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Conscience spurred prison worker Joyce Mitchell to jilt Richard Matt, David Sweat for her husband

Her change of heart came in a Chinese restaurant, with only hours left to spare.

Joyce E. Mitchell looked across the table at her husband and changed her mind. She decided to let him live.

She no longer wanted any part of the plot to have him killed at the hands of a convicted murderer who would soon break out of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.

Lyle Mitchell was a decent and loving husband, she thought, who had never done her any harm. He deserved better.

In a matter of hours, inmate Richard W. Matt planned to escape from the prison and also kill Lyle Mitchell, whom he referred to as “the glitch.”

The only way to save her husband, Joyce Mitchell decided, was to turn her back on Matt and David P. Sweat, the prisoners who had made her feel alive by including her in their escape plans from the maximum security prison.

While her crisis of conscience saved her husband’s life – and perhaps her own – she did nothing to stop Matt and Sweat from escaping. Their breakout riveted the nation for three weeks as more than 1,000 members of law enforcement searched the dense woods of the Adirondacks near and far from Clinton Correctional Facility.

“They went out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant after work at the prison, and Joyce Mitchell had a realization that this was D-Day, and the fantasy she had been living for almost a year was now becoming a reality that included the murder of her husband, who had been a good and supportive man,” said a law enforcement official involved in the search. “She had a moment of clarity.”

“They made me feel special,” Joyce Mitchell told investigators, referring to Matt and Sweat.

And being part of the prison break excited the 51-year-old prison worker.

“I got caught up in it,” she told investigators.

On the morning of Friday, June 5, Matt approached Mitchell in the prison tailor shop, where she was the supervisor and he was a worker. He told her the escape was set for that night.

“The escape is on. Pick us up at midnight,” Matt said, according to information Mitchell provided in a series of interviews with authorities. He then handed her two pills intended to incapacitate Lyle Mitchell – also a civilian worker at the prison – before Matt would kill him that night inside the Mitchell home.

“I’m going to take care of the glitch,” Matt said, referring to Lyle Mitchell.

Then they would all be free and, after lying low in West Virginia, drive to Mexico.

That was the plan. Matt and Sweat were so convinced of Mitchell’s devotion to them that they did not have a backup plan. They expected her to show up in her car with a full tank of gas, sleeping bags, tents, a fishing pole and a shotgun, if she could get one from her husband.

But when Matt and Sweat emerged from a manhole on a street outside the prison, Joyce Mitchell was nowhere in sight.

Instead, she was at a hospital, hyperventilating, with her heart racing. Her husband was at her side.

Grooming Mitchell

In June a year ago, David Sweat felt he had established a close enough relationship with Mitchell during their time at the tailor shop to raise the idea of him and Matt one day breaking out of the prison.

That was the only way Sweat would ever see freedom. To avoid a possible death sentence, he had pleaded guilty to killing Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia in 2002. That resulted in a life sentence without parole.

The dowdy Mitchell entertained the then-34-year-old inmate’s idea. They were, after all, involved emotionally, according to what Mitchell later revealed.

“Sweat cultivated the relationship, and she says there was no sex between them,” the law enforcement official said.

The News granted the official’s request not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the ongoing criminal investigation by New York State Police, the FBI and the prison system.

But the relationship hadn’t gone unnoticed by prison officials, who conducted an investigation. Mitchell was allowed to keep her job because no wrongdoing could be found. Sweat, however, lost his job in the tailor shop.

At that point, Matt took up where Sweat left off.

“He kept up the conversation about the escape,” the law enforcement official said.

Matt, who had a reputation as a ladies’ man back in the City of Tonawanda where he was raised, began a sexual relationship with Mitchell.

They met for encounters in a secluded area of the shop, Mitchell told investigators.

In time, the escape plan began to take shape. By the fall, Matt began requesting various tools he and Sweat needed to cut through the steel walls of their adjoining cells in the prison’s honor block. On the other side of the cell walls was a multi-story catwalk.

Among the first items Matt sought were hacksaw blades, which raised a certain irony. He was serving a prison sentence of 25 years to life for killing a 76-year-old North Tonawanda businessman and then dismembering his body with a hacksaw.

“He gave her specs of what he needed. Hacksaw blades, special eyeglasses with lights attached so that they could work in dark places, a hexagon drill bit, replacement batteries for the eyeglasses. She used her husband’s Amazon account to make purchases,” the law enforcement official said.

When the manhunt ended, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo revealed that some of the saw blades were smuggled into the prison in frozen meat that was given to the inmates.

But that was not the only way hacksaw blades ended up in the hands of Matt and Sweat, whose greatest challenge was cutting the holes through their cell walls. They wore out the blades, and more were needed.

An artistic maneuver

The problem was solved by slipping fresh blades into sheets of cardboard from boxes Mitchell took apart and had sent to Matt’s cell. Corrections officers thought they were delivering cardboard for him to use as the backing of paintings and sketches he created and sometimes gave away. Corrections Officer Gene Palmer stands accused of tampering with evidence for allegedly destroying paintings he received from Matt.

To hide the holes in the cell walls, which were close to the floor, sheets of the cardboard were painted gray and placed in front of the holes.

Mitchell revealed her role to investigators who zeroed in on her after finding out prison officials had previously investigated her relationship with Sweat.

She said Matt used his artistic ability as a bargaining chip.

“Mitchell had given Matt a photograph of her family that she wanted him to make a painting of so that she could give it to her husband as a gift. Matt told her, ‘I spilled something on it’ and that he’d have to do it again. In exchange, he’d get more from her,” the law enforcement official said of how Mitchell claimed Matt continued to get a steady supply of tools.

But Mitchell, who has been arrested on charges she helped the inmates, did not require much coaxing. She went out of her way to make sure Matt and Sweat were in the good graces of prison staffers by giving away sweets.

“It’s almost nonsensical. She baked brownies and cookies and gave them to other staffers, hoping they would be lenient on Matt and Sweat,” the law enforcement official said.

For months, the inmates worked at night making preparations for their escape.

After gaining access to the catwalk, they managed to climb down pipes and enter the prison’s tunnels in search of a way out. The governor said they obtained additional tools from a “job box” that belonged to a construction worker. One of the escapees, a burglar, repeatedly picked the lock on the large tool box, Cuomo said.

Matt and Sweat chiseled their way through a brick wall and located an old steam pipe that would provide them with a final route to freedom.

But they encountered an unexpected problem. The pipe was about 2 feet in diameter, and Matt was overweight.

The once physically fit Matt had to go on a crash diet.

“Prison officials said he lost 40 to 50 pounds, and the suspicion is that he did it to fit inside the pipe,” the law enforcement official said.

On the run

After emerging from a manhole on a street outside the prison walls and discovering that Mitchell was a no-show, Matt and Sweat headed out of the residential neighborhood and into woods near the prison. For days an army of state, federal and local law enforcement officers chased down leads but came up empty. Speculation grew that the pair had either made their way to Mexico, based on what Mitchell had stated, or decided to turn north to the Canadian border.

Matt and Sweat sustained themselves by breaking into remote hunting camps, where they found clothes, food and other supplies. When they found maps of the region, they decided to head for Canada. Listening to news reports on a radio kept them abreast of the search.

Sweat soon concluded Matt was a liability.

“Matt was more about partying. Every hunting camp they broke into, he would be looking for alcohol,” the law enforcement official said.

At one camp – owned by a group of corrections officers – they hit the jackpot.

“They found a quarter to a half-ounce of pot, beer and dry goods. They cooked a pasta dinner and stayed there three days and would have stayed longer, but on the fourth day they were discovered,” the law enforcement official said.

The escapees vanished into the woods, but Matt was wearing poorly fitting boots and developed blisters.

“Sweat was on a mission and Matt was slowing him down. He was older and not in good shape. He had a bad back,” the law enforcement official said.

So Sweat took off on his own.

In the original plan, they needed each other. But that was no longer the case.

“Sweat was the outdoor guy and knew how to live off the land. He knew about a place in West Virginia where they could hide. Mitchell was told they were going to drive about seven hours, though it would have been longer to get to West Virginia. Matt knew how to get into Mexico because he’d spent time there before. He knew where to cross the border,” the law enforcement official said.

Matt’s freedom ended five days after the two went their separate ways. On Friday, June 26, one day after his 49th birthday, Matt was fatally shot by a federal officer after refusing to put down a shotgun he was holding.

Last Sunday, about a mile and a half south of the Canadian border, Sweat was shot twice in the back by State Police Sgt. Jay Cook, who had spotted him on a secluded road in Franklin County and ordered him to stop. Sweat, police said, decided to run. Cook chased him into a field and as Sweat headed toward a wooded area, the trooper, more than 45 yards away, shot him with his side arm.

Willing to speak

Sweat survived the two gunshots. One bullet passed through his torso and exited his chest. A photograph of the capture shows what appears to be a wound on Sweat’s chest as he sits on the ground receiving first aid. He did not require surgery at Albany Medical Center.

“The one bullet barely missed his vital organs before it went out his chest. Maybe it was lucky for him, but it was also lucky for law enforcement. He began talking almost right away. We’d give him one hour on and one hour off interviewing him,” the law enforcement official said.

Sweat told of how he conducted a dry run of the escape the night before the actual escape and could have left without Matt, but did not because of his fellow inmate’s knowledge of how to slip into Mexico.

Why open up to investigators?

“His ego. He’s proud of what he did,” the law enforcement official said.

But neither Sweat nor Matt counted on Mitchell’s guilty conscience, which caused her to turn her back on them at the last minute.

“They had 100 percent faith in her that she would be there. That’s why they had no Plan B,” the law enforcement official said. “Whether they would have killed her or not is unknown.”

email: lmichel@buffnews.com