Dannemora: Why This $23 Million Prison Escape Is Compared To 'The Shawshank Redemption'

Richard Matt and David Sweat's escape featured a love triangle and tools smuggled in frozen meat.

By Benjamin H. Smith

The summer 2015 prison break from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, was so brazen and daring that it was almost immediately compared to something you’d see in a movie. Governor Andrew Cuomo likened it to 1994’s “The Shawkshank Redemption,” based on a Stephen King story about a man wrongfully sentenced to life in prison who spends years plotting his escape. Escaped convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat, however, were no innocents.

As authorities learned more about the breakout, additional characters played supporting roles and the plotlines became more sensational and lurid. "If it was a movie plot, you would say that it was overdone,” said Governor Cuomo, sticking with his Hollywood theme.

When it was all over, one of the men would be dead, two prison officials would become inmates themselves and the prison would come under intense scrutiny. The event would eventually be dramatized in the new Showtime mini-series, “Escape At Dannemora.”

Though both Matt and Sweat were cold-blooded killers, they made for model prisoners, and became friends on the Honor Block at Clinton Correctional Facility, where inmates with years of good behavior are afforded bigger cells. Opened in 1845, Clinton Correctional Facility is New York State’s largest maximum security prison and home to such infamous luminaries as serial killer Joel Rifkin and rapper Bobby Shmurda. Known colloquially as “Dannemora” for the small upstate town in which it’s situated, its remote northern location near the Canadian border also earned it the nickname “Little Siberia.”  

Richard Matt had been trouble since an early age. Born in 1966, he grew up in foster care in Tonawanda, New York, outside Buffalo. At 13, he ran away from a group home where he had been sent for stealing a boat.

“He would just terrorize people. Even in elementary, junior high, he had issues," former North Tonawanda Police Chief Randy Szukala told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle at the time of his escape. In 1986, he broke out of the county jail, where he was serving a year for assault, before being captured a couple days later at his brother’s house.

In 1997, Matt and an accomplice, Lee Bates, kidnapped and tortured their former employer, 72-year-old William Rickerson, whom they were convinced had access to large amounts of cash. They then stuffed him in the trunk of a car and drove to Ohio. Matt later broke Rickerson's neck with his bare hands, before dismembering his body with a hacksaw, and throwing the remains into the Niagara River.

Matt fled the country, driving to Mexico in his half-brother Wayne Schimpf’s car. He used his brother’s name when he was arrested in 1998 for fatally stabbing fellow American Charles Perreault during an attempted robbery in Matamoros. While jailed in Mexico, he was shot during another attempted escape, before being extradited to the United States in 2007. In 2008, he was tried for the Rickerson killing and found guilty of second-degree murder, robbery and kidnapping charges after Bates testified against him. Matt received the maximum of 25 years to life in prison. Bates was also found guilty for his role in the murder, according to NBC News.

Matt’s literal partner in crime was no angel either. Born in 1980, David Sweat was the product of a broken home and was often in trouble in and around his hometown of Binghamton, New York. At the age of 17, he served 19 months in prison for burglary, according to Binghamton’s Press & Sun-Bulletin. On July 4, 2002, Sweat and two accomplices, including his cousin, Jeffrey Nabinger, had just robbed a gun and fireworks store over the state line in Pennsylvania when they encountered Broome County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia. The sheriff was shot 15 times by Sweat and Nabinger, and Sweat ran him over with his car while he was still alive. The third accomplice hid in trees during the gunfire. Sweat and Nabinger pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and were sentenced to life without parole, according to The New York Times.

Sweat entered Dannemora in 2003, and when Matt arrived after his 2008 conviction, the two became friends, despite their 16-year age difference. They successfully petitioned to have their cells moved next to each other in the prison’s Honor Block, a luxury only afforded those inmates with years of good behavior who have curried favor with corrections officers, according to Daniel Genis, who served 10 years at Clinton Correctional Facility.

On the Honor Block, Matt and Sweat were allowed to cook their own meals, work in plumbing and electricity and wear civilian clothes. They traded goods and favors with guards and fellow prisoners in exchange for paintings, a skill for which Matt was revered, and Sweat was his eager apprentice. Prison guard Gene Palmer traded Matt and Sweat tools they used in their escape for a bevy of paintings, including portraits and landscapes. He would later serve four months in prison for his role in their escape, according to NBC5.

Another Clinton Correctional Facility employee who began exchanging favors with Matt and Sweat was prison seamstress Joyce Mitchell. Mitchell became close with Sweat, who worked in her tailor shop, and the other inmates teased him and called her “boo.” She would later admit to giving him “naked photos of my breasts and vagina,” but claimed they “never had any sexual contact.”

Mitchell’s relationship with Matt began after he offered to paint a portrait of her three children to give as an anniversary present to her husband Lyle, who also worked at Clinton Correctional Facility. In exchange, she began doing him favors. One day when they were alone in the tailor shop, Matt kissed her. She said she was scared of Matt, who forced her to perform oral sex on him and other sex acts, but admitted she was also “caught up in the fantasy” of helping them escape.

According to NBC, Matt soon began requesting such items as padded gloves, glasses with lights on them, a screwdriver-type bit and hacksaw blades. If the elder, imposing killer seemed the leader of the operation, it was Sweat’s ingenuity and determination that would bring it to pass. Night after night, Sweat used a hacksaw to cut a rectangular hole in the back of his cell and then cut another into Matt’s adjacent wall.

Their cells were four stories up, but behind the wall was a catwalk, giving them access to the prison’s infrastructure. Sweat would wait until after the 11:30 PM head count each night, and then crawl through the hole and look for a way out, according to The New York Times. In a nod to “The Shawkshank Redemption,” he would stuff his bed with clothing, to make it appear as if he was in bed asleep, before returning each morning before the 5:30 AM morning count. He considered cutting through a waste pipe and a concrete wall before realizing that with the summer coming on, the prison’s steam pipes would be off and cool enough to sneak through.

In the wee morning hours of June 6, 2015, Matt and Sweat made their move. After cutting a hole in the 24-inch steam pipe, and leaving behind a note that said “Have A Nice Day,” they crawled to a manhole on the street, 400 feet beyond the prison walls. They emerged carrying a soft guitar case filled with clothes, food and pepper to throw off their scent to dogs.

The original plan was for Joyce Mitchell to pick up Matt and Sweat in a Jeep and bring them supplies to survive in the woods of upstate New York until the search for them cooled down. These included a tent, a GPS and, at Matt’s request, a shotgun. That night, however, Mitchell suffered a panic attack and checked herself into an area hospital. She would later tell NBC she feared the convicts would murder her and her husband after she outlived her usefulness.

Mitchell told authorities. “After I picked them up, the plan was to drive to my home and inmate Matt was going to kill 'the glitch.' Inmate Matt referred to Lyle as 'the glitch.'"

Mitchell spoke with Matt about murdering her husband after meeting them at the pickup point, according to Sweat.

"I know I had agreed to help them escape and run away with them, but I panicked and couldn't follow through with the rest of the plan,” Mitchell told investigators. “I really do love my husband and he's the reason."

Matt and Sweat had wanted to drive to Mexico in Mitchell’s car, but realizing she had gotten cold feet, decided to head into the Great North Woods and eventually Canada. For the next three weeks they avoided capture, traveling by night though dense forest and hiding in remote hunting cabins, some of which they surmised were owned by the same corrections officers who had been guarding them as prisoners.

On the morning of June 6, guards discovered Matt and Sweat were missing during their 5:30 AM head count, and by noon, a full-fledged manhunt for them had begun. Within days, authorities had become aware of Joyce Mitchell’s complicity in the escape, and Governor Andrew Cuomo called for a full investigation into security lapses at the prison. Meanwhile, erroneous tips came in from Vermont and the Pennsylvania border, where it was believed Sweat was revisiting his old stomping grounds.  

After two weeks on the run, Sweat tired of Matt’s tendency to get drunk whenever they found liquor in a hunting cabin and his inability to keep up with his younger, more agile jailbreak partner.

“I said, you know what, I hate to do it to him, but I kept my part of the deal, I got him out,” Sweat later told investigators, “and I bolted on him.”

On June 26, 2015, police caught up with Matt outside Malone, New York, after he fired at a camper with a 20-gauge shotgun pilfered from one of the hunting lodges he had squatted in. When told to lay down his weapon, he refused and agents shot him three times in the head. An autopsy revealed he was drunk at the time of his death.  

Two days later, on June 28, a New York State trooper spotted Sweat running down a road in Constable, New York, a few short miles from the Canadian border. When the officer told him to stop, Sweat began running towards the woods. The officer shot him twice, hitting him in the shoulder and puncturing his lung, but not killing him. He would later have three and a half to seven years added to his sentence. He is now being housed at Attica Correctional Facility, in solitary confinement. The search for the prisoners cost New York state $23 million.

On July 28, 2015, a month after the Dannemora prison break came to an end, Joyce Mitchell pleaded guilty to charges related to aiding and abetting Matt and Sweat’s escape. She was later sentenced up to seven years in prison and ordered to pay over $75,000 in fines, fees and restitution, according to CNN. In 2017, she was denied parole for the second straight time.

Her next hearing is in 2019.

To learn more about the escape, watch “Dannemora Prison Break” on Oxygen December 15 at 7/6c.

[Photo: New York State Police]

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