Inside The Real-Life Love Triangle & Prison Escape At Dannemora

How two convicted murderers manipulated a correctional-facility employee into helping them break free.

November 16, 2018

David Sweat, Joyce Mitchell, and Richard Matt mug shots [New York State Police]

David Sweat, Joyce Mitchell, and Richard Matt mug shots [New York State Police]

By: Aaron Rasmussen

DANNEMORA, NY — In 2015, a pair of convicted murderers both began affairs with a smitten prison employee and then smooth talked her into helping them escape the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in northeastern New York.

On June 6 of that year, guards conducting a 5:30 A.M. bed check discovered David Sweat, 34, and Richard Matt, 48, were missing from their cells. In their places, they found clothes stuffed under sheets so it would appear the inmates were present and sleeping.

For months, revealed Anthony Annuci, Acting Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections, the men had been using hacksaws to cut through steel walls in the backs of their cells to create holes that led to the building’s interior. After they succeeded, “they went onto a catwalk which is about six stories high,” said Annuci. “We estimate they climbed down and had power tools and were able to get out of this facility through tunnels, cutting away at several spots.”

Before Sweat and Matt exited into the free world through a manhole, they attached a note with a smiley face to a large pipe on their escape route. The message read: “Have a nice day!”

Before Sweat and Matt exited into the free world through a manhole, they attached a note with a smiley face to a large pipe on their escape route. The message read: “Have a nice day!”

When a pair of homeowners who lived not far from the manhole spotted the fugitives in their yard, they asked what the newly sprung men were doing. "We're just lost,” they reportedly responded. “We don't know where we are. We're on the wrong street.”

The two then ran off, and the manhunt was on. It quickly became clear why the police were desperate to track down the missing prisoners.

Sweat was serving a life sentence, without the possibility of parole, for murdering Broome County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia in 2002.

Matt, who once escaped from an Erie County jail in the mid-’80s, was serving 25 years to life for dismembering William L. Rickerson, his businessman boss, in 1997. He fled to Mexico, where he stabbed to death an American man and was imprisoned there before he was extradited to New York to serve time for the first murder.

Retired Detective DiBernardo Gabriel, who investigated Rickerson’s death, warned shorty after Matts’ most recent prison break that "you can never have enough security with" the cunning convict or "turn your back on him” because he was clearly skilled at eluding police. “He is the most vicious, evil person I’ve ever come across in 38 years as a police officer.”

Matt’s sinister talents, it turned out, also included charming women, which became evident after officials trying to figure out how he and Sweat escaped the prison zeroed in on one female staffer in particular.

Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, then 51, worked as an industrial-training supervisor in the Clinton Correctional Facility’s tailoring department. As investigators dug into her history, it emerged the mom, who was married to another prison employee, had hooked up with Sweat when he was her charge. She then got involved with Matt.

“They looked at her characteristics and they took advantage of her,” said Clinton County Sheriff David Favro. “They knew they could get something out of her.”

Matt convinced Mitchell to smuggle tools for him and Sweat into the maximum security prison, including some hidden in meat. Another staffer, allegedly unaware there was contraband hidden in the food, then passed the meat to Matt, breaking strict prison rules.

The tools came in handy, and after months of preparations, including a pre-escape dry-run, Matt and Sweat were ready for freedom.

"On June 5, 2015, Inmate Matt told me it was the day he and Inmate Sweat were breaking out of the facility,” Mitchell later said in a statement, noting she was to join the two on the run after they murdered her cuckolded husband, prison maintenance worker Lyle Mitchell.

"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.' After Inmate Matt killed Lyle, we were going to drive somewhere. I can't remember where we were going to go, but I know I was told it was around six, seven hours away.”

However, Mitchell, who was supposed to eventually disappear with Sweat while Matt went his own way, got cold feet the night of the escape and didn’t pick the men up in her Jeep at the appointed time and location.

“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,” said Mitchell in the statement. "I didn't want anything to happen to Lyle, and I couldn't imagine being without him. I believe I helped Inmate Matt and Inmate Sweat escape because I was caught up in the fantasy. I enjoyed the attention, the feeling both of them gave me, and the thought of a different life.”

But if Mitchell had gone on the run with the two, she may not have lived to enjoy her exciting new reality.

“Joyce Mitchell, in my mind, would have just been luggage and would have slowed them down,” said Favro. “If she went with them, I believe she would have been killed. I mean, why keep her? It makes no sense.”

News of the daring jailbreak exploded across the country, but as the manhunt unfolded over the course of weeks, the story mushroomed.

The search for Sweat and Matt, which involved at its height almost 1,000 local, state and federal law enforcement personnel, reportedly cost around a million dollars a day. Despite the many investigators’ meticulous efforts, the fugitives seemed to have vanished into thin air.

Mitchell was arrested on June 12, 2015, six days after her lovers disappeared.

"I just got in over my head,” she later confessed in an interview, explaining she was battling depression. "I was going through a point in my life.”

“I couldn't tell anybody,” she continued of the trouble she helped cause. “I couldn't tell my husband. Couldn't tell my family. I couldn't tell my coworkers. I couldn't tell anybody. There's nobody you can tell.”

While Mitchell was stuck behind bars, her flings were still hiding out and surviving in unoccupied cabins scattered throughout the forested region.

On June 22, officials revealed they finally got the break they needed two days earlier, and the search, which had expanded as far as the Pennsylvania border, moved back to within miles of the Clinton Correctional Facility.

According to reports, Sweat and Matt made the mistake of holing up in a cabin, accessible only via a 40-minute hike through the woods, that was leased by a group of corrections officers. The escapees had left behind evidence of their stay, including a pair of prison-issued boxers, and DNA collected in the cabin was matched to the convicted murderers.

The noose was tightening, and law enforcement was on high alert.

”Just about every cabin or outbuilding in the North Country has one or more shotguns or weapons," said New York State Police Major Charles Guess, adding that hunters "put an inordinate amount of weapons and ammunition and other tools in these shared seasonal hunting camps and cabins."

Finally, federal agents spotted Matt on June 26, one day before his 49th birthday, near a cabin almost 30 miles away from the Clinton Correctional Facility after he had fired a stolen shotgun at a passing car. When they confronted him, Matt refused to drop the weapon, and an agent shot him dead. It was later determined the fugitive had a blood alcohol level of 0.18 percent.

Two days later, on June 28, a state police sergeant encountered Sweat, who had turned 35 during the ordeal, just over a mile from the Canadian border. He gave chase and shot the fugitive twice before taking him into custody alive.

Sweat later revealed details of the breakout, including that he, Matt, and Mitchell initially planned to escape to Mexico, but his lover failing to show with the getaway car changed everything.

Sweat also said that after being on the run together for weeks, he and Matt had decided to split up because the older inmate was slowing him down.

For her part in the crime, Mitchell was eventually sentenced to serve up to seven years in jail for first-degree promoting prison contraband, a felony, and fourth-degree criminal facilitation, which is a misdemeanor.

Sweat pleaded guilty to one county of promoting prison contraband and two counts of escape, but his sentence is essentially a formality since he is currently already serving life without the possibility of parole.

Matt’s family refused to collect his body after his death.

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