FRIENDSHIP – Police were searching an area in Allegany County on Saturday for two prison escapees – Richard Matt and David Sweat – after a possible sighting, a State Police spokesman said.
The possible sighting took place in Friendship, though the spokesman did not have any further details on a specific location.
“We’re checking it out,” spokesman Beau Duffy said.
Bolivar Councilman Budd Wittenburg said that an area they were searching on Jordan Hill Road was “a good place to hide.” He noted that some of the hunting cabins in the search area are abandoned or unoccupied.
“It’s very hilly down this way, very rural. There are homes and off-roads that are not paved,” Wittenburg said. “It would be a great place to hide. There are hunting cabins up there and some homes. It would be a good place to find cover if you were looking for it.”
As the search moved to Maple Grove Road later in the day, area residents were on heightened alert, but some doubted it was a credible sighting.
“I highly doubt that they are here,” said Maple Grove resident James Bump. “If they got this far, why didn’t they just keep going? They must have been in a car. They didn’t walk 300 miles.”
But he and other neighbors aren’t taking any precautions.
“I’m armed inside the house here,” Bump said.
State Police were “investigating the possible sighting of two men in Allegany County who may fit the description of Clinton Correctional Facility escapees David Sweat and Richard Matt.”
On Saturday afternoon, a witness spotted two men along a railroad line that runs along Route 20 in the Town of Friendship, according to State Police.
State Police, U.S. Marshals, officers from the Department of Environmental Conservation, State Parks Police, Allegany County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies searched an area along I-86 and Route 20 in Friendship.
Aviation, canine and special-operation teams assisted in the search for Sweat, 35, and Matt, 48. The convicted killers escaped two weeks ago from the state’s Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, a small town roughly 362 miles northeast of Buffalo.
While calling it “an unconfirmed sighting” in a release Saturday evening, State Police asked residents who live in the area along the New York-Pennsylvania border to be on alert.
Duffy told the New York Times that State Police considered it to be “a significant sighting.”
The Times reported that a woman driving in the area on Saturday afternoon saw two men emerge from woods near railroad tracks. One went back into the woods, while the other pulled a hooded sweatshirt over his head, according to the newspaper.
The woman’s description of one man’s reddish hair fits a description of Sweat, according to the Times.
If the men are spotted, residents are asked to call 911 immediately and should not approach them. Both are considered dangerous.
Late Saturday night, flashing lights and dozens of people in gray trooper uniforms were about all that moved in the otherwise deserted town of 2,000 people – closed to all but local residents. In front of the 19th-century Friendship Ambulance Squad building, a half-dozen or so volunteers sat on chairs watching their town suddenly become a beehive of law enforcement and media activity.
“It’s been tense,” said Alan Sweet, a volunteer with the squad.
“Nervous,” added Tim Hall of Friendship, a squad captain.
Earlier in the day, both men marched in the Dairy Festival in nearby Cuba, where word began to spread that police were concentrating on their town in the search for Matt and Sweat.
“ ‘There’s some stuff going on in your town,’ they were telling us,” Sweet said, adding that’s when he and others returned to Friendship, where they’ve been hunkered down since.
As late as 11 p.m., a State Police helicopter hovered as troopers continued to block traffic at major intersections.
Wittenburg’s home in Bolivar is 10 miles east of the search area in Friendship, but he said he had been getting calls from friends telling him that troopers were out checking cars in and out of Friendship on Saturday morning and by 2 p.m., Friendship was locked down. Bolivar was not affected, Wittenburg said.
Maple Grove resident Ed Baumgardner said police Saturday afternoon had been across the street searching in the gravel pit.
“They’re gone now,” Baumgardner said before 7 p.m.
But residents could hear and see helicopters circling. Two helicopters hovered over Friendship as daylight began to fade around 8 p.m.
State and local police, armed with automatic weapons, stood outside police vehicles on Interstate 86.
State Police set up a roadblock on I-86, resulting in traffic backups in both directions. The westbound backup extended about a half mile about two miles east of Friendship. The eastbound backup began two miles west of the Belmont-Wellsville exit.
Maple Grove resident Carl Miller called all of the activity irritating.
Miller said he left his house earlier in the day, unaware of the incident, and he was stopped at three checkpoints within a two-mile drive across Friendship.
Miller said people sitting outside with guns may be overreacting, but he agreed there was a heightened level of security.
“I have a conceal-carry permit. I don’t usually have my gun out, but it’s out today,” he said.
He said troopers he spoke to outside his house in the afternoon did not report a sighting, but indicated they were following up on every lead.
State Police earlier reported a possible sighting of the two fugitives in Steuben County a week earlier. Witnesses reported seeing two men walking near the Gang Mills rail yard on June 13. Two men fitting the same description also were seen the following day walking along County Route 115 in Lindley, heading south.