Heavily armed police have set up a road block and ordered residents to stay indoors just seven miles from the prison in the northern reaches of New York State where two convicted murderers escaped six days ago, and are still on the run.
Following a tip from the public in the early hours of Thursday, the authorities rushed officers, dog teams and helicopters to a rural road near West Plattsburgh, a few minutes south-east of the maximum security Clinton prison where the two men broke out early on Saturday.
The schools in the district were closed on Thursday morning and residents in West Plattsburgh and several nearby villages were requested overnight to stay inside, lock their doors and turn on any outside lights in order to assist the intense manhunt.
A road through the area, leading east from the prison, has been closed until further notice.
The move came just hours after officials announced that the search for the fugitives was expanding to Vermont, following information that they may have crossed state lines from New York into the neighbouring New England state because of a lower concentration of search teams.
Giant billboards have been erected on the roadside with prison mug-shots of Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, the two inmates who cut through steel walls and heating system pipes to escape together from the prison at the weekend.
Thursday’s flurry of activity was similar to events in the tiny town of Willsboro earlier in the week, almost 40 miles from the prison, as police closed in on what they hoped were the criminals after a sighting of two men who fled across a field when approached by a member of the public.
An intense search of the area had come up blank by Wednesday night, when officials then began launching patrol boats on the large and picturesque Lake Champlain that separates the states of New York and Vermont, and expanding the search eastwards.
But officials emphasise that they still have no idea where the escapees are and they have warned the public that they could kill again.
The prison, officially known as the Clinton Correctional Facility, in the tiny town of Dannemora, is just 25 miles from the Canadian border. The manhunt became an international search within hours of the discovery of the men’s disappearance at 5.30am local time last Saturday, as the authorities in the province of Ontario were alerted, and also the police in Mexico, where Matt once fled years ago in a previous case.
“They are killers. There is no reason to believe they would not do it again. They are going to be more desperate than ever,” Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, said on Wednesday.
The authorities are interested to know if the pair’s escape plan went awry once they emerged through a manhole cover into the street, after a prison worker who was believed to be helping them got cold feet at the last minute.
Seamstress Joyce Mitchell worked in the prison and is being questioned by the authorities but had not yet been arrested early on Thursday.
She “befriended the inmates and may have had some sort of role in assisting them,” said Joseph D’Amico, a superintendent with the New York state police.
Mitchell reportedly was going to arrange or drive a getaway car for Matt and Sweat, but instead sought help at a local hospital after collapsing in panic.
The authorities hope such a turn of events may have left the inmates with few options to leave the area, after they emerged in Dannemora, apparently unseen in the dead of night.
But there have been no reports in the region of any car-jacking, vehicle theft, break-ins or robberies that could be connected to the two.
Matt is serving 25 years-to-life for kidnapping, torturing, killing and dismembering his former boss in 1997. Sweat gunned down a sheriff’s deputy who approached him as he was diving the spoils of a burglary with an accomplice in 2002.
The vast rural area of forests, lakes and mountains scattered with small towns and villages surrounding Dannemora is an easy place to hide, initially, but a difficult place to survive for long without expertise and access to any resources, locals said. The economy in the area relies principally on farming and dozens of prisons that house inmates from all over the state.
In New York City, the phrase “going up the river” is a euphemism for being convicted and sentenced to serve time behind bars at one of more than two dozen prisons in the northern part of the state that is connected to the city by the Hudson River.
“They could survive in the woods, absolutely, but I don’t know for how long. There are animals out there to hunt, but it’s too early for farm produce to be ready to steal. If they try to make a shelter they could be spotted from the air,” said Sandy De Long, a resident of Willsboro.
The weather during the manhunt on Wednesday was sunny and humid and Thursday dawned fine but in between there were thunderstorms in the area and torrential downpours. Standing water can be seen in fields and the rivers and streams are swollen after heavy, prolonged rain in recent days and living rough in the woods would be a challenge.
The region is, however, liberally sprinkled with broken down barns, hunting cabins and holiday homes that are not yet being used for the summer.
The authorities have already had more than 500 tips about the fugitives, but none that has yet lead to a confirmed sighting or brought their capture any closer.
SOURCE: Joanna Walters