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Search for escaped killers focuses on inhospitable woods

David Sweat may celebrate his 35th birthday Sunday fending off hunger and overnight cold in densely forested, unfamiliar terrain thick with swarming bugs, poisonous plants, skunks and black bears.

Sweat and his fellow escaped murderer, Richard Matt, 48, are the subjects of a massive manhunt in the North Country that is now entering its ninth day.

The 800 law enforcement agents tracking the two men are concentrating their efforts in the Adirondack woods and fields that surround the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, which housed Matt and Sweat until their brazen escape June 6.

While authorities still have no concrete information on the pair’s whereabouts, the focus by police in and around Dannemora indicates they don’t believe Matt and Sweat have gotten very far in the days since they busted their way out of the state’s largest maximum-security prison.

If that’s the case, Sweat and Matt likely are disoriented, tired, wet and in desperate search of food and shelter in the unforgiving woods near the state’s borders with Canada and Vermont, officials and local residents said.

“I’m sure if they’re out in the elements, they’re not having a good time,” Dan Ladd, an outdoors columnist for the Press-Republican, a Plattsburgh newspaper, told the New York Times. “It can’t be fun.”

Sweat and Matt relied on power tools, scheming ingenuity and good fortune to hack and dig their way out of the imposing Clinton Correctional Facility last weekend. Their breakout wasn’t discovered until early on the morning of June 6, when it prompted one of the largest law enforcement searches in the state’s recent history.

Sweat was imprisoned for killing a Broome County sheriff’s deputy, first shooting Kevin J. Tarsia and then fatally injuring him by driving a car over him. Matt, who is 48, kidnapped, tortured, killed and dismembered William L. Rickerson, 76, a businessman from North Tonawanda who used to employ him.

Authorities, who have received more than 700 tips since the prisoners’ escape, had little news to report Saturday.

The eighth day of the search began under sunshine and blue skies, following a night of heavy rain, as a cordon of some 300 members of the Corrections Department Emergency Response Team – CERT – prepared to canvass yet another patch of woods and wilderness just south of the prison along Route 3.

Spaced in between the team members were State Police troopers and rangers, some carrying rifles. Some residents of Route 3 said they appreciated the sight of the search teams, but said they have taken protective measures of their own.

“We’re sick of being prisoners in our own home,” Shelly St. Denis, 37, told the Times. “I’m not a gun person. But I’ll tell you what: We have a gun.”

After lining up along Route 3, the CERT teams – each member spaced about 20 feet apart – marched down the embankment and into the woods, cracking brush along the way. They are part of the 800 federal, state and local officers stalking Matt and Sweat in a 5-square-mile area east of the prison.

On Saturday morning, the teams along Route 3 were slowly, carefully pushing north, back towards the Clinton Correctional Facility.

Nearby, a group of 10 heavily armed police officers wearing bulletproof vests were seen entering an area adjacent to the Saranac River accompanied by a German shepherd, the New York Daily News reported.

If Matt and Sweat remain in the woods near the prison, they can’t be very comfortable right now, locals told the Times. Rain has fallen steadily. The woods are filled with skunks, porcupines and black bears, not to mention black flies, deer flies and ticks. Then there is the poison oak, poison sumac and hogweed.

They have to be careful if they start a fire for cooking or warmth, because the smoke could give away where they are.

“The dangers at this point, if they are not in a cabin, are hypothermia, dehydration and exhaustion,” Shane Hobel, founder of the Mountain Scout Survival School in Beacon, said.

As for Joyce Mitchell, the civilian prison employee accused of helping the two killers escape, she was moved Saturday from the Clinton County Jail to the Rensselaer County Jail, the Press-Republican reported.

Clinton County Sheriff David Favro said it was best to move Mitchell to lower tensions.

“The (Clinton County) jail is just a few miles from a massive manhunt, and there are a lot of staff with family and friends involved, and we thought it best to have the least amount of distractions,” he told the Plattsburgh newspaper.

Mitchell, who was charged Friday with bringing contraband into the Clinton Correctional Facility, must appear Monday in Clinton County Court.

Late Saturday, State Police officials announced plans to expand the search zone further east of Dannemora and said a portion of Route 374 in nearby Plattsburgh would remain closed.

email: swatson@buffnews.com