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1,200 police search 22 square miles for 1 man

MALONE – At least 1,200 police are searching 22 square miles of forest for one desperate man.

Where is David Sweat?

Authorities thought they were close Friday afternoon, after killing his fellow escapee, Richard Matt, in a confrontation a few miles south of here. But since then, Sweat has managed to elude the search of thick forests,

Meanwhile, Matt’s body was taken to Albany Medical Center, where an autopsy was performed, a state police spokesman said Saturday. No results are yet available.

The search force scouring the woods established a “perimeter” around a 22-square mile area near Lake Titus, and is slowly contracting.

The dense forest presents a daunting challenge, as does rain predicted for Saturday night and Sunday,

“The terrain is very rough and it’s very densely wooded,” said Beau Duffy, a state police spokesman,

Asked how long the search continue, Duffy answered: “Until we catch him.”

“For the foreseeable future, we will either find him in that area or decide he’s not there,” Duffy said, adding there is no contemplation of leaving the Malone area search now.

He also said morale remains high among the searchers.

“I hear them all the time say they won’t stop until they find him,” he said. “That’s their attitude.”

The northern Adirondacks continued to resemble an armed camp Saturday as hundreds of police renewed their search just south of this village.

Allen Benware, who lives on County Route 41 in the search area, spoke to The Buffalo News moments after a police tactical team went through his property and into the woods.

“We’ve been barricaded here for a couple of days,’’ he said Saturday.

He and his neighbors were restricted even further, told they would not be allowed to return through the road block if they left home.

His wife, however, was allowed back with the groceries.

For the most part, the police have been friendly, he said, and Benware said he has told them what he knows about the lay of the land near his home.

Benware said he goes outside to tend to his horses and do other chores. He keeps his floodlights on at night and the dog inside. Police cars lined the road Friday night.

On Saturday he heard an airplane circling overhead.

Participating agencies besides State Police include corrections officers, Department of Environmental Conservation officers, U.S. Marshall’s personnel, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Plattsburgh Police Department, and tactical squads from the sheriff’s offices in Clinton, Franklin and Washington counties.

While residents around Lake Titus remain stranded in near-“lockdown” mode, a police source told The News that a firm perimeter remains in the area where Matt was shot and killed Friday afternoon and that the searchers are trying to flush Sweat out.

It is possible that Sweat may have gotten past State Route 30, a north-south road, soon after Matt was killed, but police are searching in that area, which is inside a tight perimeter.

Sweat is believed to have been with Matt when Matt was killed holding a shotgun, but no one saw the second escapee, the source said. They did, however, see movement in the brush, the source said, and that was believed to be Sweat.

DNA from both escapees was found in a cabin near Malone on Wednesday.

Police put up search lights mounted on portable generators every few hundred yards around roads in the search area Friday night. The weather overnight was clear and dry, as it was Saturday morning, but heavy rains are forecast for Saturday night.

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo briefed reporters on the search for Sweat on Friday night in Malone, he said: “We have no reason to believe that Mr. Sweat was not with Mr. Matt. But we don’t have any confirming evidence that he was either.”

Police believe that Sweat is also armed. That means people living on and around Lake Titus, about 12 miles south of Malone, remain confined to their properties as police shrink the “perimeter” established around where Matt was killed.

“It’s nerve-racking right now. But it also makes us feel safer knowing that the police are so close,’’ said Frances Anderson, who lives on State Route 30 within the roadblock, in the area being searched most intensely Saturday.

Police have walked through her property for access to some of the wooded tracts where killer Sweat might be hiding.

Anderson said that when she saw spotlights being moved in Friday night, she thought police were close to finding him, and she was mildly disappointed to learn at daybreak that he remained at large. But she noted that one man can find many places to hide in the dense Adirondacks woods.

Though Sweat has not been seen since he and Matt broke out of Dannemora three weeks ago, State Police leading the search say they have no reason to believe he is not still hiding in the search area. As a result, hundreds of federal, state and local police remain a visible and powerful presence throughout the towns of Malone and Duane on Saturday.

While roadblocks allowed vehicles to pass through checkpoints as recently as Friday, officials now have completely sealed the search area. Those seeking to enter the area are politely but firmly asked to turn around.

That caused one Adirondack Trailways bus driver passing through Malone on Saturday to ask the desk clerk at a Route 11 motel how he could possibly continue his route to Saranac Lake and eventually to Albany. With main roads few and far between in the northern mountains, the driver seemed resolved to arriving late in Albany by a still-unknown circuitous route Saturday.

Still, life goes on in this village on the northern edge of the Adirondack Park, where downtown was bustling Saturday morning and golfers were playing the lush course at the Malone Country Club on the banks of the Salmon River.

Even the few people living in the wooded areas south of the village and outside the search zone appeared to be carrying on normally, while their neighbors around Lake Titus faced a second day of staying put, and those trying to reach the area were denied access.

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Reporter Matt Spina contributed to this story.