An audacious bid for freedom by two ruthless killers took in prison walls, sewer pipes and miles of woodland – before a bloody conclusion. Read the story of the $25m manhunt that captivated America…

It seemed like a case of life imitating art. Two convicted murderers hatched an escape plan reminiscent of Andy Dufresne’s in legendary prison film, The Shawshank Redemption. David Sweat and Richard Matt were serving life sentences at the maximum security Clinton Correctional facility, in Dannemora, New York – Sweat for killing a cop, Matt for murdering and dismembering his former boss. That was until they dug their way out of their cells and climbed to freedom through a pipe, evading a huge manhunt for 23 days before they were finally cornered. They were for that time the most wanted men in America. The chase ended with one dead, the other critically injured and in police custody. Here’s how it panned out…

The escape

Sweat and Matt were housed in adjoining cells, both backing onto an unguarded service area that allowed them access to steam pipes running into the sewage system underneath the prison. Using saw blades smuggled inside via containers of frozen meat by prison employee, Joyce Mitchell, they cut rectangular holes into the walls, then concealed their handiwork with their beds. The pair drilled themselves to perfection, practising their escape for five months, right up to the night before. Finally, on 6 June, as the rest of the prison slept, the murderous pair placed their clothes under their duvets to make it look like they were sleeping and clambered through into the service area. They left a note goading the guards, and crawled 400 yards to a manhole cover, lying just outside the prison walls.

The hunt

Faced with the embarrassment of Clinton’s first escape in its 150-year history, hundreds of police officers, the FBI and US Marshals Service got the $1million-a-day search underway. Two days after the breakout, New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced a $50,000 bounty on each prisoner’s head, and admitted they had no idea of their whereabouts. The search quickly extended with more than 2,300 reported sightings up to 350 miles away. Finally, the breakthrough – a sighting in a wooded area just 25 miles from Clinton. Having exhausted all other options, the police investigated. A cabin showed signs of a break-in. DNA tests confirmed the men had been there, probably within the last 24 hours.

The capture

A comprehensive search of the area on 26 June led to an abandoned campsite, which showed traces of a man having slept there. But it was a call from a driver reporting an attempted carjacking which led them to Matt. After challenging the killer, who was now armed with a stolen shotgun, a border patrol agent shot him dead. One down, one to go. A 1,300-strong team was sent to the area to continue the search, determined to capture Sweat alive, if only to glean information to help tighten up prison security. Eventually he was spotted, brazenly walking down a road in the direction of the Canadian border. The police shot, but this time didn’t kill, their target. With Sweat safely in back in custody, and on his way to a nearby medical centre, the largest manhunt in recent American history was over. Now they were waiting for hi condition to stabilise so the questioning could begin.

 

The aftermath

Sweat and Matt had planned to escape to Mexico with the help of Joyce Mitchell, after first killing her husband. But she backed out after her arrest for her part in the escape, confessing all to the authorities. The men were stranded, left to attempt their getaway on foot. They worked their way around the woods, breaking into cabins to steal supplies. Sweat felt Matt, forever drunk on stolen booze, was slowing him down. He abandoned him and went his own way. Since the escape, Clinton Correctional has stepped up its security, searching every cell weekly and cracking down on corruption. Its first breakout may be its last for a while.

 

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