Inmates and prison guards called him “Hacksaw”—a savage nom de ghoul inspired by the weapon he used to butcher his elderly boss almost two decades ago. But Richard W. Matt had a soft side, too: drawing Oprah.
“Matt was a fantastic artist,” a longtime supervisor told The Daily Beast of the ex-con, who—along with his sidekick, convicted murderer David Sweat—has been on the run since late Friday after escaping from Clinton Correctional Facility in northern New York.
Officials say the violent criminals couldn’t have pulled off their escape alone. They named female prison worker Joyce Mitchell, 51, as a possible collaborator in the elaborate bust. Mitchell has worked as an industrial training supervisor at the prison’s garment depot for eight years.
Investigators told CNN that Mitchell might have been the prisoners’ planned getaway driver but had a change of heart at the last minute. Instead of spiriting the fugitives away, she had a panic attack and gunned it to the hospital, sources said. Mitchell’s cellphone was used to dial several people connected to Matt, but it’s unclear whether she knew her device was being used.
On Tuesday, police swarmed the town of Willsboro, some 40 miles south of the clink, as the harrowing manhunt for the murderers entered a fourth day. Officials were chasing a tip from a citizen who spotted two suspicious men on a rural road during a rainstorm late Monday. When the tipster’s car approached the men, the two fled into nearby farm fields, authorities said.
“They were walking down the road, not dressed for the elements,” said Willsboro Town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland. “They ran into the fields, from what I understand. So this behavior... was suspicious.”
Meanwhile, two Dannemora residents told ABC News they were “lucky to be alive” after glimpsing the cold-blooded killers—one toting a guitar case—in their backyard around 12:30 a.m. Saturday. The residents said they confronted the duo, and one of the men responded: “We’re just lost. We don’t know where we are. We’re on the wrong street.”
For years, Matt and Sweat punched in as garment factory workers alongside 50 other “honor block” inmates, who, for up to 65 cents an hour, sewed and stitched prison undergarments, shirts, trousers, and an ensemble of utility clothing for the prison in Dannemora. The jailhouse atelier also exported its wares to other prisons and state agencies, including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
But Matt, 49, didn’t just show off his sewing skills. Inspired by portraits of Oprah Winfrey, he began crafting his own pencil drawings of the television icon. “He drew people pictures; he did a portfolio on Oprah and it was really, really good,” the supervisor, who requested anonymity, remembered fondly.
Matt’s supervisor purposely kept herself insulated from the crimes committed by the rapists and murdering inmates at Clinton. Finally, she found out about Matt. “His nickname by everybody was ‘Hacksaw,’ and that’s how come I talked to the guards about him,” she said.
“I knew that was Matt’s nickname,” she said. “I was curious for a long time. ‘Why do they call him Hacksaw?’ And now I know, thank you.”
Matt disregarded prison protocol when he decided to show his sketches to staffers. “He brought them over to show the corrections officers,” the source said. “He wasn’t supposed to bring them over.”
The Oprah art peddling would be the least of the prison’s worries. The charismatic killer pulled off his third escape attempt last weekend by using power tools to drill through cell walls and make a getaway through a maze of tunnels to a manhole outside. For his jailers, he left a note with a crude Asian caricature that said, “Have a nice day.”
When the former supervisor learned of the escape, she was flummoxed. Matt and his lunch buddy Sweat—who was serving a life sentence for killing a sheriff’s deputy—were once under her watch.
“Matt had his art, and I know that he was a good worker and he came every day,” she said. “He would not be one that I would think would do anything like this.”
The insider said that while Sweat worked in “a little cage” and cake-walked through the day with “plenty of downtime,” Matt kept busy affixing pants pockets or stitching the hems of T-shirts.
Civilian staffers were warned through 40 hours of annual training not to be fooled by the crafty convicts, she said.
“You have to be on your guard all the time,” the source said, adding that the inmates “do read lips, so you have to be very careful about what you say when you talk to your correctional officers. They hear things.”
The inmates have incredible powers of persuasion. “They’re very respectful and know how to treat you like a woman wants to be treated,” she said.
Sometimes the rapport crosses into dangerous territory, and the moves by the inmates have been put on so thick that romantic encounters result. “At the factory it happened a couple of times,” the supervisor said. “The worker, she was let go and the inmate was moved out of that facility.”
Such honeyed words may have lured in Joyce Mitchell, who previously worked on an assembly line making slippers until her factory outsourced jobs abroad. That’s when she followed a seamstress colleague over to Clinton Correctional.
On Saturday, Mitchell checked herself into the hospital for “a case of nerves,” officials revealed.
Her son, Tobey Mitchell, claimed there’s no way his mother could be involved with the criminals’ escape plan.
“She’s not going to risk her life or other people’s lives to help these guys escape,” the 21-year-old told NBC News.
The son said he hadn’t spoken to his mother or dad, Lyle Mitchell, who also works at Clinton Correctional Facility, since Saturday.
Tobey Mitchell said that as far as he knew, Joyce Mitchell was hospitalized for chest pain. “She’s very nervous, she’s a very nervous person,” he added. “The truth will come out.”
Harebrained hoodlums, some of them factory workers like Matt and Sweat, have made failed attempts to escape the prison in the past. “To be honest with you, there’s others that have tried it,” the former supervisor said. “They tried making a ladder out of the belt looping on the pants and tried going over the wall.”
Others even attempted to weave rope out of dental floss. “Their ingenuity is there,” she mused.
One retired corrections officer told The Daily Beast that inmates would work in the garment the shop until 8 or 9 p.m. Industrial supervisors like Mitchell train prisoners, as a corrections officer stands guard nearby.
“If you see a civilian [being] a little too chatty with an inmate, you pull them aside and say, ‘These people—they’re not our friends. They’re here to do their time,’” the retired officer said.
“But sometimes it falls on deaf ears,” he added. “Some of them have a spot in their hearts for them.”
The insider also said noise from constant construction at the crumbling 150-year-old prison creates the perfect conditions for an escape.
“It’s amazing it hasn’t happened before now,” the former guard said.