Before two convicted murderers escaped a New York prison, they taunted authorities with a crass farewell: a note with the words “Have a nice day” next to an Asian caricature.
The manhunt for the violent criminals stretched into a second day on Sunday as more than 250 state and federal officers combed areas surrounding Clinton Correctional Facility—the state’s largest maximum security penitentiary, about 25 miles from the Canadian border.
One of the inmates, Richard Matt, 49, was charged with kidnapping, killing, and dismembering his boss in 1997 before fleeing to Mexico. He was a career criminal, snitch in a bizarre murder-for-hire plot, and engaged to a Costa Rican stripper. His front teeth are metal; during a stint in a Mexican prison, guards knocked his out. At his 2008 trial for the 1997 murder, police installed Taser electrodes under his suit to keep him from acting out. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.
The other prisoner, David Sweat, 35, was serving a life sentence for the murder of a veteran sheriff’s deputy, who was shot 15 times and run over after approaching a group of burglary suspects.
The fugitives’ elaborate plot involved using power tools to cut through a steel wall and access a six-story-high catwalk, before reaching a series of tunnels and exiting a manhole blocks from the clink, authorities said.
“These are dangerous individuals,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said Sunday. “They are killers. They are murderers.”
“This is a crisis situation for the state,” the governor added. “They’re capable of committing grave crimes again.”
As Cuomo announced a $100,000 reward for the killers’ capture, state police manned road checkpoints and Canadian cops were on alert. “They could be literally anywhere,” New York State Police Major Charles Guess conceded.
The escape was the first at the high-security Dannemora prison, built in 1865 and known as “Little Siberia” for its remote location.
Officials are probing whether the fugitives obtained tools belonging to independent contractors working at the facility.
Matt and Sweat, who were in adjoining cells, disappeared Friday night or early Saturday, police said. They stuffed their bedsheets with hooded sweatshirts to make it appear they were sound asleep.
The criminals were last seen during a 10:30 p.m. inmate count on Friday. Prison guards, who inspect the cells every two hours, realized the two were gone during a 5:30 a.m. check the next day.
Police describe Matt as 6 feet tall, 210 pounds, with black hair and hazel eyes. “Mexico Forever” is tattooed on his back, a heart is inked on his chest and left shoulder, and Marine Corps insignia covers his right.
Sweat is 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, with brown hair and green eyes, and has tattoos on his left bicep and right fingers, authorities said.
Matt’s history is seedy and sickening, with a rap sheet that includes a 1989 rape charge in Buffalo and a 1991 stabbing attack on a nurse, the Buffalo News previously reported.
And this is not the first time he masterminded an escape. He was on the lam for days after busting out of Erie County’s jail in 1986, authorities said.
Years later, Matt became a government witness in a contract killing case involving California resident David Telstar, who in 1992 was accused of visiting Matt in jail and offering the con $100,000 to murder his socialite wife.
Telstar’s attorney accused Matt of making up dirt to get out of his impending rape trial. “This is nothing more than an informant who’s trying to cut a deal for himself,” the lawyer said at the time. “He’s just a typical, run-of-the-mill jailhouse informant.”
Matt was released from prison in 1997 after serving 3½ years for attempted burglary. He landed a job at future victim William Rickerson’s food brokerage in North Tonawanda, where he would steal meat and sell it on the side.
After the ex-con was canned, he set his sights on kidnapping his one-time boss and demanding thousands in cash.
Matt and accomplice Lee E. Bates abducted the 76-year-old businessman but only made off with $80, credit cards, and a wedding ring belonging to the man’s deceased wife, authorities said.
Weeks after Rickerson disappeared, his torso and other body parts turned up in the Niagara River. Matt fled to Mexico to hide out before he could be put on trial in New York, but he was thrown into a Mexican prison for fatally stabbing an American man during a robbery. He was extradited to the U.S. nearly a decade later and convicted of Rickerson’s murder.
Matt was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Niagara County’s sheriff rushed to dump the killer elsewhere—arranging for an immediate transfer to a state prison instead of waiting for a cell, the Buffalo News reported.
“For [at least] 25 years, he’s someone else’s problem,” Chief Deputy James Voutour fumed.
A female juror told the Buffalo newspaper, “There’s no doubt that if he got out, he’d do something…It’s sociopathic behavior. He needs to stay in there.”
Another juror said Matt’s “eyes were just blank, nothing there,” and that he looked “like a cult leader.”
Meanwhile, Sweat was convicted of the 2002 murder of Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia, 36, whose dead body was found run over and riddled at least 15 bullets. The cop had approached three men, including Sweat, who was 22 at the time, sometime after the trio stole from a weapons store in Pennsylvania, police said.
The slain deputy’s brother, Steven Tarsia, told the Associated Press the prison break “turns your world upside-down all over again.”
“I don’t know why anybody would help them,” Tarsia said.