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Prison vicinity is latest focus of manhunt

Bloodhounds picked up a scent.

Law enforcement officers found the imprint of a shoe or boot, and searchers discovered food wrappers and a patch of grass that looked as if it had been used for sleeping.

These leads led more than 500 law enforcement officers to search late Wednesday and Thursday for escaped convicts Richard W. Matt and David P. Sweat in dense woods off Route 374, about three miles east of Dannemora, where the men broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility last Friday night or Saturday morning.

But there still was no certainty that the escaped murderers were in the vicinity.

The convicts, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday, “could either be four miles from the prison or in Mexico. We just don’t know.”

Cuomo confirmed that there had been tips and evidence that the two men were not far from the prison, but he added, “We don’t have any hard information one way or the other.”

State Police spokesman William Duffy said State Police and other law enforcement officials were conducting a search of a roughly five-square-mile area where the clues had been found.

The weekend prison break was the first in the maximum-security prison’s 150-year history.

The fugitives, who are considered extremely dangerous, were discovered missing from their adjoining cells at 5:30 a.m. Saturday during a routine bed check.

The escape has law enforcement mobilized in this area of northern New York.

State Police are being assisted by the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Sheriff’s Offices in Clinton and Essex counties, and the Plattsburgh Police Department, as well as K-9 and aviation units.

The manhunt caused the cancellation of classes Thursday in the 1,500-student Saranac Central School District, which includes Dannemora. Part of Route 374 between Dannemora and Plattsburgh was closed Wednesday night and remained closed Thursday afternoon.

Those in neighboring states also are concerned. Vermont Gov. Peter E. Shumlin said, without explanation, that there was a concern that the convicts “had a canoe or something in mind they could paddle” to get across Lake Champlain, which straddles the two states, to avoid being detected.

Matt, 48, was convicted of torturing to death and dismembering William Rickerson, 76, a North Tonawanda businessman, in 1997.

He later killed a man in a barroom fight in 1998 after fleeing to Mexico. He has a history of felony convictions and was serving 25 years to life.

Sweat, 34, was convicted of brutally killing a Broome County sheriff’s deputy in 2002.

The convicts used power tools to break through steel walls, scaled a catwalk and crawled through a maze of pipes into tunnels before emerging outside the walls of the prison. How they accomplished that has had observers scratching their heads.

Joyce Mitchell, an industrial training supervisor for the last seven years at the prison, worked with the convicts in a tailoring shop. She may have been an accomplice who failed to follow through with meeting Matt and Sweat when they escaped, according to State Police Superintendent Joseph A. D’Amico.

Mitchell, who is believed to be talking to authorities, has not been arrested, according to news reports.

Asked if his administration should be embarrassed about the escape occurring on his watch, Cuomo said, “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

One theory about the escape has been disproved. Police say surveillance video showed that two men picked up by a Philadelphia cabdriver were not the escaped killers. The cabbie had told police Wednesday that he had picked up two men matching the fugitives’ descriptions and taken them to the Amtrak station there.

News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious and the New York Times contributed to this report. email: msommer@buffnews.com