All hell broke loose in the high-security Clinton Correctional Facility the morning of June 6, 2015.
During a 5:30 a.m. bed check, corrections officers discovered that Richard W. Matt and cop killer David P. Sweat had escaped.
Matt and Sweat had squirmed their way to freedom through a series of underground tunnels that had taken them months to build. Once outside the prison, they vanished into the Adirondack Mountains. It was the first breakout in more than a century at the maximum-security facility.
While hundreds of police officers – eventually, more than 1,300 – searched every corner of the state for the two fugitives, police paid especially close attention to a small home on University Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda.
That was where Jamie Scalise, Matt’s daughter, lived with her husband, Stephen, and their 3-year-old daughter.
Jamie was amazed to learn that her father was able to break out.
She knew he hated prisons, after having spent more than half his life behind bars. And his requests for a reduced sentence – he was doing 25 to life – had been turned down several times.
Jamie knew her father also had considered suicide.
“I can do the 25 years, but I can’t do life. … I need to have some hope,” he once told her.
There was only one other way out.
“If I ever lost all my appeals, I’d have to escape,” Matt had told his daughter during one of her visits with him at prison in Dannemora.
Jamie thought that her father was just boasting.
She learned that day in June that he was not just bragging.
“I never took it seriously when he told me that he might escape someday,” Jamie said. “He would always tell me weird things that would make me smile, but I never thought it was going to happen.”
When corrections officers searched Matt’s cell after the prison break, they found a crude dummy occupying his cot, and a couple of notes he had scrawled.
“You left me no choice but to grow old & die here,” Matt wrote. “I had to do something! 6-5-15.”
Also in the cell was a portrait that Matt had painted of actor James Gandolfini, the late star of "The Sopranos" TV show. The prisoner had written on it: “TIME TO GO KID! 6-5-15.”
Jamie was in the Lewiston home of her best friend that Saturday in June 2015, when she got word of her father’s escape.
A hairstylist, she was styling the hair of several friends as they got ready to serve as bridesmaids at the wedding later that day of Jamie’s close friend. Jamie also was standing up in the wedding.
She got a cellphone call from her mother, Lucille Longo.
“Rick has escaped,” Longo said. “Lock your doors!”
Her husband, Stephen Scalise, who ran his own contracting company, received a similar phone call that morning after the prison break made news reports. As he drove home with his daughter after running some errands, he spotted a police helicopter hovering overhead and saw several police vehicles parked near his home in a quiet, middle class neighborhood. He had just stepped into his kitchen when two plainclothes police officers – with a large contingent of SWAT team officers close behind – came to the door.
“Hi, how are you?” Scalise said.
“Who are you?” one officer responded.
“I live here. Who are you? “ he said.
Police explained why they were there and asked for permission to search the two-bedroom home for any evidence that could possibly lead them to Matt.
Scalise said it was OK.
“Fifteen police officers, including guys in FBI and U.S. Marshals vests, searched every inch of our home,” he recalled. “They looked under sinks, in every cabinet. They even looked in the silverware drawer.”
Over the next two days, police also searched the homes of other members of Jamie’s family, including her uncle, Joseph Ciffa. A dozen officers wearing bulletproof vests and other gear scoured his home in the City of Tonawanda.
And State Police warned local police officers – including North Tonawanda detectives who arrested Matt for the murder of businessman William Rickerson in 1997 – to be on their guard, in case Matt came to town seeking revenge. The judge who sentenced Matt was placed under constant police watch.
“Richard Matt was on my mind the entire time he was on the loose,” Gabriel DiBernardo recalled.
DiBernardo, at 79, was retired as chief of detectives with the North Tonawanda Police. He had led the probe that ended with Matt’s imprisonment for the Rickerson murder.
David Bentley, a retired City of Tonawanda detective who knew Matt better than any cop, began carrying his gun when he heard Matt had escaped. He said Matt had sent him a threatening letter after his murder conviction.
Daughter and police
Jamie and her husband told police that they had not heard from Matt since his escape. They also agreed to cooperate with investigators. But deep inside, Jamie hoped her father would get away unscathed. She pictured him on an exotic beach somewhere.
“If I ever do escape, I’ll never come to see you,” he once told her. “The police would be coming to you, looking for me.”
She wasn’t too surprised when she learned that Matt had romanced a prison employee – Joyce Mitchell, his sewing teacher – and that Mitchell had provided him with hacksaw blades, chisels and other tools that he and Sweat used to build their tunnel.
“He was a handsome man who always, all his life, had a way with the ladies,” Jamie said. “He knew how to influence people in prison. He told us he had a gang in there, with about 20 guys in it. Guys who had each others’ backs. This was a very tough prison, but my father found ways to sell cigarettes, meats, steaks and pornography to other prisoners. When I’d go to see him, it seemed like everybody, including the guards and employees, liked him.”
After styling the bridesmaids' hair that Saturday, Jamie and her husband attended her friend’s wedding and reception.
“We danced the night away, and had a great time, but it was also an uncomfortable day,” she recalled.
“Here I was pregnant, standing up in my best friend’s wedding, and my father had broken out of prison. I knew people at the reception were aware of what was happening with my father.
“But I didn’t want to take any attention away from Bethany on her special day,” she said of the bride.
She also worried about her father’s safety and prayed that he would not hurt anyone who might cross his path or try to arrest him.
“What I was really hoping,” she recalled, “is that he wouldn’t hurt anyone and that he would just disappear and be safe.”
Although Matt had abandoned her for most of her childhood, she had grown to love him in recent years. She and her husband on several occasions had driven seven hours to visit Matt in the Clinton prison.
During one of those visits, Matt burst into tears when they introduced him to his granddaughter.
On another visit, her father lifted his shirt and showed her cigarette burns, a gunshot wound and slash wounds he said he suffered during the nine years he spent in a Mexican prison.
“I loved him, but that doesn’t mean I ever condoned any of the crimes he committed,” Jamie said. “I know he loved me, and I loved him. That doesn’t mean I would ever justify, in any way, the things he had done to people.”
After the reception, she learned that three undercover officers had been there, watching her every move.
On the run
During the 21 days Matt was on the run, police officers were Jamie’s constant companions. They watched her home all day and during the night while her family slept.
“When I’d go to Tops Market or anywhere else, my instructions were to tell the officers where I was going,” she said. “Two or three police cars would be following me.”
Matt never tried to reach out to her – by phone, letters, email or any other means – during those three weeks on the run. But she did receive a letter from him, mailed from the prison, that arrived two days after the breakout. The letter made no mention of his intent to escape.
“It was written as though he knew that might be the last time he ever would communicate with me,” she said.
On June 26, 2015, Jamie got the news that she dreaded.
She was giving one of her clients a haircut when her cousin asked her to come into another room so she could tell her something.
“They got him,” the cousin said.
“Alive?” Jamie asked.
“No,” her cousin said.
A federal customs officer had shot and killed her father near a camping area in Malone, not far from Canada and just 40 miles from the prison.
Matt was carrying a stolen shotgun, police said. They had tracked him shortly after he fired a gunshot that struck a camping vehicle that had driven past him. Police believe Matt wanted to hijack the vehicle.
“I sat down at a table, and said a prayer. Then I finished cutting my client’s hair and canceled the rest of my appointments for that day,” she said.
Several emotions raced through Jamie. She was heartbroken that her father was dead, relieved that he had not harmed anyone else, and baffled to learn that he had shot at a camping vehicle just before he was killed.
“That still puzzles me to this day, why he would shoot at that camper,” Jamie said. “That was sloppy and out of character for him. I can only think he must have been desperate.”
Police believed Matt was drunk and ill – possibly from drinking bad water or spoiled food – when the federal agent shot him.
Jamie’s account of her interactions with police after the breakout was verified by Major Steven Nigrelli of Troop A in Batavia. Nigrelli was the trooper who coordinated the manhunt throughout Western New York.
“She was in a difficult position. You have to realize, it was her dad. At the same time, the man was an escaped murderer,” Nigrelli said. “She was thrust into the middle of this situation through no fault of her own. Her response was to do her civic duty. She was helpful, cooperative and forthright with us the entire time.”
Nigrelli confirmed that as many as a dozen people – including old friends and criminal associates of Matt’s, and people in the criminal justice system who had a role in his imprisonment – were under police surveillance at various times.
Nigrelli said he had no suspicions that Jamie would try to help her father.
“But we thought it was possible he would try to see her,” he said.
She learned later that he had listed her as next of kin. So all the possessions in his prison cell were sent to her.
Jamie knew that her father had a talent for painting portraits. She was amazed at the dozens of portraits he left behind – including of Hollywood stars and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Somehow, a man who lived a life of violence had found peace in painting.
Jamie hopes to someday collaborate on a book or movie script about the strange relationship between her and the killer she knew as her biological father.
“My father was bipolar, and there really were two sides to this man,” she said. “The public sees him as a murdering monster. I don’t see him that way. He was my father. I looked for the good in him.”