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In absence of sightings, theories abound on escapees’ whereabouts

DANNEMORA – There is no evidence that the two murderers who escaped a maximum-security prison here earlier this month are in Mexico, chuckling at investigators. There is no evidence that they are in Italy, Pennsylvania or at a hunting camp in northern Quebec. And there is absolutely no evidence that the whole thing – the escape, the hunt, the nine days of combing the woods -– was faked.

Yet, as the pursuit of the two killers – Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 35 – entered its second week without a single confirmed sighting, imaginations filled the void left by a paucity of confirmable facts.

Indeed, in the North Country communities that surround the prison, residents were starved for news and frustrated by the pace of the investigation. And speculations and theories, some more outlandish than others, were passed around with almost every interaction, from bar conversations to post-church chatter.

“It’s the Dannemora mystery,” said Larry Fredette, a former corrections officer. “Maybe we’ll never know.”

Authorities certainly hope that Fredette is wrong; on Sunday, hundreds of officers continued to methodically work their way over acres of overgrown woods and boot-eating swampland hunting for Matt and Sweat, expanding their search area east of the prison. In all, the authorities said that more than 800 officers have covered 8,300 acres.

The two men escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility here late Friday, June 6, or early Saturday, June 7, following an elaborate plan that involved cutting through cell walls, maneuvering down through the prison’s internal infrastructure, crawling through a pipe and exiting out a manhole.

Since they disappeared, the most significant development in the case has been Friday’s arrest of 51-year-old Joyce Mitchell, a civilian worker who aided the inmates by secreting into the prison hacksaw blades, chisels, a punch and a screwdriver bit, according to the criminal complaints.

Andrew Wylie, the Clinton County district attorney, told NBC News that Mitchell had planned on going with the two inmates, driving them to an unnamed location cryptically described as “seven hours away.” But she did not follow through, instead checking herself into a hospital with what was described as a panic attack at about the time of the escape.

“The three of them were going to move on together,” Wylie said. “That was the plan.”

But beyond announcing Mitchell’s arrest, most law enforcement officials have revealed little about what they know, adopting an unstinting just-the-facts approach, saying simply that they believed the inmates were still in the area, still together and still dangerous.

Civilians, however, have not been as restrained, with coffee-klatch what-ifs and convenience-store conjecture as thick as black flies in the Adirondacks. Some residents here believed the men went north – Quebec is only 25 miles away – or south in a getaway car, headed for Pennsylvania, near where Sweat grew up.

Maybe a truck driver picked them up, others speculated, or they simply walked out of town. There is an Indian reservation nearby, one resident noted with a cocked eyebrow, and even state officials said Vermont was a possibility.

Gail Coleman, a bartender at Monopole, a watering hole tucked away on a downtown alley in Plattsburgh, offered another possibility: Europe.

“They’re in Italy,” Coleman said, noting that Matt cannot go back to Mexico, because he had fled there before and ended up in prison after killing someone. This is true: Matt was arrested there in 1998, having stabbed an American during an episode at a bar.

And as for Mitchell, Coleman said, the inmates conned her into working with them and then used another car to escape. “She wasn’t really part of the plan,” she said. “She was part of the distraction.”

Monopole’s crowd had some eclectic theories – one patron had a fake-breakout-to-force-a-prison-closing conspiracy – none of which really surprised Dave McDowell, 30, who said the people in Plattsburgh have never had anything like this to talk about before.

“I think sensational is the word,” McDowell said sitting at the bar Sunday, a cigarette propped on his ear.

He had heard most theories and had a prediction of his own: “I don’t think it will come to a peaceful end,” McDowell said. “I don’t think they are guys that ever give up. They’ve had a taste of freedom for how long now?”

State police said there have been no confirmed sightings, but there have been numerous scares, including one last week near Willsboro, about 35 miles southeast of here, which sparked a daylong hunt, and one in a Philadelphia, by a cabdriver who called police – after taking another fare, of course. Closer to Dannemora, too, residents said they have sighted the men climbing over a stone wall.

But many here seemed unconvinced that the killers were still so close to the prison.

“Why would you stay here?” said Kelly Gow, 34, a hairdresser from nearby Morrisonville, who offered up the gone-to-Pennsylvania theory. “It’s crazy.”

Lyndsey Tolman, however, said that the search outside Dannemora – costly to taxpayers and exhausting for the law enforcement officers conducting it – would lead to their capture. “I feel confident it will come to an end soon,” said Tolman, 22, whose father is a corrections officer.

The fact that heavily armed officers were still lining roadways and peeking in car trunks every few miles made it unlikely the escape would soon fade from headlines or from conversation.

Aron Stevenson, a machinist from Chazy Lake, said that like a lot of people, he had a hard time believing Matt and Sweat were still hiding out within a few miles of the prison. But he conceded that just like everybody else, even investigators, he did not know anything for certain about their whereabouts.

“If anybody had any kind of facts,” Stevenson said, “they’d be in handcuffs by now.”