OWLS HEAD – There’s something ominous about a burly state trooper stopping your car along a darkening county Route 27 leading to this remote Franklin County hamlet.
He pokes his stetson through the cars’ rear quarters and pronounces all clear, but not before summing up Day 20 for the hunt of escaped prisoners Richard W. Matt and David P. Sweat.
“Quiet – real quiet,” the trooper said Thursday evening. “The media probably knows more than we do.”
There’s also something ominous about the scope and breadth of this massive manhunt as authorities comb through some of the most remote expanses of the northern Adirondacks for the two escaped killers.
As Matt and Sweat continue to elude an army of state and local police scouring the North Country woods, they have transformed this otherwise overlooked region into something akin to a military occupation.
Dozens of State Police vehicles lined Route 27 late Thursday with troopers on guard for any movement in an area where they still believe Matt and Sweat are holed up. Dozens of trooper cars were parked outside the kind of hunting camps that police think may have sustained the convicts all these days as an occasional helicopter hovers overhead.
Also along Route 27, approximately every few hundred yards, portable generators were powering searchlights in the hope they will illuminate the fugitives’ movements.
Owls Head, about 35 miles west of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, from which the pair escaped June 6, probably has never received such scrutiny.
It was the second day in which the manhunt focused on a remote section of Franklin County, carried out with roadblocks, checkpoints and sweeps of the densely vegetated, rough terrain.
But a good deal of attention also surrounded a second prison employee who was charged as part of the investigation into the escape.
Gene E. Palmer, 57, of Dannemora, admitted to investigators that he provided paintbrushes, paint, needle-nose pliers and a flat-head screwdriver to Matt and Sweat prior to their escape in exchange for paintings and information about other inmates, according to Palmer’s statement to law enforcement obtained by the New York Times and the Albany Times Union.
Palmer, who has worked at the prison for more than 27 years, faces felony charges of evidence tampering and promoting prison contraband, as well as a misdemeanor count of official misconduct.
He admitted in his statement to the FBI and State Police that he passed frozen hamburger meat to Matt a week before the escape.
The other prison employee previously charged with bringing tools into the prison – tailor shop supervisor Joyce E. Mitchell, 51 – has been accused of sneaking hacksaw blades into the prison inside a package of hamburger meat.
Palmer is accused of burying and burning paintings he received from the inmates, actions he allegedly took after their escape, according to court documents.
“I did not realize at the time that the assistance provided to Matt or Sweat made their escape easier,” Palmer told investigators in a statement Wednesday.
He also admitted allowing Sweat to do some work on electrical boxes in the prison after Matt asked the guard for a favor. The electrical work was to help them cook in their cells, Palmer told investigators.
The New York Times reported that Palmer’s arrest “marks a dramatic widening of the investigation into the breakout, suggesting that the breakout was facilitated by multiple prison workers and that serious lapses at the prison made the escape possible.”
Palmer’s appearance in a Plattsburgh courtroom was put off until Monday, as his attorney announced that he was no longer representing the corrections officer.
About 35 miles west of the courthouse, a force of more than 1,100 law enforcement officers remained focused in Franklin County, State Police said, mainly in the Town of Bellmont and near the Town of Malone. The area, about a 50-mile drive north of Lake Placid, covers roughly 75 square miles, officials had said.
Investigators said they have received more than 2,400 leads since the prisoners escaped, about 200 of them since midday Wednesday.
A resident of the search area told the Watertown Daily Times that people are becoming more cautious.
“Lights on at night, firearms ready, doors locked and bolted,” Nate Blackwood said.
About 25 miles south of the search area, a six-week Catholic summer camp that was to start Sunday on Lower Saranac Lake was canceled due to safety concerns, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported.
The Plattsburgh Press-Republican reported Thursday that the State Inspector General’s Office investigation into the escape has brought more than a dozen investigators to Clinton Correctional Facility.
Matt, 49, who is from the City of Tonawanda, was convicted of killing North Tonawanda businessman William L. Rickerson, 76, and dismembering the body in December 1997.
Sweat, 35, was serving time for killing a Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia, 36, in Kirkwood in July 2002.
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