FRANKLIN COUNTY, New York – DNA from New York prison escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat was found on items inside a cabin in rural Franklin County, New York, about 20 miles from Clinton Correctional Facility.
New York state law officers searching for the escaped killers flooded the sleepy upstate hamlet of Owls Head after a witness reported seeing someone running into the woods near a burglarized cabin over the weekend, the district attorney there told CNN on Monday.
Investigators think the figure spotted Saturday could have been one of the fugitive prisoners, acting Franklin County District Attorney Glenn MacNeill said, explaining the sudden shift in the search from the town of Friendship, more than 260 miles to the southwest.
The new search site is just 20 miles or so from Clinton Correctional Facility, the prison the inmates escaped from on June 6.
MacNeill said it was obvious the cabin had been burglarized, but he couldn’t say what was found at the site or if a search warrant was executed.
He urged residents to be “very careful” during the search for the escaped killers, whom authorities described last week as posing a “significant threat to anyone who may come into contact with them.”
“Be inside with the doors locked and very diligent,” MacNeill warned.
Matt and Sweat busted out of the maximum security prison in Dannemora, New York, more than two weeks ago, setting off a massive search for them and a probing investigation of employees and practices at the prison.
One civilian employee, prison tailor Joyce Mitchell, has been charged with aiding the escapees, and a corrections officer has been placed on paid leave, authorities have said.
For much of the weekend, the manhunt had focused on an area near New York’s border with Pennsylvania, after somebody reported a possible sighting of the two fugitives.
But the search of that area — around the town of Friendship in Allegany County, hundreds of miles southwest of the prison from which the convicts escaped — wrapped up late Sunday, New York State Police said.
‘When it’s in your backyard, it’s kind of crazy’
In Franklin County, Amy Pulsifer — manager of the Trailside Bar and Restaurant — said she was working when things got “crazy insane” Sunday evening as helicopters swooped overhead and state troopers drove into town.
The troopers set up roadblocks just across the street, off county Highway 27, she said.
They set up a command post using ATVs. One trooper asked Pulsifer for a map of snowmobile trails in the area, which is near a winter ski resort and in an area criss-crossed with recreational trails.
“I’m kind of excited but nervous at the same time,” Pulsifer told CNN, adding that her boss had told her to close the bar early because of safety concerns.
She said she’d followed the news of the manhunt as it unfolded previously in Cadyville, another town in the region.
“Now, when it’s in your backyard, it’s kind of crazy,” she told CNN, saying she planned to go home and lock up with her gun.
Fear in Friendship, New York
Pulsifer’s concerns are familiar to people in Friendship, the rural town near the Pennsylvania border where somebody reported seeing two men along a railroad line on Saturday.
Many residents spent the rest of the weekend holed up in their homes while around 300 law enforcement officers combed the area.
Gary Baker, 80, said he was terrified of the possibility that the killers could be nearby.
Baker is a caretaker at the town’s Maple Grove Cemetery, right next to his home. But authorities blocked off the cemetery as search helicopters hovered overhead.
Baker was left to sit alone in his home, with all his doors locked and a rifle in his lap.
On most wanted list
Owls Head and Friendship aren’t the only towns where police have swarmed in the hunt for Matt and Sweat. The manhunt, now in its 17th day, has primarily been focused in the area around Dannemora, where the prison is situated.
Described by authorities as “very dangerous,” the two killers have been added to the U.S. Marshals Service’s list of its 15 most wanted fugitives. Reward money of $75,000 has been offered for information leading to the capture of either man.
As many as 800 law enforcement officers have participated in the manhunt, which has cleared nearly 200 abandoned buildings, hundreds of occupied homes and more than 600 miles of rural trails, officials said.
State police have asked hunters and homeowners with surveillance cameras to check their footage all the way back to the day of the prison break for any unusual activity.
The search has stretched to Canada and Mexico, with wanted posters of the escaped killers given out at both borders.
Prison tailor in jail, corrections officer on leave
Authorities are still investigating how exactly Matt and Sweat managed to orchestrate their escape, which involved cutting through a steel wall and navigating a series of tunnels until the men emerged from a manhole outside the prison walls.
Joyce Mitchell, a prison tailor shop instructor, is accused of helping them by supplying tools like chisels and drill bits. She is in jail and has pleaded not guilty to the charges against her.
A source familiar with the investigation has told CNN that Mitchell, 51, had a sexual relationship with Matt.
Investigators are looking into whether other prison staff members or inmates played a role in the breakout.
Authorities said Friday that a male corrections officer was placed on paid administrative leave as part of the investigation into the escape.
While no charges have been filed, the officer could face accusations of facilitating the escape and promoting prison contraband, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie told CNN affiliate WPTZ on Saturday.
State authorities haven’t named the officer, but his attorney identified him Sunday as Gene Palmer, a 28-year veteran of Clinton Correctional Facility.
“Right now Mr. Palmer is fully cooperating with any or all questions that are being asked of him,” attorney Andrew Brockway told CNN on Sunday. “He spent 14 hours yesterday and he was completely forthcoming.”
Palmer knew Matt and Sweat and had received a painting done by Matt, but Brockway said he is sure his client did not know the inmates were planning an escape.
A retired sergeant at the prison, Jeff Dumas, said he is sure Palmer was not involved in any escape plot.
“I don’t believe that he actually intentionally helped these guys,” Dumas told CNN’s “New Day.”
He said Palmer was one of two corrections officers responsible for escorting inmates to and from work at the prison’s industrial building and was always conscientious in his work.
“My gut feeling is that somehow they may have conned him or taken a shortcut somewhere along the way in procedures during an escort and that would be about it,” Dumas said.
Brockway had a similar sentiment.
“These two people are psychopaths, they are master manipulators,” Brockway said of Matt and Sweat. “They’re obviously in prison for life so they have nothing but time to develop schemes to take advantage of innocent people.”