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Shootout is feared if 2 fugitives get guns

If Richard W. Matt and David P. Sweat get their hands on guns, the chances of bloodshed are extremely high, according to law enforcement officials familiar with their backgrounds.

Western New Yorkers are familiar with Matt, who tortured, murdered and then dismembered his victim in North Tonawanda. Sweat has an equally vicious history.

“If they get any type of guns, it could be one hell of a shootout,” said Broome County Sheriff David E. Harder.

A law enforcement official involved in the search for the escapees and familiar with Matt’s criminal record agreed.

“They are the worst of the worst. There is a big concern if they become armed. Not only do they have the potential for violence, they already have a history of violence that is rarely seen outside of the movies,” said the official, asking that his name be withheld.

Sweat killed one of Harder’s deputies 13 years ago. The sheriff shared the memories in order to alert the public and to keep the memory of Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia alive as the manhunt continued for Matt, 49, and Sweat, 35.

Sweat and two accomplices in 2002 were unloading a pickup truck full of guns they had stolen from Pennsylvania in the middle of the night, when Tarsia upset their plans. He was heading to his home for an early breakfast at about 3 a.m. when he noticed the truck and a car parked in a small park down the road from his residence.

“Deputy Tarsia parked his vehicle and went to see what was going on. He didn’t see anyone by the vehicles and when he stepped up to them, the men were hidden under the pickup and in the brush and started shooting at him. He had 18 rounds in his bulletproof vest and other wounds,” Harder said.

Rather than flee, Sweat and Jeffrey A. Nabinger Jr. walked up to Tarsia, removed the gun from his holster and shot the deputy in the head.

Sweat, 22 at the time, then got into the pickup they had stolen for the gun heist and drove over the 36-year-old deputy’s body.

The sheriff said the murder of Tarsia was the first line-of-duty slaying in the more than 200-year history of the Broome County Sheriff’s Office.

“I was devastated and shocked and couldn’t understand how the escape happened,” he said of the killers’ escape from the state prison in Dannemora, Clinton County.

“With the two of them getting sentenced to life in prison, we could put closure on it, though not for the deputy’s family,” Harder said. “They lost their son. He was 36 and lived on a small ranch with his girlfriend and a couple of horses.”

If there is any consolation at all, Nabinger remains behind bars.

It is hard to top Sweat’s crime, but Matt comes close.

After drinking vodka with his co-defendant, Lee E. Bates, on the night of Dec. 4, 1997, Matt phoned his former boss, 76-year-old North Tonawanda businessman William L. Rickerson, and claimed he was owed money, according to testimony at Matt’s murder trial.

That same night, Rickerson was beaten and tortured in his home, bound with duct tape, and dumped into the trunk of a car driven by Bates, who testified that Matt later opened the trunk and snapped Rickerson’s neck.

Following a 27-hour drive throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Western New York, Matt dumped Rickerson’s body on Tonawanda Island and later dismembered it using a hacksaw, before tossing the remains into the Niagara River. Bates cooperated with authorities and was given a prison sentence of 15 years to life in 1998 and was released last August.

As in the Matt case, one of the accomplices in the Broome County killing cooperated with investigators and received a five-year sentence because he did not shoot Tarsia, according to Harder.

To avoid the state’s death penalty, which was in force at the time of their arrests, Sweat and Nabinger pleaded guilty to killing Tarsia and received sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, details emerged about how Matt and Sweat orchestrated their escape, the first ever at the prison, which was built in 1887.

The two inmates had access to the inner catwalks and passages of the maximum-security prison where they were inmates for about a month before their escape, a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation told The Buffalo News on Tuesday.

A square section of the steel wall in one of their cells was cut open at the base with a power saw, providing the access to the catwalk for their nighttime exploration of the prison’s innards, according to the source.

During the day, they disguised the hole by placing a sheet of cardboard from a box they had cut up and spray-painted gray to matched the wall so that corrections officers would not notice the missing square of steel, the source said.

“They also went through 2 feet of a brick wall,” the source said.

The prisoners reached a 24-inch drainpipe, cut it open and crawled in to get outside the prison, where they lifted a manhole and fled sometime between late Friday night and early Saturday.

“They had to have help to do what they did,” the source said.

There have been media reports speculating that Matt and Sweat were supposed to rendezvous with someone who was to help them with their getaway outside the prison and whether the accomplice failed to show, but those reports have not been confirmed.

Throughout Tuesday, large numbers of state troopers and other law enforcement officers converged on a section of the rural community of Willsboro, Essex County, about 30 miles southeast of the prison and along the shores of Lake Champlain. A resident of the town reportedly witnessed two men Monday night heading into the woods there.