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Manhunt for escaped killers shifts after possible sighting

June 21, 2015

FRIENDSHIP, New York (AP) — The manhunt for two convicted murderers who escaped from a northern New York prison focused on a rural area near the Pennsylvania border Sunday after an unconfirmed but credible report of a sighting shifted the search to the other end of the state.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers walked railroad tracks and checked car trunks as a helicopter flew back and forth over the town of Friendship, where state police said a woman on Saturday reported seeing two men who resembled the convicts near a railroad line that runs along a county road.

The intense hunt that had focused for two weeks around the prison near the Canadian border was quickly refocused on a rural, mountainous area 350 miles (565 kilometers) away, dotted with trailers, summer homes and other potential hideouts.

“We will search under every rock, behind every tree and structure until we are confident that that area is secure,” State Police Maj. Michael J. Cerretto said at a news conference.

But the state police added in a statement Sunday evening that “a primary focus of the search” is still the area around far northern Dannemora, where David Sweat and Richard Matt used power tools to break out of the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility on June 6.

After getting the call about the possible sighting Saturday, police interviewed the witness at length and decided she was credible and the tip bore investigating, Cerretto said. He said 300 officers were involved in the search in Friendship and neighboring Amity.

Authorities said Friday that two men fitting the descriptions of Sweat and Matt had been seen a week ago in Steuben County, east of Allegany County. Two men were seen walking near a rail yard in Erwin on June 13, and then seen the next day in Lindley, heading toward the Pennsylvania border.

Cerretto wouldn’t say whether there had been any further reports of sightings Sunday.

Two railroads in the area, the Western New York & Pennsylvania and the Norfolk Southern, referred inquiries Sunday to the state police.

State police asked residents who live around Friendship to be on alert, warning that the escapees are “very dangerous” and should not be approached.

“I was a little concerned. You have these guys running around. You don’t know where they are,” resident Darryl Ross told The Leader newspaper. “I have a house with a big cellar and a big garage. I cleared the house. I had firearm protection.”

Sweat, 35, was serving a life sentence without parole for killing a sheriff’s deputy. Matt, 48, was doing 25 years to life for the 1997 kidnap, torture and hacksaw dismemberment of his former boss.

Prison worker Joyce Mitchell remained in custody on charges she helped the two men escape by providing them hacksaw blades, chisels and other tools. She has pleaded not guilty.

Officials said a corrections officer also has been placed on administrative leave as part of the investigation into the men’s escape.

Update hourly