Cuomo noted the continuing law enforcement effort by an array of agencies to catch the remaining escapee. “These are dangerous, dangerous men,” he said.