After 22 stressful and expensive days, law enforcement searchers brought the Dannemora escape to a dramatic conclusion Sunday, shooting cop-killer David P. Sweat as he attempted to elude capture by running back into the woods.
With his escape partner, Richard Matt, already dead, the people of the North Country were able to breathe easier. So could the people of Western New York, who had reason to believe that Matt, a North Tonawanda native, might seek to return to the area to settle a grudge.
That problem was eliminated on Friday, when a Vermont-based U.S. Customs and Border Protection tactical team came upon Matt, who was armed with a shotgun. That confrontation ended with three bullets to Matt’s head. Few will grieve the loss of a man who tortured, killed and dismembered his former boss, North Tonawanda businessman William Rickerson.
Now, the investigation into the escape and manhunt takes center stage. Some answers have already been identified, with the arrests of two workers at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, west of Plattsburgh. A corrections officer, Gene Palmer, and an employee in the prison tailor shop, Joyce E. Mitchell, are accused of crimes associated with the inmates’ dramatic escape on June 6.
But that doesn’t begin to explain how these dangerous men managed to flee this maximum security prison. As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo observed after Sweat’s recapture, as a movie script, the events of the past three weeks would have seemed implausible. For it to have occurred in actuality demands its own intensive search. Were additional prison employees involved, knowingly or not? Does the prison’s physical infrastructure need to be examined to prevent other prisoners from attempting a repeat?
This is the only escape from the prison in its more than 100-year history, so it is entirely possible that this escape was an anomaly that will never be repeated, but are there other weaknesses, either in the prison’s design or in management and operations? And what about the state’s other prisons, including Attica? The fear, distraction and expense produced by this escape require a top-to-bottom look at how the state’s prison system is operated.
Also worth looking at is the manhunt itself. What, if any, were its weaknesses? Should it really have taken 22 days to find these men, less than 50 miles from the prison? Perhaps that’s not so strange, given the nature of the densely forested Adirondack wilderness, but it’s an important question to probe. Perhaps, too, the remoteness of the area helped avoid confrontations between these desperate men and area residents. It certainly helped to wear them down.
Finally, it is also worth reviewing the rules for such an operation. The most important point is that the threat posed by these men was eliminated, but it could have been useful to interrogate Matt about the escape and its aftermath. From his hospital bed Sweat is already providing information.
The manhunt sometimes involved more than 1,000 officers at an estimated cost of $1 million a day. Plainly, the manhunt needed to proceed, but again, it would be worth understanding if different strategies might have been more effective and less costly. Better still, of course, would have been to prevent the escape in the first place.
Still, the bottom line is that after 22 exhausting days, the manhunt has ended in a way that protected the public, thanks to the work of the State Police, Customs and Border Protection and other agencies and individuals involved in the search. They deserve the public’s profound thanks.