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People who knew Richard Matt describe his Jekyll-and-Hyde past, including two suicide attempts

Richard W. Matt scammed, tortured and killed people.

He is also a tortured soul himself, a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, according to a retired cop who knows the escaped convict well.

Matt has attempted suicide at least twice, said David F. Bentley, a retired City of Tonawanda police captain who spent nearly two decades trying unsuccessfully to rehabilitate Matt.

Bentley said he and others saved Matt’s life after both suicide attempts.

“I believe he is bipolar. … He had big mood swings,” Bentley recalled in a recent interview with The Buffalo News. “He would do bad things to people. Then he would go into a depression, and sometimes, he would hurt himself.”

Now, he and a fellow convict, David Sweat, are the subjects of one of the biggest manhunts in New York State history after escaping from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora two weeks ago.

The search area expanded Saturday as police converged in the Southern Tier after a possible sighting in Allegany County.

The possible sighting in Friendship resulted in State Police road blocks on Interstate 86, helicopters hovering over homes and fields in Friendship and troopers and K-9 units searching the area.

Matt first tried suicide when he was about 20, said Bentley, who had befriended Matt when Matt was a teen.

Bentley went to Hill Street after receiving a call that the young man was going to harm himself.

“I went into the place, and I found blood smeared on the walls, going up three flights of stairs toward his apartment,” Bentley said. “I went into the apartment, and he had this big knife in his hand. He had inflicted about 20 cuts up and down both arms. The blood was spewing into this hollowed-out pillow he had.”

About four years later, Bentley again received a tip that Matt was suicidal. He and other officers went to an address on Delaware Street and found Matt sitting in a car in the garage, nearly dead from carbon monoxide fumes.

“He had plugged up the exhaust pipe, started the car and was trying to kill himself,” Bentley said.

In both cases, Matt was rushed to the hospital by ambulance and was lucky to survive.

Some national news stories have portrayed Matt, who turns 49 next week, as a brilliant, swashbuckling character who reportedly has a genius IQ, swept women off their feet, painted portraits of historic figures and Hollywood stars, and made fools of state prison officials with an ingenious escape.

But many local officers who investigated and arrested Matt in the past consider him a heartless, devious criminal.

They point to the torture, killing and dismemberment of William Rickerson, an elderly businessman who had tried to help Matt by giving him a job.

“Richard Matt is the most cunning, evil, sadistic person I ever investigated in 38 years of police work,” said retired North Tonawanda Detective Chief Gabe DiBernardo, whose investigation resulted in the murder conviction against Matt.

“It was as cruel and vicious a crime as you could imagine,” DiBernardo said.

Bentley said he does not disagree with those who consider Matt’s crimes heartless and vicious. At this point, he feels that Matt has gone “totally stone-cold bad” and is capable of any kind of violence.

But over the years, Bentley said, he also saw signs of goodness in Matt.

“I hate to say this about a guy who has killed people, but he did have a kind side to him,” Bentley said.

In many instances, he said, Matt showed compassion toward others, and in just as many other instances, he brutally hurt people.

“It’s almost like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality,” Bentley said.

Bentley said he will never forget his first encounter with Matt in 1979.

He was in uniform, riding his police motorcycle on Niagara Street. An angry and unruly kid was looking out of the rear window of the car in front of the motorcycle cop.

“He was in the back seat, glaring at me out the back window, and giving me the finger with both hands,” Bentley, now 67, recalled in the interview. “I ordered the car to pull over so I could have a talk with him.”

The kid was Matt, just 13 years old but already in trouble with the law. His foster mother was driving him to a meeting with a youth probation officer.

After that first meeting in 1979, Bentley befriended Matt. He sometimes used Matt as an informant and tried – without success – to point the youngster toward a law-abiding life. He even allowed Matt to live with his family for a brief time while Matt was in his teens.

“That first day, I met with him after he met with his probation officer. I talked to him a long time,” Bentley said. “I found out he was abandoned by his birth parents and that there were problems with alcoholism in his family. I could relate to a lot of that from my own life.”

Bentley said Matt told him he barely had any contact with his birth father, who was also named Richard Matt and also had numerous run-ins with the law.

Matt told the detective about the first time he met his father.

“He told me he was 18 and was in the [Erie County] holding center with a group of other prisoners, and a deputy was calling out names. The deputy called out ‘Richard Matt,’ and Matt and this older guy walked up to the deputy. Two Richard Matts.

“He looked at the other guy and realized this was his father. His said his father barely acknowledged him. He didn’t give a damn about him.”

Bentley described Matt as a very intelligent and solidly built young man who had great potential but could never stay away from trouble. Matt even got a Marines insignia tattooed onto his right shoulder.

“But he never served with the Marines,” Bentley said. “He once told me that the tattoo was good for him to have in prison. People thought he had served with Special Forces and were kind of intimidated by him.”

One person who knew Matt well as he grew up is Gregory Durandetto, who still lives in the City of Tonawanda. They met at a summer vacation Bible school when they were both 8 years old. The Richard Matt that Durandetto knew was a goofy, fun-loving youngster with bravado.

Durandetto said that bravado was Matt’s way of making up for a childhood in foster care with few material possessions. As they grew older, Matt’s bravado turned criminal.

In those days, when Matt broke the law, it was one petty crime after another, Durandetto said.

“I had this 1968 Dodge Charger, and he wanted to impress me,” Durandetto recalled. “One day, he pulls up outside the high school and says, ‘Get in my Charger.’

“I look at the car and say, ‘Hey, Rick, it’s a Challenger.’

“He says, ‘You mean I stole the wrong car?’ ”

Disappointed that he had not stolen a Charger, Matt returned it, his friend said.

Another time, the friend recalled, Matt entered a shoe store on Tonawanda’s Main Street and stole dozens of pairs of shoes. When he discovered some did not fit, he placed the shoes on the front lawn outside Tonawanda City Hall.

By the late 1980s, Durandetto said he lost contact with Matt, and he has not seen his boyhood friend in many years.

“He went to jail, and I went in a different direction,” said Durandetto, an auto plant worker.

When Durandetto heard that a key element of Matt’s prison escape was the seduction and manipulation a female employee into helping him and Sweat, he was not surprised.

Even as a teenager, Matt had an amazing way with women, Durandetto said.

“He was always a ladies man. He knew how to talk, and he was a good-looking guy. We’d go out with him and buy the drinks, and he’d introduce us to these beautiful girls. He was bold and unafraid to walk up to girls at the bars,” Durandetto said.

He also remembered that Matt escaped from another prison – the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden – in June 1986.

At that time, Matt was just 19 years old, serving a one-year term for assault. Late on a Sunday night, Matt fled when a guard accidentally touched a button that electronically opened his cell door. After that, Matt climbed over a 9-foot tall brick and metal wall, topped with razor wire. Authorities said he then scaled a wire gate that was 8 feet tall.

“He told me he caught a freight train to Buffalo and then called someone for a ride,” Durandetto said.

Badly cut and bleeding from the razor wire, Matt moved on to his hometown, reportedly hiding out with friends and relatives.

Four days later, he was caught at a relative’s City of Tonawanda home. Armed with an ax handle, Matt surrendered to officers from two departments who surrounded the home. No one was harmed.

“We went in and talked to him about 10 minutes while he stood about six feet away, waving the ax handle at us,” said Detective Sgt. Charles Tirone of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office after Matt was arrested.

Matt also escaped from a secure facility at least one other time, according to Bentley.

“I remember that, when he was a teenager, he escaped from a youth detention facility in Allegany County … he rode away on a stolen horse,” Bentley said.

Matt was safely taken into custody after that incident, too, Bentley said.

But that was a long time ago, and Bentley and other police officials are not so sure that Matt will be captured before he hurts someone.

“He is absolutely and unequivocally capable of anything,” Bentley said. “At this point in his life, it appears to me that he has gone totally stone-cold bad.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com and lmichel@buffnews.com