— -- Convicted murderer Richard Matt had been on the run from law enforcement for three weeks when he found himself hunkered down in a deserted camper that sat just off the road in Owls Head, New York.
A massive law enforcement team -- led by New York State police Maj. Charles Guess -- had the area completely surrounded. They had been chasing Matt and fellow inmate David Sweat since the two had escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, about 25 miles east.
After making a lifetime of bad choices, Matt made one final, disastrous one.
On June 26, Matt left the camper and took cover in the woods, with a swamp and ravine behind him and state police lining the road in front of him. Sweat had left him at this point, fed up with his slowness and desperate to get to Canada, Sweat later told law enforcement.
Matt laid down and pointed a 20-gauge shotgun towards the troopers. But as he prepared to fire, he coughed and betrayed his position.
Spotting him, a border patrol agent leveled his M-4 assault rifle at Matt and ordered him to drop his weapon. Matt refused.
“Because Matt refused to comply with his instructions ... at least three rounds struck inmate Matt in the head,” Guess said.
After 21 days on the run, Matt had been finally brought to justice, but police had no idea where Sweat was.
“Darkness approached and we had nobody -- no second inmate in custody -- it became a bit worrisome because everything changes when the sun sets here,” Guess said. “We had to keep the pressure on."
When convicted murderers Matt, 48, and Sweat, 34, escaped from the maximum security on June 6, it launched a nationwide manhunt.
When they escaped, Guess deployed a massive force involving more than 1,600 members of law enforcement from 11 different agencies all over the country for searches on the ground and in the air. The Titus Mountain Family Ski Center in New York was turned into a police command center.
Their search zone just surrounding the prison spanned over “hundreds of square miles,” Guess said. The area around Dannemora, New York, where the Clinton Correctional Facility is located, is unforgiving terrain, with the Adirondack wilderness full of dark woods, deep ravines and high mountains.
“It was a challenge,” Guess said. “You had to keep it in perspective so that you didn’t become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand.”
On top of that, authorities were flooded with more than 2,500 leads, false alarms and reported sightings, as law enforcement chased tips from Mexico to Canada. Fifteen days after the prisoners escaped, the trail went cold.
Then, on Saturday, June 20, John Stockwell, a local resident who lived near the tiny hamlet of Mountain View, New York, just 20 miles outside of Dannemora, discovered a huge development that blew the case wide open.
Guess said Stockwell had told police he had gone into the woods to check on his hunting cabin and immediately saw signs of activity inside.
“He saw essentially a flash of what he presumed to be a human kind of step back out of view from this window pane,” Guess said. “[He] challenged any of the occupants by saying, ‘Who’s in there? You better come out. Who’s in there? You need to come out now.’”
“Whoever was on the back deck fled down the back,” Guess continued. “And [Stockwell] could tell that because he heard the crashing through the brush.”
Inside, Guess said Stockwell found more evidence that someone had been there -- the coffee pot had been misplaced, a shotgun that had hung on the wall was missing and a map had been ripped down from the wall.
And in their mad rush to flee the scene, Matt left more clues behind.
“They’re getting out of Dodge as fast as they can,” Guess said. “Items of interest that we recovered fell out of Matt’s pack… toothpaste, toothbrush, razor, these kind of personal grooming items, which immediately were a hit on DNA within the next 24 hours.”
Authorities later learned from Sweat that the two stayed in the cabin for three days. But Sweat was getting fed up with Matt. Within a few days after leaving the cabin, Sweat says he decided he would be better off on his own.
“Sweat knew that Matt was out of shape,” Guess said, “Any of these cabins where he could find alcohol, he would drink and try to get drunk… and Sweat really apparently wanted no part of that. He wanted to continue his odyssey and escape.”
With a confirmed sighting, police began to narrow their search. Along the way, they found discarded pepper shakers on the trail.
“They were using pepper shakers to try to throw our dogs off,” Guess said, “To some extent it looks like that may have worked.”
After the sighting at Stockwell’s cabin, authorities and sent out an alert to residents, which paid off in a big way.
On Friday, June 26, a resident in Malone, New York, a town 11 miles away from Owls Head, was checking on his own hunting cabin when he noticed something was out of place.
“He noticed a bottle of grape gin sitting here on the counter and some of was actually spilled,” Guess said. “[He] confirmed nobody touched the gin, probably time to call the state police.”
As investigators were in the cabin, they heard shots ring out nearby. Police said Matt had fired shots at a passing vehicle off Route 30 in Malone in an attempt to carjack it. A full alert was sounded and law enforcement descended on the area.
Photographer Jon Chodat’s house was right in the thick of the action. He grabbed his camera and documented the incredible scene.
“Just a myriad of trucks and vehicles and helicopters flying over all the time,” he said. “A whole bunch of trucks came up with dogs and teams of soldiers and camouflage.”
It was on that day that Matt was shot and killed. Sweat, as it turns out, had made it outside the police perimeter in Malone and was heading for Constable, New York, six miles north of Malone.
Denise Yando, Tom MacDonald and their dog Shasta live together on their farmstead in Constable. After the news of the prison break went public, MacDonald said he started regularly checking their barns.
“I’ve never shot a human being and it would be-- it takes something to shoot a human being,” MacDonald said. “It’s a different situation. It’s not something someone faces every day.”
Yando said she just had a feeling that the escaped convicts could be headed their way, because past their cows, barns and old farm equipment, they have an alfalfa field on their land. And just past that is Canada.
“We’re very, very close to the border,” MacDonald said. “It’s only about a mile and a half.”
After separating from Matt, Sweat told police he traveled at night, heading north. He avoided local residents and survived in the wilderness. He even shaved his face so he wouldn’t look like the police sketch, Sweat told authorities.
Back in Owls Head, 15 miles south, the trail to find him had gone cold. Guess re-evaluated the search area.
“[We] kept the pressure all the way from the Canadian border, south,” he said.
Local troopers continued to patrol the area around Constable. What they didn’t know at first was that Sweat was hiding under their noses.
“He had secreted himself in… a deer stand in the town of Constable for two nights,” Guess said.
According to Guess, Sweat later bragged to police that he had stayed hidden even as he heard law enforcement searching for him directly below his hiding spot.
On Sunday, June 28 at around 3:30 p.m., MacDonald and Yando were watching TV at home. MacDonald said he had fallen asleep in his easy chair and missed the sight of Sergeant Jay Cook, a local trooper who was supervising a team in the Constable area for Guess, driving past their house on patrol.
From his car, Cook saw a man dressed in camouflage and thought he might be a park ranger who was lost. Guess said that Sweat later told authorities he had become more desperate with the increased police presence in the town and decided to take the risk of moving in the daylight.
“I think he could smell freedom two miles away,” Guess said.
The man in camouflage had walked about 20 yards into MacDonald and Yando’s alfalfa field when Cook called out to him.
“Sergeant Cook engaged in conversation, says, ‘Hey stop,’ and Sweat says, ‘No, I’m good,’” Guess recounted. “Sweat kind of did a hand motion… like, ‘no, you got the wrong guy,’ … but Cook knew immediately, ‘I’ve got the right guy. This is Sweat. It’s on.’”
Suddenly Sweat took off further into the field, and Cook chased after him as he headed for the woods, all the while yelling that he was going to shoot if Sweat didn’t stop running.
“Sweat had a good 25-yard head start on Sergeant Cook… Cook’s alone, and if Sweat makes that wood line, he’s gone,” Guess said.
So Sergeant Cook, an expert marksman, decided to stop and take aim.
“[He] takes a deep breath and shoots the first round. The first round hits its target,” Guess said, but one bullet wasn’t enough to bring Sweat down. “Sergeant Cook quickly takes a second aim shot. Hits him again in the back and the upper torso, to which Sweat dropped immediately to the ground,” Guess continued.
Troopers descended on the alfalfa field, startling MacDonald awake from his easy chair.
“We saw police cars going by like crazy,” MacDonald said. “And then our neighbors pull in and said to us… ‘you know your hayfield is full of police?’”
When he heard the news that Sweat was in custody, Guess said it was a moment they all relished.
“I did take a time to savor that moment knowing that the guy who made the apprehension was safe,” Guess said. “That was a huge relief knowing we had two of them now out of the public, so that was a good ride for me, and then walking in and of course seeing Sergeant Cook’s face and shaking his hand and congratulating him, frankly.”
Sweat was alive but had a collapsed lung and was taken to a hospital in Albany for treatment, where police interrogated him for hours. He is now being held at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, New York.
“He just said he was trying to essentially make it to freedom,” Guess said. “He just characterized his time on the run as like, ‘I just wanted to get away.’”