CADYVILLE, N.Y. — Joyce Mitchell, accused of assisting convicts David Sweat and Richard Matt in their escape from a New York prison, smuggled tools embedded in meat through the main gate at Clinton Correctional Facility and placed the meat in a freezer in the tailor shop, according to Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie.
She then asked corrections officer Gene Palmer to bring it to the inmate’s cell area in the honor block, Wylie said.
Mitchell admitted to putting hacksaw blades and drill bits into a hunk of hamburger meat, according to the prosecutor. Palmer could have put it through metal detector but he didn’t, which was a violation of prison policy, Wylie said.
Mitchell did not have access to the cells, which is why she needed Palmer to hand it off, according to the prosecutor.
“Before he handed off the meat, he asked if there was anything wrong with it and she said no,” Palmer’s attorney Andrew Brockway said.
Palmer did not know what was inside the package, Brockway said, adding, “The only mistake he made was trusting Joyce Mitchell.”
Wylie said prosecutors also believe Palmer didn’t know. Mitchell, who has been charged with aiding the escapees, has admitted she smuggled hacksaw blades into the meat.
Palmer is on paid leave but hasn’t been arrested or charged.
At the time of their escape, Matt, 48, and Sweat, 35, were housed next to each other on the prison’s honor block, which awarded inmates who showed good behavior special privileges such as having hot plates and refrigerators in their cells.
The convicts cut holes through steel cell walls, then sneaked along catwalks and through pipes before clambering out of a manhole beyond the prison gates and disappearing June 6. The vast manhunt for them is now in its 19th day.
Accused of helping the fugitives by supplying the blades, chisels, a punch and a drill bit, Mitchell is in jail and has pleaded not guilty. Her attorney did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said Tuesday there were “a number of ongoing probes” into how the pair escaped, but she wouldn’t comment on the details of those investigations.
Police trying to close the net in manhunt
The new revelations come as authorities chase the most promising lead yet in the manhunt for the pair. DNA from Matt and Sweat was found in a burglarized cabin not far from the prison, a law enforcement source said.
Personal items, including boots, were discovered Saturday inside the cabin in Mountain View, some 20 miles west of the prison, another law enforcement source briefed on the investigation said.
The items left behind, and the manner in which they were left, suggest the pair were surprised and left in a hurry, according to the source.
The boots left in the cabin suggest one of the fugitives may be barefoot, the source said, possibly hindering his ability to move through the dense brush. But there might have been other boots and shoes in the cabin that were taken by the pair.
Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill said the search area is centered in Bellmont, N.Y., and covers roughly 170 square miles. Authorities have flooded the area with helicopters, cruisers and all-terrain vehicles.
As many as 1,000 people are working the search as law enforcement officials try to close a net around the escapees.
“Every rock, every nook, every cranny’s going to be looked at here,” former U.S. Marshal John Cuff said. “And it’s going to be very difficult with the challenges that are presented in the woods up there.”
Ravines, bogs, creeks and cliffs
Those challenges include a densely forested landscape riddled with ravines, bogs, creeks and cliffs — terrain that makes it very difficult to spot a person on foot, even if they’re only a short distance away.
Some more open areas like roads, wider trails, railways and power line cuts give searchers better visibility, but once night falls or bad weather moves in, that advantage fades quickly.
Authorities have thermal imaging gear among their tools in the hunt, but it has to contend with the clutter caused by the heat signatures of other searchers or large animals like deer and bears. In summer, the general heat creates background noise, as well.
Officials are also concerned that the escapees may break in to another one of the seasonal cabins, many used by hunters, and steal weapons.
Some residents flee, others stay put
In Owls Head, one of the communities engulfed in the wide search net, a lot of residents have left their homes while the manhunt unfolds. And many summer tourists appear to be staying away.
But some residents aren’t budging, like Joyce Lawson and Erwin Fleury, both in their 80s.
“I’m not really frightened,” Lawson said. “If I really was frightened, I’d probably leave, but I’m not.”
She said the heavy law enforcement presence gave her reassurance.
“Half the night I’ve got troopers all over the place,” Lawson said. “And all day, too.”
Asked if he was scared of the escaped killers, Fleury, a Korean War veteran, was dismissive.
“These kids? Are you kidding me?” he scoffed. “After what I went through? No.”
Video shows convict being shot with blow gun
Authorities, however, say people have good reason to be afraid of the fugitives.
“Sweat and Matt have violent criminal histories and pose a significant threat to anyone who may come in contact with them,” the U.S. Marshals Service said in a statement last week when the two men were added to its “most wanted” list.
Before his escape, Matt had been serving a 25-year sentence for kidnapping a man, torturing him to death and then dismembering his body. Sweat had been sentenced to life without parole for shooting a sheriff’s deputy multiple times in the head and body and then running him over with the deputy’s squad car.
A video offering an idea of Matt’s mindset emerged Tuesday. Obtained by ABC News, it shows him smiling and posing with a blow gun in 1997.
“We’re going to dip these in AIDS blood,” he says, holding a dart in front of the camera. “And we’ll put a patent on them, we’ll sell them as deadly weapons.”
Somebody off camera then uses the blow gun to fire a dart into Matt’s outstretched arm.
The video was taken nine months before Matt committed the murder that put him behind bars.