MALONE – Prison escapee David Sweat’s DNA was found on a pepper shaker in an area about a mile away from where his accomplice, Richard Matt, was gunned down Friday afternoon in Malone, a law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation said.
But it’s still a mystery as to whether Sweat was near Matt when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection tactical team opened fire on him with a semi-automatic weapon and shot him three times in the head.
The pepper shaker was found in an area where authorities believe Matt and Sweat were resting, the source said.
The pepper wasn’t for seasoning food, the law enforcement source said. Pepper is often used by people on the run who are trying to throw off K9 units. Ralph “Bucky” Phillips, who escaped from the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, tried the same tactic when he was on the run in 2006.
The new DNA evidence is the best indicator that Sweat could still be in the dense woods of Franklin County, in the northern Adirondack Mountains.
As two days passed since Matt was killed, speculation was growing that Sweat had somehow eluded the hundreds of law officers searching for him.
The last time there was any confirmation of his whereabouts came last weekend when DNA tests confirmed both men had been at an Owls Head hunting camp reported burglarized on Saturday. Matt’s DNA turned up at another burglarized cabin in the area Wednesday, but they was no evidence – either forensic or sightings – of Sweat.
That was until the tests on the DNA from the campsite came back Friday.
In the meantime, autopsy results on Matt’s body came back that showed his three days on the run were grueling – and that he met a quick and bloody end.
“Dr. Michael Sikirica determined the cause of death to be severe skull fractures and brain injuries due to gunshot wounds to the head,” a statement from State Police about the autopsy results said.
Matt was shot three times by a Vermont-based U.S. Customs and Border Protection Tactical Unit member who discharged several rounds from a semi-automatic weapon, officials said.
Also, the autopsy, conducted Saturday at Albany Medical Center, revealed that Matt probably spent most of the last three weeks in the outdoors.
He was shot about 40 miles west of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, from which he and Sweat escaped through the pipes June 6.
Bug bites were found on Matt’s lower extremities, along with “blisters and minor abrasions consistent with living in the woods for three weeks,” the statement read.
The Buffalo News reported Sunday that Matt was also ill and drunk when he was shot. A law enforcement source revealed that soiled underwear was found Wednesday in a burglarized cabin. The DNA on the underwear was matched to Matt and indicated he was sick, possibly from drinking bad water or eating spoiled food. The source also said Matt’s body had a strong odor of alcohol. The owner of a cabin that had been burglarized found empty booze bottles.
With Sweat still on the run, 1,300 federal, state and local were combing the dense woods of Franklin County in the northern Adirondack Mountains Sunday.
State police that the search would continue to focus on the same area they have been scouring since last weekend. But search parties were also moving into areas north and south of the village of Malone, officials said.
The conditions have been terrible.
Heavy rains were soaking the region Sunday. State troopers, corrections officers and others tracking Sweat in the rugged terrain in Franklin County are dressed for the elements.
The weather forecasts remain ominous in the North Country at least for the rest of Sunday. The National Weather Service at Plattsburgh International Airport calls for a 100 percent chance of rain throughout Sunday, along with a possible thunderstorm. The high is expected to reach only 58 degrees. As much as half-inch of new precipitation is possible.
Showers and a thunderstorm are possible Sunday night, while the chance of rain falls to 40 percent on Monday, with a high of 66 degrees.
Crossman said the residents of Franklin County, which includes the communities of Saranac Lake, Owls Head and Malone, are locking their doors and looking over their shoulders a lot more than usual nowadays but are heartened by the support from law enforcement.
“We’re all very anxious for this to be over so people can get back to their normal lives,” said Gordon Crossman, vice-chairman of the Franklin County Board of Legislators.
Yet, he said, Franklin County residents have been coping with the stressful situation as best they can.
“The people have been amazing here in how well they’ve handled it, how they’ve drawn together to help each other,” Crossman said.
In addition to their intensive search for the other escapee, David Sweat, law enforcement from the state police, border patrol and other agencies are escorting anxious area residents to their homes and cabins. The community has shown their appreciation by bringing food and coffee to law enforcement officers working out in the field.
“We’re very proud of the people,” Crossman said. “They have a great deal of respect for the officers.”
How did area residents feel when word came down Matt was taken down by a police bullet Friday?
“People were just elated – not that he was dead so much – but really, that they didn’t have to worry about him,” Crossman said.
Matt’s death raised hope that Sweat would also have been nabbed soon afterward, but that hope has started to recede.
Still, there seems to be confidence Sweat, one way or the other, won’t continue to elude authorities much longer.
“It’s nasty,” Crossman said of the weather.