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Matt shot dead by police; manhunt now on for Sweat

MALONE – One down. The other is still on the loose.

Richard Matt, who was serving 25 years to life for the torture and murder 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 Sweat were discovered missing from a maximum security prison.

Now, a furious manhunt is underway for Sweat, a known cop killer.

All Friday evening, convoys of State Police vehicles were seen speeding through the back, dirt roads of the towns of Malone and Bellmont in clouds of dust.

At one point, it appeared they were all converging on the Lake Titus area, near the intersection of NY Route 30 and County Route 41. Route 30 is a major north-south artery in the Adirondacks, about 40 miles west of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.

K-9 units were believed to have had a strong track on the escapee, and law enforcement officers, standing just feet away from each other, were slowly and methodically pushing through the woods, trying flush Sweat out, the source said.

They proceeded cautiously, keenly aware that Sweat has killed a law enforcement officer before. He was doing a life sentence for killing a Broome County sheriff’s deputy in 2002. He shot Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia 22 times and left his body in a park.

“You take every precaution because you know they have nothing to fear,” the source said.

Sweat was with Matt when the shootout went down about 40 miles away from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. Matt was killed immediately, but Sweat managed to run away, a law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation told The Buffalo News.

Before sunset, police were checking out a possible sighting of Sweat about two miles from where Matt was shot.

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.

LaRocque said Sweat appears to have headed up a hill on the east side of Route 30 south of Lake Titus. He said he patrols the property, which includes that hill, and that Sweat will have a hard time escaping police. “There’s only three ways to come down that hill because there’s a swamp on either end. It’s rugged terrain, and you can’t travel at night in these woods. I can’t even do it,” LaRocque said.

Friday’s end of the three-week drama – at least for Matt – couldn’t have come 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 one 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,” said Reyome of David Sweat, who was still on the run on Friday evening.

“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 said the intensive presence of media and law enforcement in the area is different from what Malone is usually like.

This evening, residents there were feeling a certain lifting of concern and stress.

“They’re excited,” said Reyome, a resident of Route 41 in Malone. “Everybody in the area has been nervous. We’re happy that it’s over.”

But what of Sweat, who was still not accounted for, hours after Matt had been killed?

“He’ll never make it,” Reyome said.

Reyome said he had confidence that the events would soon be over, and he planned to go on a camping trip this weekend, as scheduled.

“Tomorrow we’re going camping,” he said. “We’ll be safe.”

Law enforcement officers got the break they were waiting for Friday afternoon, a source told The News, when state troopers responded to the scene of a possible burglary at a seasonal camp in Malone, which are common throughout the rugged, mountainous area of Franklin County. The cabin was located on the shoulder of a road near the woodline.

A “quick response team” was called in as well as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection tactical team.

An agent with the Vermont-based border protection team confronted Matt and Sweat and opened fire. It’s not clear if the escapees fired at police, but they were believed to be armed.

An official statement from State Police said that at 3:45 p.m., “a member of law enforcement spotted a man in a wooded area in the Town of Malone.”

It continued: “A member of law enforcement shot and killed a man believed to be Clinton Correctional Facility escapee Richard Matt. A positive identification is still pending.”

Two hours after the shootout, Sweat was still on the loose, but law enforcement were forming a net around where he is believed to be hiding.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was on his way to the area Friday evening.

News that Matt had been killed brought relief to a retired North Tonawanda lawman.

“Oh, my gosh. If this is true, I’m elated. I’m relieved,” said Gabe DiBernardo, the retired detective chief who headed the investigation that led to Matt’s imprisonment for murder.

“I have been worried for the public, for the police and for people here in the Buffalo area who have had trouble with Matt and have been threatened by him in the past. I have been worried that he would come back and do harm to people that testified against him … I’ve been worried that some poor citizen would be hurt by this guy.”

DiBernardo said he is watching developments closely and praying that no police officers were hurt in the confrontation with Matt.

DiBernardo and his detectives were the investigators who cracked the case and charged Matt after the December 1997 kidnapping, torture, robbery and murder of Matt’s former boss, William Rickerson, 76, of North Tonawanda.

Where they were headed

Earlier Friday, investigators on the hunt for the two escaped killers who broke out of the prison on June 6 believed Matt and Sweat were trying to make it across the Canadian border.

“We have no reason to believe they’re in Canada yet,” Maj. Charles Guess of the State Police said at a news conference at midday Friday. Authorities in New York working with Canadian law enforcement “are standing up a picket line using all of their resources to ensure they do not cross the border.”

The more than 1,100 federal, state and local police involved in the search were targeting two areas – the area of north of the Village of Malone as well as around the Town of Bellmont.

Evidence has been gathered that led authorities to believe the killers were making their way north.

Matt and Sweat likely moved at night, Guess said. The two men stole supplies from the seasonal cabins in the area, the major said.

“They have some basic supplies,” Guess said.

Guess said the terrain they were in was rugged and that waves of rain made conditions difficult.

“It’s as much a challenge to the inmates as it has been to the law enforcement,” Guess said.

Once again, DNA provided leads for the searchers. Traces of DNA belonging to the escapees were found at two sites – one in a cabin in the Malone area and one at an outdoor location, State Police spokesman Beau Duffy told reporters after the major’s news conference.

He emphasized that police are not sure if the two escapees are together or if the DNA evidence can be linked to only one man.

“Preliminary results are conclusive enough that they were there,” he said.

The spokesman said the heavily forested terrain of the northern Adirondacks still presents challenges to the search parties, since it is still extremely rugged before flattening out toward the St. Lawrence River. And though the search area has been relocated, he said it still involves cast expanses of forest, mountains, and swamps.

“It’s pretty spread out,” he said.

Duffy also said there is no evidence either Matt or Sweat received outside assistance.

The Plattsburgh Press-Republican reported Friday that DNA evidence in two locations in Malone.

At the Malone cabin, the paper said there were “signs of intrusion.” It wasn’t clear if the second Malone site was also a cabin.

The paper reported that an intense search took place Thursday night along Low Road in the hamlet of Wippleville, which is in the southern part of Malone. That area is about eight miles north of Owls Head, where authorities last week found DNA evidence in another cabin confirming that Matt and Sweat had been there. Additionally, a witness reported seeing a man fleeing from that seasonal hunting cabin last Saturday.

Dannemora, Owls Head and Malone are connected by a recreational ATV trail.

At about 7 a.m. Friday, residents in Malone and Constable, which is between Malone and the Canadian border, received robo-calls alerting them to increased police presence, the newspaper said.

Also Friday, the prison guard charged with giving escaped killers Matt and Sweat tools in exchange for paintings was suspended without pay, the state Department of Corrections announced.

Gene Palmer, 57, earned $72,644 a year.

He 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.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

and mbecker@buffnews.com