'Escape at Dannemora:' The true story behind the prison break that led to a $23 million manhunt

As per reports, the inmates took a prison employee's help, and tools from contractors to dig their escape tunnels, and made sure to return the tools to the toolboxes afterward.


                            'Escape at Dannemora:' The true story behind the prison break that led to a $23 million manhunt

Most of the times when true crime incidents are turned into onscreen adaptations, the biggest issue viewers have is the over sensationalizing of the story. Directors and writers go over and beyond their potential to create a masterpiece, which sadly, at times, fails to create as intense an impact on the masses as they were intended for. Most importantly they don't live up to the hype. But then comes comedic genius Ben Stiller's latest prison drama - every bit as dark and gritty as the genre calls for - which frankly, could never be as sensationalized as the true incident it is based on. Titled 'Escape at Dannemora,' the new Showtime series premiered last Sunday, November 19, and was greeted with excellent response thanks to its crisp storytelling of the infamous prison escape at the Clinton Correctional Facility back in 2015, when one fine morning during a regular bed check, inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat were found missing. But how did it all come to be? Who were Matt and Sweat and what were they in for? Why a $23 million dollar manhunt issued, and what consequences were the two met with? Worry not here's all you need to know about it.

On June 6, 2015, at 5:17 am, the two inmates - Matt and Sweat, played by Benicio del Toro, and Paul Dano respectively - were found missing from their beds. It was discovered that the two, after months of incredible planning, had managed to finally dig their way out of the prison, by tunneling through a catwalk under their cells to a manhole. Matt was serving 25 years to life and Sweat was serving life without parole, both in for murder. And thus sparked off the extravagant and overwhelmingly expensive manhunt that ended nearly three weeks later when Matt was found at Malone, New York, where he was shot and killed, and just two days after that, Sweat was shot and taken into custody.

 

In this handout from New York State Police, convicted murderers David Sweat (L) and Richard Matt are shown. Matt, 48, and Sweat, 34, escaped from the maximum security prison June 6, 2015 using power tools and going through a manhole.
In this handout from New York State Police, convicted murderers David Sweat (L) and Richard Matt are shown. Matt, 48, and Sweat, 34, escaped from the maximum security prison June 6, 2015 using power tools and going through a manhole.

Matt and Sweat's prime accomplice in all of this was Joyce 'Tilly' Mitchell - a married mother of three played by Patricia Arquette in the series. Tilly was in-charge of the prison's tailor shop where both the inmates worked. Some believe they conned her by sparking a sexually fueled love triangle with her and coaxed her into helping them escape from the prison. The two inmates were housed in Honor Block, a privileged housing unit, which allowed them access to amenities like cooking stations, televisions, wall mounted telephones, showers, and card tables in the cell house at specified intervals during the day. As per reports, the inmates took Tilly's help, and tools from contractors to dig their escape tunnels during the nights, and made sure to return the tools to the toolboxes afterward.

Their escape was so elaborate and articulate that it has been compared to Stephen King's novel, 'The Shawshank Redemption' - also prompting the name 'Shaw-skank', that the sensational media had dubbed Tilly with at the time of the incident. It is said at the end of their escape route, Tilly was supposed to pick them up but she changed her mind later on, right at the very last minute. Sources close to her had revealed that she had developed chest pains and had to be hospitalized. Another prison officer, Gene Palmer (played by David Morse in the show) was also charged with aiding the escape, as he used to supply tools and other favors to the escapees, especially to Matt, in exchange for paintings. The Wikipedia entry of the incident also shares that "A note was left behind on the pipe the two escapees had cut to escape, reading, "Have a nice day," with an Asian smiley face clearly wearing a triangular rice hat on it."

Joyce Mitchell (L) appears before Judge Buck Rogers in Plattsburgh City Court on June 15, 2015 in Plattsburgh, New York. Mitchell allegedly aided inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat in their escape from Clinton Correctional Facility. 
Joyce Mitchell (L) appears before Judge Buck Rogers in Plattsburgh City Court on June 15, 2015 in Plattsburgh, New York. Mitchell allegedly aided inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat in their escape from Clinton Correctional Facility. 

The manhunt began when the authorities were tipped about a possible sighting of Matt and Sweat in and around the town of Willsboro, New York, on June 9, 2015. Soon, pretty much every official authority was looking for the two. Authorities in Canada, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and departments along the border with the U.S., and Mexico, where Matt had previously been convicted of murder, were also made aware of the manhunt. Even the FBI, CBP and the ATF were alerted along with the state and local police, and the New York State Forest Rangers (the Adirondack Park Preserve covers the area) were also involved in the search. As the local police and the United States Marshals Service working with prison officials led the search, a $50,000 bounty was set for each inmate by Cuomo and was later increased to $75,000 when the U. S. Marshals added $25,000 for each escapee.

Roads were closed until further notice and even schools in Dannemora had their classes canceled. The number of officers present in the area was increased significantly, and it was not long after, that bloodhounds led the police to several venues picking up trails and scents, after fortunate tips about sightings of the two inmates. On June 12, Tilly was arrested for aiding the escape. Reports revealed that Tilly had plotted with the inmates to kill her husband, prison maintenance worker Lyle Mitchell and then the trio was supposed to flee to a cabin in Vermont together. From June 13 to June 22 the search shifted back and forth around areas both far from the prison, and close by too until they were able to find DNA from the inmates in a cabin amidst a woodland near the prison, and investigators concluded that they had been there within the previous 24 hours.

'Escape at Dannemora': Benicio del Toro as Matt, Patricia Arqutte as Tilly, and Paul Dano as Sweat.
'Escape at Dannemora': Benicio del Toro as Matt, Patricia Arqutte as Tilly, and Paul Dano as Sweat.

Finally, on June 26, Matt was found in Franklin County, New York, after he had managed to shoot a driver with a shotgun, and in the ensuing confrontation, he was shot and killed by U.S Border Patrol agents in the wilderness of Elephants Head, south of Malone, New York, 50 miles (80 km) from Clinton Correctional Facility. Sweat's location was still unknown at the time, but not for long. On June 28, New York State Trooper Sgt. Jay Cook passed Sweat as he was walking along the road near Constable, New York. Eventually, Sweat tried to run and escape through a hay field and was shot by Cook, but didn't die. He was in critical condition, and once he improved, he was transferred to a Special Housing Unit in the maximum security Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, New York, on July 5.

In the ensuing investigation, Tilly soon confessed to the plotting and planning she had aided the inmates with. On the morning of June 16, while the manhunt was still on, the Associated Press reported that Tilly had confirmed providing Matt and Sweat with hacksaw blades, chisels, and other tools. She pled guilty to promoting prison contraband and criminal facilitation, before being sentenced to two-and-a-third to seven years in prison, fined $6,375, and ordered to pay $79,841 in restitution.

 

 

As for Sweat, during his interrogation, he revealed that "he and Matt did a dry run the night before their June 6 prison break," as shared by Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie to ABC News at the time. "The prisoners may have been planning their escape for six months," Wylie added. "Sweat told investigators that the first time he was almost caught, both he and Matt were hiding near a cabin when three people came to check on it." The outlet also added that "he and Matt separated five days before he was taken into custody", because "Matt wasn’t focused any longer and was slowing him down."

Eventually, Sweat pled guilty to two felony counts of first-degree escape and an additional count of promoting prison contraband, before he was sentenced to three-and-a-half to seven years, to be served consecutively with his previous life sentence. Along with that, he was also ordered to pay $79,841 in restitution. As for Matt, his autopsy released August 6, confirmed the cause of death to be from skull fractures and brain damage from being shot. Thus ending the $23 million manhunt for two men who seduced a 50-year-old woman to flee prison, and she gave in because they promised to get rid of her husband.

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