MALONE – One down. The other still on the loose.
Richard W. Matt, who was serving 25 years to life for the gruesome torture, murder and dismemberment of a North Tonawanda businessman, was gunned down by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Friday afternoon, 21 days after he and fellow inmate David P. Sweat were discovered missing from a maximum security prison.
As night fell Friday, a furious manhunt was underway for Sweat, a known cop killer. Just after daylight Saturday, big convoys of Corrections Department officers and vehicles moved out to continue the search for Sweat.
Giant flood lights were erected and convoys of State Police vehicles were seen speeding through the back dirt roads of the towns of Malone and Bellmont in clouds of dust, about 40 miles west of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, from which the two men escaped.
Law enforcement officers, standing just feet away from each other, slowly and methodically pushed through the woods, trying to flush Sweat out.
They were keenly aware that Sweat, now 35, killed a law enforcement officer before. He was doing a life sentence for killing a Broome County sheriff’s deputy in 2002 when he escaped with Matt.
At a news conference in Malone Friday night, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo commended law enforcement officers for their work and made it clear that he shed no tears for Matt.
“You never want to see anyone lose their life,” Cuomo said after he was briefed on the day’s events. “But I would remind people that Mr. Matt was an escaped murderer from a state prison. Mr. Matt killed two people that we know about. Mr. Matt killed his boss in a dispute and dismembered him. He fled to Mexico and killed another person in Mexico.”
Matt, who turned 49 Thursday, grew up in the City of Tonawanda and was notorious in his community for his dangerous ways. He is believed to have killed at least two people. In December of 1997, he killed and then dismembered North Tonawanda businessman William Rickerson during a robbery. He then stole his half-brother’s van and drove to Mexico, where he killed another man inside a strip club in Matamoros in February 1998.
Cuomo reminded New Yorkers that Sweat also is a dangerous killer. He recounted how Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia had come upon a theft in progress.
“Mr. Sweat and his accomplices hit the sheriff’s deputy with the car, got out and shot him 22 times and then ran over him,” Cuomo said. “So these are dangerous, dangerous men and that’s why you see law enforcement from across this country arrayed before you today cooperating with one mission: To bring these gentlemen to justice.”
Law enforcement had been homing in on the killers since last weekend, when DNA evidence gathered at a burglarized hunting camp in Owls Head was found to match Matt’s.
Wednesday night, a burglary was reported at a second cabin a few miles north of route 41 in Malone. A screen had been cut and a window was broken.
Then Friday morning, a camp site was found where they believed the men had stayed. They found candy wrappers at the scene.
The big break came at 1:51 p.m. Friday, State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico said at a press conference Friday night.
A man who had been driving a camper reported it had been shot at. He had been driving in the search zone in Malone when he had heard a sound.
He initially thought it was a flat tire. He got out of his vehicle and saw nothing wrong with his tires. But later, when he checked the camper that he had been hauling in a trailer, he saw a bullet hole – and he called the police.
Then, searchers found a cabin that had been broken into and went inside.
They smelled gunpowder. They went outside and saw movement and heard the sound of coughing, D’Amico said.
A ground search in the area began while the Vermont-based U.S. Customs and Border Protection tactical team was helicoptered in.
The tactical team came upon Matt, who was armed with a shot gun.
“They challenged him,” D’Amico said.
Matt did not fire his gun but he didn’t surrender either, and one of the agents shot him. A 20-gauge shotgun was recovered from his body.
The agents who encountered Matt saw a second figure fleeing after Matt was shot, a law enforcement source said. But they could not definitively say it was Sweat.
Sweat’s DNA was found in the cabin that was searched Wednesday, the source said.
But it’s unclear if any evidence linked to Sweat has been found since.
And he remained on the run late Friday night.
Tim LaRocque, a caretaker at one of the original Adirondack great camps, said his wife heard the shots that killed Matt, which he estimated took place within a half mile of his home off Route 30. “It’s happening right on top of me,” said LaRocque, who said helicopters and airplanes have been circling intensely the past few hours. One landed on his driveway for a time.
“They’re pushing Sweat down the hill,” he said in a phone interview.
Friday’s end of the three-week drama – at least for Matt – couldn’t have come any sooner for Jeff and Sue Kieley, who were sitting with four neighbors on a front porch along Moody Road – overlooking Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont far off in the distance.
The Kieleys – and everyone else around Malone and Bellmont – have spent several uneasy nights with shotguns within reach.
“Every gun is loaded in every room,” Sue Kieley said.
Her husband, meanwhile, said he had been watching troopers search the area near their home earlier in the day.
“It was a like a deer drive right on our road,” Jeff Kieley said, referring to the deer-hunting technique of driving animals toward waiting guns.
Then, at 4:37 p.m., their neighbor answered a phone call inside. Matt had been shot.
The relief of the Moody Road neighbors was noticeable – but their anger has yet to subside.
“I’m really angry at Joyce Mitchell,” Sue Kieley said, referring to the prison worker now under arrest for aiding the escape. Yes, they had all been terrified, she said. And her husband lost days of work to stay home with the family, but also because they had been dealing all week with a very scared 17-year-old daughter.
Robert A. Reyome, 63, a retired painter and longtime resident of the Malone area, said people were feeling relief at the day’s turn of events – and the ending of the violent, puzzling story of Richard Matt.
“It won’t be long, hopefully, before they’ve got the other one,” Reyome said of Sweat. “We’ll get a good night’s sleep – finally.”
Reyome said that by his calculations, Matt was killed about two miles from his home, as the “crow flies.”
“It’s too close for us,” he said.
Reyome, who has lived in the area more than 50 years, said the forest around his home is wooded and dense. “If someone was standing 5 foot from you, you’d have trouble seeing them,” Reyome said.
Also Friday, the prison guard charged with giving the escapees tools in exchange for paintings was suspended without pay, the state Department of Corrections announced.
Gene Palmer, 57, who earned $72,644 a year, had been on paid leave while he was under investigation. His pay was suspended Thursday.
Palmer was hired as a correction officer in 1987 and had been working at Clinton Correctional since 1988.
News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious and Staff Reporter Charity Vogel contributed to this report.
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