Effects of Clinton Correctional Facility Escape Linger, 3 Years After Brazen Breakout in New York
The mastermind behind the breakout has largely put the headline-making getaway behind him — but doesn’t regret fleeing for a second.
Three years after escaping a maximum security prison and evading hundreds of police during a weeks-long manhunt that traversed much of upstate New York, the mastermind behind the breakout has largely put the headline-making getaway behind him — but would do it all over again if given the chance.
"David Sweat does not regret breaking out of Clinton Correctional," Chelsia Rose Marcius told InsideEdition.com.
Marcius, a staff reporter at the New York Daily News and author of Wild Escape, The Prison Break from Dannemora and the Manhunt That Captured America, spent more than 100 hours interviewing Sweat after the convicted felon was nabbed on June 28, 2015.
Sweat, then 34, was already serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for the July 2002 murder of a sheriff’s deputy when he and 48-year-old Richard Matt executed an elaborate escape six months in the making from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora on June 6, 2015.
"Every night, the two of them would saw away at a vent in the back of their cells, that they were able to remove and walk out of to get onto the catwalks,” Marcius said. "They did this in the middle of the night, so prison guards would not be able to hear them."
For three months, Sweat spent every night exploring the labyrinth hidden behind the walls of his cell, mapping out how he and Matt would make their escape.
“He comes to find the steam pipe that went cool during the spring months was something that he could cut a hole into, shimmy through, cut his way out of, which led to a tunnel that led to a manhole," Marcius said.
That manhole led to the street.
In the chaos that followed Sweat and Matt’s escape, Dannemora was ground zero. The flurry of law enforcement, journalists and curious onlookers took the small Clinton County town by storm.
"Dannemora is a very quiet little town; not much happens in Dannemora," Marcius said. "All residents could talk about were these two guys on the run, on the loose, possibly in their backyards."
Police combed the area and when they found nothing, spread out to canvas even more of the expansive wildlife nearby.
“You have 6 million acres of Adirondack Park, and it’s like finding two needles in a haystack," Marcius said. "No one knew where they were. They were sending up hundreds of troops from downstate, from upstate; bringing everyone in to try to find them."
As Marcius reported out the story, she and other journalists sought shelter in the only places available: the same woods Sweat and Matt were feared to be.
"I’m in a log cabin, there’s a few other reporters with me; there are no hotels," Marcius said. "So this is where we’re holed up, and we’re thinking, 'Wow, they could be literally behind our cabin at any given moment.' We were hoping that wasn’t the case, and we were kind of hoping it was the case."
After weeks on the run, Sweat and Matt split up. Days later, Matt was shot and killed by a border patrol agent after authorities were alerted to shots fired in the area.
“Richard Matt was holding David back, as David Sweat has told me, and Richard Matt was drinking a lot, and Matt was just not in it anymore," Marcius said. "He had given up."
Sweat’s luck would also run out on June 28, 2015, when New York State Police Technical Sgt. Jay Cook was driving down Coveytown Road in Constable and spotted a man in a field.
"Jay Cook stops the vehicle, calls out his window: 'Hey, get over here. Who are you?’” Marcius said. "David puts up his arms and [says], 'Oh, no, I’m, you know, just a guy walking out in the field.'"
But Cook didn’t buy it, and when Sweat realized the jig was up, he made a run for it.
Sweat was only feet away from a tree line when he was shot twice by Cook, an expert marksman. Sweat was only a few miles south of the Canadian border.
With the manhunt over at last, a series of court appearances followed.
Joyce Mitchell, the prison seamstress who smuggled in tools for Sweat and Matt to use in a vat of hamburger meat, was sentenced to up to seven years in prison.
Gene Palmer, the former corrections officer who didn’t stop Mitchell from bringing in the meat, which was considered contraband, was sentenced to six months in prison, serving four.
An additional seven to 14 years was tacked on to Sweat's life term.
"I'd like to apologize to the community and people who felt the fear and felt it necessary to leave their homes or their community because of the escape," Sweat told a judge before the sentencing. "That was never my intent, and I deeply apologize for that, your honor."
But for Marcius, the story was far from over.
"I was always thinking about David Sweat and nobody had interviewed him," Marcius explained. “Months went by, [we] never heard anything. So he was always kind of in the back of my mind ... Like so many people, I was fascinated by this escape. I think prison world is a world that is not, for most of us, something that's familiar. And I wanted to know more."
In March 2016, Marcius met with Sweat, who agreed to talk with her about his life and the decision to break out of Clinton Correctional Facility.
"David wanted his version of events to be presented in a way that people could really get a better sense of who he was," she said. "And he did that knowing the good, the bad, and the ugly would all be in there."
Sweat appeared to regret leaving Matt during their time on the run, and regretted his involvement in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy that landed him behind bars in the first place, so speaking with Marcius was in part a way to reconcile those feelings, Marcius believed.
"David Sweat's a very complex person," she said. "He's a multi-faceted person ... He is highly intelligent, he is a good conversationalist. He shows compassion and he expresses remorse for the things that he had done in the past. And he regrets ever being in a position where he would find himself ... holding a weapon and shooting at a sheriff's deputy."
But Sweat never appeared to regret the breakout, Marcius said.
“He was there for 12 years, and despite what anybody else thinks, and if anybody else agrees with this, his feeling was that he had done enough time, and it was time for him to be out. And he was fed up with the prison,” she continued. “Prison life isn't exactly easy, and depending on whether or not you believe he deserved that for the crimes he committed, he felt that this wasn't a life that he deserved.”
Sweat has often wondered if he could have made a clean getaway had he escaped on his own, and holds out hope that he’ll somehow gain his freedom once again.
“David would like to believe that there's still hope because this is what he has to hold onto in prison," Marcius said. "All he feels he has is hope, hoping that he will one day be out and be free and not have to live the rest of his life behind bars."
But above all, Sweat has chosen to live in the present, as he builds a relationship with a woman he calls his fiancee.
"That woman has a child and the three of them are forming a family unit," Marcius said.
Sweat and Matt’s escape from Clinton Correctional Facility forever changed their lives and the lives of all immediately involved, in one way or another, with the breakout. But the escape also caused a ripple effect still being seen in ways no one could have predicted, Marcius said.
"This case put a spotlight on the correctional system in New York State," she said. "There were so many grievances against the prisons that were really not talked about until Dannemora. There was so much corruption and complacency that was not being addressed until David Sweat and Richard Matt broke out."
She added: “There have been lawsuits since on behalf of prisoners at Clinton who said, ‘During the manhunt we were treated abominably,’ and that is being looked at. So it continues to be looked at, investigated and will for a while. The story here is not over."
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