'Escape at Dannemora': Showtime series can't hide behind the brutal truth of the monstrous cop-killer David Sweat
The true story of the fateful day David Sweat and two of his accomplices mercilessly gunned down and killed Broome County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia.
Ben Stiller's 'Escape at Dannemora' on Showtime aims to chronicle the infamous 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape by inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat, both of whom were serving potential life sentences for murder.
Their escape from the prison in upstate New York triggered a massive $23 million manhunt and ended in the capture of Sweat and the death of Matt. After his capture, Sweat subsequently pleaded guilty to an additional two counts of first-degree escape and one count of promoting prison contraband, and had 3.5 to 7 years added to his sentence.
Matt was serving out his sentence at the Clinton Correctional Facility after receiving the maximum sentence of 25 years to life after he was convicted of two murders.
The first conviction was for the 1997 murder of his 72-year-old boss, William Rickerson, whom he dismembered and discarded in a lake after breaking his neck with his bare hands.
The second he committed after fleeing the country into Mexico to the city of Matamoros, where he stabbed and killed American engineer Charles Arnold Perreault in a bid to rob him of $300. He was extradited to the US and made his way to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.
Sweat, his co-conspirator in the escape, had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a crime that was nigh on unforgivable in the eyes of the American public: he had brutally murdered a police officer.
It has been over 16 years since that fateful morning when Broome County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia was brutally murdered by Sweat and his cousin, Jeffrey A. Nabinger Jr., at Grange Hall Park in the sleepy little town of Kirkwood, but rest assured, none of the residents have forgotten it.
Officers from the town will tell you that Sweat had always been a nuisance. Having grown up in a broken home and faced constant trouble at school, Sweat had turned to a life of petty crime from his teens, often roaming the streets homeless and getting into dealing marijuana.
But burglaries would be his vice. According to Press Connects, he would elaborately scout and sketch out potential targets, once planning to rob a convenience store of its lottery tickets but failing after finding it closed. Then, when he was just 17, he was convicted of felony attempted burglary for trying to pillage a group of homes of computers and cash, and would serve 19 months behind bars for the crime.
Following their crime spree in the 90s, both Sweat and Nabinger would manage to escape police scrutiny for a few years; that is, until July 2002. While Sweat managed to stay out of prison after serving his sentence for the attempted burglary, he still reportedly maintained a fascination for guns — something that could have gotten him into trouble considering New York state law does not allow convicted felons to carry firearms. He was so infatuated with them, in fact, that his mother's boyfriend said he carried them around everywhere.
This same morbid fascination would lead him to case out Marino's Outdoor World and rob it in April 2002. The break-in would be the first of two planned gun burglaries, and though police didn't know it was him at the time, amongst the guns he had stolen — two vintage revolvers, an Intratec, a 40-caliber Glock, and a 9 mm Kahr — would be the weapon (the Glock) he would use to put two bullets through Officer Tarsia's head.
Late during the night of July 3, 2002, Sweat and Nabinger went to their regular haunt off a remote dirt road called "One Dirt Road" and met with a third man, 23-year-old Shawn Devaul, who would be assisting them in their second gun burglary at a fireworks and gun business just over the border in Pennsylvania.
The trio first robbed a truck before heading to the business, and then used the vehicle to smash a wall before ransacking the place of its hand guns, long guns, and knives in under three minutes.
After the heist, they drove the truck into the Grange Hall Park where they had parked Sweat's Honda which would be used to transport the stolen goods.
Officer Tarsia was on the night shift that particular day. And while it's unclear to this day what motivated him to drive into the park — Press Connects reported that he didn't radio in to state he was checking on any potential incident in the park — Tarsia is said to have pulled into the parking lot and aimed his car's spotlight toward the Honda and the truck where Sweat, Nabinger, and Devaul had camped out.
According to the confessions of the trio, Tarsia got out and walked around his patrol car, with the beam from his flashlight falling on one of the assault rifles that they had stolen. Sweat, known to a harbor a deep-rooted hatred for authority, came out of the truck firing, with the bullets grazing the officer's body armor before one nicked his small intestine and struck his kidney.
The shot knocked Tarsia down but did not stop him from reaching for his gun, and Sweat took the opportunity to jump into his Honda and run over the officer, dragging him underneath the car across the rough asphalt of the parking lot.
It would result in Tarsia breaking his ribs and his right femur, but the deputy would still be writhing and struggling on the ground. While Sweat, according to his lawyers, was moaning and crying "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Nabinger fired a Kahr 9 mm at Tarsia. The magazine would fall out after just one shot, prompting the cousin to pick up Tarsia's Glock and shoot the deputy in the face twice, at point blank range.
Tarsia's death would be a blot on the formerly spotless safety record of the Broome County Sheriff's Department. He was the first deputy from the department to be killed in the line of duty. The murder set off a feverish hunt for those responsible, with practically every police agency in Broome, as well as those from the surrounding counties, reporting in to assist in any way they could.
Leads poured into the sheriff's offices in the hundreds, and while most proved to be of little help, a call from a 16-year-old girl on the afternoon of July 5 would point investigators toward Sweat as a potential suspect. She informed them that Sweat and Nabinger carried guns, much like the ones carried by the officers who came to interview her, and how the former bragged about how many guns he had and how he often talked about shooting people. She also told them about trucks he had stolen and the One Dirt Road around which he would hang out.
Police took the tip seriously and would soon set up a trap at the location. When a man and a woman wheeled in on bicycles, they were immediately surrounded, frisked, and handcuffed. ID on the man confirmed he was David P. Sweat, but curiously enough, the officers let him walk free, telling him it was just an exercise. It was all part of a plan they hoped would see Sweat implicate himself in Tarsia's murder.
The 16-year-old's testimony in front of a judge on July 6 would get the police the warrants they needed to search Sweat, his Honda, and a property he frequented in the area. The Honda would yield human tissue that matched Tarsia's DNA, and a search of the other stolen vehicles would similarly give police crucial evidence, including traffic flares and an equipment bag that Nabinger had taken from the slain officer's vehicle. They would also find the handgun Nabinger used to take the first shot at Tarsia as well as DNA on a piece of clothing that would tie the cousin to the murder.
Sweat was arrested at 10:30 am the same day and Nabinger would be picked up by the authorities later in the evening, and both were subsequently charged with first-degree murder. The police later arrested Devaul while he was walking in Greene with his girlfriend and their baby.
While Sweat and Nabinger would both divulge details that investigators had previously been unaware of, it would be Devaul's confession to witnessing the entire crime that would see the cousins potentially facing the death penalty. For his cooperation, he was promised a five-year prison sentence with five years of post-release supervision.
The bill for Sweat's and Nabinger's lawyers would be footed by the public, and New York state law called for defendants facing a potential death sentence to be assigned two lawyers each. The lawyers would file multiple motions in court that asked for the judge to rule on a plethora of issues ranging from suppression and discovery of evidence to asking the district attorney to disclose all information about Tarsia's use of marijuana and Darvon, a prescription pain medicine.
Both were reportedly used by Tarsia to treat the symptoms of Crohn's disease, an incurable and debilitating bowel disorder he suffered from. While the officer had a prescription for Davron, which was found in his body at the time of his death, medical marijuana use was illegal in New York and sheriff's department employees are prohibited from using illegal drugs. However, the judge ruled against the defense lawyers' request that the court "order complete discovery about the nature and extent of the deputy's drug crimes" and stated that "Deputy Tarsia will not be a witness."
While both district attorney Gerald F. Mollen and Tarsia's family sought out the death penalty, both Sweat and Nabinger would end up pleading guilty to first-degree murder and were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. They were ordered to not appeal and were informed in no uncertain terms that any attempt to change the status of their pleas would see federal prosecutors step in and see them both facing death penalty trials in federal court.
Following his escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility, Sweat was transferred to Attica, another maximum-security lockup in the Finger Lakes region. But, according to the New York Post, he hated the prison so much, he allegedly went on a hunger strike in 2017 and was at a risk for dying.
He is said to have lost seven pounds over the course of a week, with a petition seeking a judicial order allowing him to be fed through a tube reading, "Mr. Sweat has refused all solid food. Mr. Sweat is drinking fluids, but he is not drinking a sufficient amount of fluids to maintain his overall health. The prolonged refusal of fluids and nourishment by Mr. Sweat risks imminent serious medical consequences including permanent organ damage and death."
However, many had not forgotten his role in the murder of Tarsia and did not view his antics kindly.
In a letter -- of which MEAWW has a copy -- addressed to Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, state senator Frederick J. Akshar II did not mince his words on his thoughts on Sweat's hunger strike.
"As a 15-year-veteran of law enforcement and Broome County's former Undersheriff, I implore you not to grant hunger-striking convicted cop killer David Sweat's request for transfer from Attica back to Five Points Correctional Facility."
"This issue is particularly near and dear to my heart as Sweat murdered my brother in blue, Broomy County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin Tarsia in 2002. I've seen first-hand the pain and devastation he caused for Deputy Tarsia's family, friends, and our tight-knit community."
"As you're keenly aware, after Sweat was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Deputy Tarsia, he and fellow inmate Richard Matt executed an elaborate plan to escape from Clinton Correctional Facility, leading to a 3-week/$23 million manhunt that endangered the lives of many and ultimately resulted in Matt's death."
"David Sweat showed absolutely no regard for Deputy Tarsia's life and shouldn't be moved from Attica Correctional Facility — hunger strike or not. If he chooses not to eat, so be it. Let's not forget that Sweat has forever starved the Tarsia Family of a life with their beloved son. He was a menace to society, continues to manipulate the correctional system from behind bars and doesn't deserve an ounce of sympathy or special treatment from the State of New York."
The most recent report about 37-year-old Sweat comes from earlier this year when he was hit with disciplinary charges over allegedly committing sexual act with his girlfriend during visiting hours. On March 8, a correctional officer spotted him in the visiting area fondling himself through his pants. The visit was immediately curtailed and Sweat was escorted back to his solitary confinement. His visiting privileges were revoked for 60 days.