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Officer arrested in prison escape is accused of bringing tools into facility

PLATTSBURGH – A corrections officer recently placed on administrative leave after the escape of two convicted killers from a maximum-security prison in northern New York was charged Wednesday with bringing a screwdriver and pliers into the facility and trying to conceal his relationship with the inmates, according to a criminal complaint.

Gene Palmer, the officer, is accused of giving a flat-head screwdriver and needle-nose pliers to at least one inmate in Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora and of burning and burying paintings he received from Richard W. Matt and David Sweat, the inmates who escaped from the prison in early June.

Officials have also said that Palmer, 57, carried a package of hamburger meat concealing tools into the cellblock without placing it through a metal detector. That incident is not included in the criminal complaint. A second prison employee, Joyce E. Mitchell, 51, a supervisor in the prison’s tailor shop who has also been charged in connection with the escape, is accused of bringing the package to the prison.

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Palmer’s arrest came as law enforcement officers searched 75 square miles of densely forested terrain in Franklin County in pursuit of the escaped murderers. The New York State Police said Wednesday that investigators were working on the assumption that the pair had a firearm.

Palmer was arraigned in Plattsburgh Town Court on Wednesday on charges of promoting prison contraband, two counts of tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct.

Andrew D. Brockway, Palmer’s lawyer, told reporters after his client’s arrest that Palmer had been cooperating with investigators and did not know that tools were hidden in the meat he carried into the cellblock. Palmer, he said, plans to plead not guilty. He made bail and was released from jail early Thursday, and was expected to appear in court again Thursday afternoon.

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The escape has raised serious questions about security at the prison. Shortly after Sweat and Matt cut through their cell walls and emerged from a manhole near the prison, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said, “I’d be shocked if a correction guard was involved in this.” He has since ordered the state inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, to investigate all aspects of the inmates’ escape.

The complaint contends that Palmer brought the tools into the prison on four separate occasions between November 2014 and early June. The screwdriver and pliers, considered “dangerous contraband,” were delivered to an unidentified inmate “in return” for paintings given to him by Sweat and Matt, the complaint says.

After the escape, Palmer burned a number of the paintings in a fire pit at his home. He also tried to bury some of the paintings in a wooded area in Dannemora.

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RELATED: Local official placed under 24-hour watch because of concerns about Richard Matt

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Upward of 1,000 law enforcement officers swarmed remote areas around a hunting cabin near Owls Head, New York, where the police believe the inmates were as recently as Saturday morning, Maj. Charles E. Guess said at a news conference Wednesday. He said the inmates would most likely have found weapons there.

The cabin contained items with DNA matching that of the two killers, Matt, who turns 49 on Thursday, and Sweat, 35, and Guess said a man arriving there reported seeing “someone fleeing into the woods.”

Investigators had no conclusive evidence that the inmates took a shotgun from the cabin but were operating as if they were armed, in part because almost every hunting cabin in the North Country had at least one weapon, Guess said.