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Tipped off to Richard Matt’s planned escape, Niagara County deputies took extra precautions during 2008 trial

Richard W. Matt was on trial for murder seven years ago, when Niagara County sheriff’s deputies received a tip that someone was going to try to bust him out of the Lockport courthouse where his trial was being held.

Authorities took the tip so seriously that they stationed at least six deputies inside the courtroom at all times during Matt’s trial for murdering and dismembering a 76-year-old North Tonawanda businessman.

And Matt was required to wear an electronic stun belt.

Matt’s defense attorney criticized the unprecedented security, saying it created a negative image for jurors, who ended up convicting Matt.

“What we did was take the necessary precautions. Our information had come from a reliable informant that an outside source, a third party, would assist in the escape attempt,” a law enforcement official familiar with Matt’s 17-month stay at the Niagara County jail told The Buffalo News.

And Matt did not escape.

But as the nation now knows, Matt and another convicted killer were able to escape from one of the most secure prisons in New York State last week and are now on the run. And questions persist on why even greater precautions were not taken for Matt, a known escape risk, who had broken out of an Erie County jail in 1986.

The Press-Republican, a newspaper in Plattsburgh near the Clinton Correctional Facility where the escape occurred, has reported that cutbacks on overtime and staffing reductions may have created conditions conducive to the escape. After a recent fight involving 40 or more inmates, the normal procedure of a lockdown and search of every cell was reportedly denied by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision due to high overtime costs.

In addition, the newspaper reported that because of cutbacks, the prison did not staff two guard towers in the vicinity where the escapees emerged from a manhole. The towers provide a clear sight line to the manhole.

A state corrections department spokesman confirmed that a May 31 fight involving 30 inmates occurred, but declined comment on the Plattsburgh paper’s story about a decision against a prison lockdown.

Back in Niagara County, until now, it was not publicly known that deputies had received the tip that an escape plan was afoot during Matt’s 2008 murder trial.

The concern was so high that deputies fitted Matt with the stun belt, which was worn under his clothing throughout the trial.

“The defense attorney raised the issue of the number of deputies at the trial, but I think our information was good,” the law enforcement official said. “You react because of the safety concerns for everyone involved.”

In the jail, Matt was in the general inmate population, but whenever he went from one section of the facility to another, a deputy escorted him at all times. That is normal procedure when an inmate is being moved, according to a second law enforcement source who recalled Matt’s time at the county jail.

“We did keep a close eye on him after he was returned here from Mexico. We knew his history and that he was an escape risk,” the source said. “He was a quiet individual and kept a low profile when he was with us.”

In 1986, Matt escaped from the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden for five days after a corrections deputy had mistakenly opened the electronic lock on his cell door.

And while in Mexico, where Matt fled to avoid arrest in the 1997 murder and dismemberment of William L. Rickerson, he attempted a prison escape after being locked up for murdering a man there.

Nicholas Harris, Matt’s only son, recalled how his father, during a visit with him at the Niagara County Jail, showed him a scar from a bullet wound he suffered when guards shot at him on the roof of the prison in Mexico.

When Matt was convicted in 2008 of abducting, beating, torturing, murdering and dismembering Rickerson, he was immediately transferred from the county jail to state custody, said Niagara County Sheriff James R. Voutour, who was the chief deputy then.

“For 25 years, he’s someone else’s problem,” Voutour said at the time.

That changed sometime late Friday night into early Saturday morning when Matt, 48, and convicted cop killer David P. Sweat, 34, escaped from the prison in the Town of Dannemora.

Another law enforcement official told The Buffalo News that Matt and Sweat cut through the steel wall in at least one of their adjoining cells and for about a month had access to secluded prison catwalks allowing them to map out the route of their escape from the 150-year-old maximum security facility. A female civilian employee at the prison was planning to assist them in their escape, but backed out at the last minute, the official said Wednesday.

An intense manhunt continues for the men.

Christopher A. Privateer, the assistant Niagara County public defender who represented Matt in the Rickerson murder trial, said he has not been contacted by Matt and has no idea where he might be.

“I was out of town and got a text from the DA’s office that he had escaped,” Privateer said. “Then I got several calls from assorted police agencies … and told them I couldn’t think of any information that could assist them. Nowhere in the world would I have any idea where he would be. I told them I hadn’t spoken with Mr. Matt since his sentencing.”

He recalled that Matt was “a very bright person who participated in his defense.” He added that he and Matt’s other assistant public defender, Matthew P. Pynn, had “a good working relationship with Mr. Matt” throughout the trial.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com