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WNY manhunt for fugitives comes up empty

FRIENDSHIP – After a tip about two men walking along railroad tracks led 300 federal, state and local law enforcement officers on the hunt for two escaped killers to this rural Allegany County town over the weekend, a new lead arose that the missing prisoners may still be near the prison.

And this time, there’s forensic evidence.

A law enforcement source close to the investigation told The Buffalo News that Saturday someone reported seeing two men who matched the descriptions of Richard W. Matt and David P. Sweat near Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, from which they escaped two weeks ago.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, “forensic evidence” that Sweat was in the vicinity of the sighting was confirmed.

Law enforcement officials believe that the evidence proves the two men on the U.S. Marshals Service most-wanted list had not gotten far from the prison, at least as of late Saturday.

The manhunt abruptly shifted back to the North Country on Sunday afternoon.

By late Sunday night, various media reports from that part of the state showed an intense police presence.

The Times-Union in Albany reported a person familiar with the investigation said evidence suggested at least one of the convicts had broken into a home in the area around Owls Head, east of Titusville Mountain State Forest, about an hour’s drive west of Dannemora.

The Press-Republican in Plattsburgh reported that military trucks and four-wheelers rolled into nearby Mountain View, population 2,444, with light towers set up at intersections along Routes 26 and 27 and trooper cars at each crossroad.

In Vermont, the Burlington Free Press reported via Twitter that the public information officer for Vermont State Police confirmed its tactical support unit was headed across the border to help New York State Police in Franklin County.

Before the evidence from the North Country surfaced, the possible sighting on the railroad tracks in the Southern Tier seemed to be a promising lead.

It came in at 1:16 p.m. Saturday.

Brandy Thompson, 35, of Maple Grove Road in Friendship, said she reported seeing two men whom she thought matched the description of the escaped prisoners walking along the railroad tracks behind her home, State Police Maj. Michael J. Cerretto said at a news conference Sunday afternoon. Investigators interviewed her, and based on her descriptions of the men, they launched their search.

“We determined she was credible,” he said. “As we have in other areas of the state, we will search under every rock, behind every tree and structure until we are confident that the area is secure. While this is an unconfirmed sighting, the State Police is asking residents who live on this area along the New York-Pennsylvania border to be on alert.”

There were also other leads that made it seem possible that Sweat, 35, and Matt, 48, had somehow made it 300 miles southwest of the prison to the Southern Tier.

Early Sunday, an area resident told The News that she heard about a second possible sighting Sunday morning in a heavily wooded area in Friendship, prompting police to intensify their search there. She said police searched her home and said that they had further evidence that Matt and Sweat were in the area.

Also, Sweat has ties to the area. Sweat’s grandmother lived in Canisteo before her death in 2012.

Sweat’s mother, Pamela Sweat, now lives in Conklin, outside Binghamton, but other relatives may live in and around Canisteo, which is 50 minutes due east of Friendship, where the search has concentrated since Saturday.

For more than 24 hours straight following the tip in Friendship, law enforcement officers trudged through thick woods and went door to door in the rural town.

They scoured barns, backyard sheds, doghouses, treehouses, trailers, even inside a stock car being pulled by a trailer.

Roadblocks were set up throughout the area – two on Interstate 86, three on county Route 20 and on state Routes 275 and 19.

Police concentrated their search in the area of the town around Moss Brook and Blouvett roads.

“We had troopers walking up and down this road all morning,” said Jacob Dunn, who lives on the road.

About a dozen officers with shotguns were seen walking through a field and nearby wooded area Sunday. “They told me they are going search every inch of the ground from (county) Route 31 all the way to Moss Brook, even if they have to come back tomorrow,” Dunn said after talking with an officer.

The area being searched is thousands of acres of mostly forest in the northern area of the town.

John Dunn, Jacob’s father, said several hunters’ tree stands are located in the woods. Many tree stands have propane stoves, and usually are about 10-by-10 feet, he said. But the forest here is dense. “The woods in this area they are searching are so thick that rabbits cannot get through it,” John Dunn added.

But by about 5 p.m. Sunday, it appeared they had given up the search.

The roadblocks were lifted. Television satellite trucks from national and local news outlets outside the State Police barracks in Amity left. The convoy of vehicles that had descended on the this town headed back east, apparently back toward Dannemora.

Fresh troopers from the Buffalo-Niagara region were briefed Sunday morning at the State Police barracks in Amity, about five miles east of Friendship, where a “possible sighting” of the two escaped convicts was reported Saturday.

Several vans filled with corrections officers and troopers pulled up to the barracks at about 2 a.m. Sunday, and hundreds of troopers and other law enforcement officers are searching the area.

Two helicopters are part of the search, one of them Air One from the Erie County Sheriff’s Department.

The state police helicopter was up for two three hours into early Sunday afternoon, but has been sitting on ground since about 1:30 p.m.

After the briefing early Sunday, some troopers set up roadblocks on the area roads. Others headed into the forested areas on ATVs. Canine teams also were seen in the area.

“We can leave no stone unturned,” one trooper said when asked about the search.

A trooper walked out the barracks shortly before 9 a.m. to tell reporters “there was nothing to report.”

Another police source said the timeline for the search is “open ended.”

A news briefing will be held late this morning.

The possible sighting Saturday in Friendship brought state troopers to the small, wooded, hilly township that one local resident said was “a good place to hide.”

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 Saturday searched an area along I-86 and Route 20 in Friendship.

Aviation, canine and special-operation teams are assisting in the search.

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