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New York prison manhunt is over: one escapee dead, one in custody

  1. David Sweat, one of the convicted murderers who escaped from an upstate New York prison on June 5 or 6, is in police custody after being shot during a firefight, according to the New York Times.
  2. Law enforcement killed the other escapee, Richard Matt, on June 26 in a shootout, according to the New York Times and Buffalo News.
  3. Sweat's capture ends a manhunt that lasted just over three weeks.
  4. Escapees from prison are almost always caught — especially in high-profile cases.

Sometime before an early-morning bed check on June 6, two convicted murderers escaped from the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in northern New York. The pair, Richard Matt and David Sweat, cut through the prison's 2-foot-thick walls using power tools and escaped through the sewer system.

After a three-week-long manhunt, Matt was killed June 26 in a shootout with law enforcement. Sweat was shot and taken into custody two days later.

When Sweat and Matt first made their escape, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called it "a crisis situation for the state," and offered a $100,000 reward for tips that lead to the prisoners' capture (or $50,000 apiece). But experts were confident from the beginning that the two would be caught.

prison escape

Investigators check out the sewer two inmates used to escape. (Darren McGee/New York State Governor's Office via Getty)

"There's this old saying in criminal justice that 'we have enough resources to catch anyone that we want in the United States; it's a matter of how important they are,'" says Bryce Peterson, a researcher with the Urban Institute who's written on prison escapes. (From 2009 to 2013, 10 inmates escaped from state custody in New York, but all of them were caught within 24 hours.)

"Generally speaking, the more high-profile and violent the inmates are who escape, the more likely they are to be captured."

That's partly because law enforcement puts more resources into catching high-profile escapees, including a full-court press from the marshals. But it's also because the more high-profile an escape, the more help law enforcement has from the public. And that can be a tremendously important factor in catching a fugitive.

The marshals pretty much always get their man. But until they do, they want you to be alert — and maybe a little afraid.

The first priority: getting the immediate area on lockdown

On June 7, 250 law enforcement agents (and some bloodhounds) swept through the 1,700-person town of Dannemora, New York, where the prison is located. By Wednesday, June 10, the force pursuing the fugitives had grown to 450 — and they were pursuing leads in a three-mile area near Dannemora and the nearby village of Cadyville (including a stretch of state highway) as well as the small town of Willsboro, about 40 miles from the prison.

In each area, law enforcement experts explain, the first step was the same: secure the immediate area and search every inch of it.

"Initially there's an extensive ground search, a perimeter that's set up," says former Texas Department of Criminal Justice inspector general (and chief fugitive-catcher) John Moriarty. And in his experience, "Unless there's evidence that that the individual or individuals are outside that perimeter, that perimeter would remain up."

That includes shutting down a stretch of New York Route 374, and encouraging residents in Dannemora and Cadyville to stay indoors and turn on their outside lights to help with the search. As the New York Times reported on June 7:

Rich Green, 58, the owner of Auggy’s Pizza Shop, just down the street from the prison, said the manhunt had transformed the "nice little quiet town" into a place filled with law enforcement officials.

"The whole town’s locked down," he said. "You can’t drive anywhere. You can’t come into town. They’ve got detours all over the place. They’re checking trunks. It’s just something I’ve never seen before."

The escapees themselves often want to get as far away as possible as fast as possible to remain out of law enforcement clutches. But they usually don't go all that far. By Tuesday, law enforcement had tracked Sweat and Matt to and the lockdown-and-search process started all over again.

tsarnaev manhunt

The manhunt for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after the Boston Marathon bombings. (Barry Chin/Boston Globe/Getty)

Dragged out indefinitely, this can cause some tensions. The town of Blooming Grove, Pennsylvania, was under lockdown for seven weeks in the fall of 2014 while police tracked down fugitive Eric Frein after Frein killed a state trooper. Between the helicopters overhead and the canceled Halloween parade, Blooming Grove residents' nerves were apparently "rattled." But ultimately, police searches led them to an abandoned airplane hangar where Frein had been camped out.

Dannemora, at least, initially seemed downright grateful for the added security. One resident actually invited officers who came by his apartment to check out the empty apartment below his, in case Sweat and Matt were hiding out there. That's exactly the sort of proactive attitude that could help a resident spot and call in a more helpful tip down the road.

But hyper-visible searches, bloodhounds and all, are just the side of the investigation the public sees. In private, investigators aren't just trying to track down the escapees — they're trying to get one step ahead.

The investigation: tracking down fugitives by tracing their resources

The most successful fugitives who've been caught in the past few years have managed to live on their own resources — either by staying in their house and remaining "invisible" (Florida treasure hunter Tommy Thompson) or by living off the land as survivalists (Frein in Pennsylvania, serial Montana cabin burglar Troy James Knapp). But all of them were evading capture after committing crimes — which means they had a little more time and breathing space to prepare than people on the run from prison. Sweat and Matt don't have millions of dollars in gold doubloons like Thompson, or years of Montana living to draw on like Knapp.

They're going to need to figure out a sustainable way to get food, clothing, and shelter, and that takes resources.

In the short term, escapees essentially have three options for survival. They can rely on the help of family or accomplices. They can keep committing crimes — either robbing and burglarizing their way along an escape route, or taking hostages and holing themselves up within a house. Or they can live off the land for as long as possible — after all, it's summer in a rural area — and hope they can outlast the US marshals.

eric frein manhunt

Camping equipment found in Eric Frein's airplane hangar hideout in Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania State Police/Getty)

Those three options are what shape a fugitive investigation. From the outside, it can look as if investigators are either dealing with too much information — as of June 10, investigators had received 500 leads — or none at all. But marshals know what they're looking for. Behind the scenes, the coordinated investigation will hew very closely to the three hypotheses about how the escapees are surviving.

If the escapees are trying to live off the land, continued searching within the lockdown perimeter should turn up their hiding place — just like it did for Frein in Pennsylvania. If they're living through crime, police will be able to track incident reports: if Moriarty's team were in Dannemora right now, "the first thing we'd be looking for is any stolen cars in the area." And if they're relying on associates or relatives for resources, law enforcement is going to figure out who those people might be — and track them relentlessly.

Gathering intelligence — and surveilling anyone escapees might want to reach

The investigation needs to start with people on the inside at Clinton. "Those people, they're in there 24/7 together for many years," Moriarty says. "The old adage 'No man is an island' is true. Nine times out of 10, they're going to be talking to somebody."

When Moriarty spoke to Vox on Monday, he said that investigators wouldn't just need to interview fellow prisoners, but prison staff as well. That appears to have been prescient. According to prison officials, Sweat and Matt got help from at least one prison employee: tailor shop worker Joyce Mitchell apparently got romantically involved with Matt and planned to drive their getaway vehicle.

When Moriarty and his team were pursuing the Texas Seven (a group of seven inmates who busted out of a Texas prison called the Connally Unit in 2000), he learned from prison interviews that before escape, the seven were "acting like a paramilitary unit inside the facility, with one guy being in charge." That led him to guess correctly that they'd stuck together after their escape — "whereas if they're both kind of alpha males" in this case, he says, "they're probably going to split up when they get out."

Investigators are gathering intelligence from family members and loved ones of the escapees as well: "We certainly want to talk to ex-wives, ex-girlfriends," says former Marshal DePaul, "to gather any intelligence we can from their history." But the main reason investigators want to reach out to associates and family members as soon as possible after an escape: surveillance.

If an escapee has help from friends or family, he's able to solve the resource problem indefinitely: he can get anything he needs without having to show his face. That's why, DePaul says, investigators have to identify and track anyone the fugitives might get in touch with. In his words: "You've got to know who's who in the zoo."

Moriarty assumes that in addition to interviews, investigators are setting up court orders for electronic surveillance of "known associates and family members." "The phones are going to be important — looking at phone records from relatives, that kind of stuff," he says. "All of a sudden there's a collect call from a payphone near the prison — sometimes it's really that simple."

"They're probably smart enough not to reach out to anybody that they think law enforcement knows about, at this point. Two weeks down the road, that might be different."

The US marshals are a "force multiplier" to local law enforcement

fugitive task force

A fugitive task force in Denver. (Craig F. Walker/Denver Post)

If all of this sounds like a well-established, professionalized routine, that's because it is. Catching fugitives is literally the US marshals' job — they apprehended nearly 105,000 in fiscal year 2014. And while most of those are people with outstanding warrants or defendants who bailed and then skipped their court dates, the Marshals Service "also leads ad hoc fugitive task forces in special cases — such as when an inmate escapes from prison."

The involvement of the marshals is what DePaul calls a "force multiplier" — especially when a fugitive makes the agency's "top 15" most wanted, as Sweat and Matt almost certainly will. The marshals can provide everything from aerial surveillance to phone records, from the day they arrive to the day the fugitives are caught: Moriarty was accompanied by a supervisor from the marshals for every day of the 40-day manhunt for the Texas Seven.

While Moriarty and company were tracking down leads on the road, investigators were processing leads and gathering intelligence at command centers at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Inspector General's office and at the prison from which the Seven had escaped. Some of those leads were coming from the investigation. Others were coming from the public — and especially at the beginning of an investigation, DePaul says, "you have to take every lead seriously." It's the job of agents stationed at command centers to filter through those leads and pass on the useful information to agents in the field.

All this happens out of the public eye, of course. The result: the public won't know that the manhunt is drawing to a close until, very suddenly, it's over. DePaul hopes investigators already "have a bead on" Sweat and Matt — and he thinks they might. "It's very difficult to hide from us."

As the search goes on, however, investigators will lose some of the outside assistance they've gotten — the marshals are in for the long run, but the public may stop paying as much attention. That's where the investigators pursuing the Texas Seven were as of January 19, 2001, about a month after the escape. And then, everything changed. By January 24, all seven had surrendered or died.

Can anything replace America's Most Wanted?

What changed? On January 20, the Texas Seven were featured on America's Most Wanted.

The Saturday-night Fox institution didn't usually feature fugitives who'd been on the run for less than several months, but then, as now, high-security prison breaks were extremely rare and extremely worrisome. A viewer in Colorado called in a tip to the Texas headquarters of the fugitive investigation, and investigators followed the tip to the RV park where the Seven had been posing as missionaries by blasting Christian music from their speakers.

texas seven

Caught by America's Most Wanted. (Texas Department of Corrections/AFP)

Moriarty knows people made fun of the idea that people sitting at home watching television on a Saturday night could catch fugitives law enforcement professionals couldn't. But "the truth of the matter is that a lot of people watched the show." And the research, surprisingly, bears him out.

A 2005 paper in The Journal of Law and Economics showed that even controlling for variables like severity of crime and length of time spent as a fugitive, people featured on America's Most Wanted were more likely to be captured more quickly; the model generated from the data projected that a 30-year-old murder suspect featured on the show, for example, would be caught three years earlier than one who wasn't. (Again, most of these were people who'd slipped the notice of the criminal justice system before getting sent to prison, not escapees.)

But America's Most Wanted ended in 2011. "It's a great resource that's not there anymore," Moriarty says.

DePaul is optimistic that social media is serving the same sort of citizen-alert function. In fact, he says, there have already been recent cases where someone "putting things out so your thousand friends on Twitter and Facebook can see them" has ultimately resulted in a tip coming in that gets someone caught.

Social media, being dependent on whom you know, is localized — it resembles the police-swarmed town of Dannemora more than the 11 million households deputized by John Walsh. Whether the public is still as much of an asset as it was in the America's Most Wanted days is an open question.

While the public still doesn't know exactly how law enforcement got on Sweat and Matt's trail, the end of the manhunt came suddenly, just as the experts predicted. The investigation continued as quietly as it could, for as long as it needed to. And then, over the course of a weekend, it was all over.