NEW YORK (Reuters) - Authorities hunting for two convicted murderers who staged a brash prison break in upstate New York were questioning a woman who worked at the maximum-security prison, police said on Monday.
Schools in the rural community surrounding Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, about 20 miles (30 km) south of the Canadian border, implemented high security as fugitives Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, remained on the loose.
Their escape drew comparisons on social media to the movies “Shawshank Redemption,” set at a rural prison, and “Escape from Alcatraz” because they used decoys to trick guards making overnight bed checks.
To make their escape, the first in the prison’s 150-year history, the men cut through the steel walls at the back of their adjoining cells and escaped through a steam pipe. They left behind a note reading “have a nice day.”
A woman who worked in the maximum security prison, where construction was under way, was being questioned by police as a possible accomplice, New York State Police said, confirming a report in the New York Post which cited unidentified sources.
Earlier on Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said investigators were questioning a civilian staff member or contractor who may have helped in the escape, presumably the woman mentioned by police.
“We’re looking at the civilian employees now and the private contractors to see if possibly if a civil employee or contractor was assisting the escape because they wouldn’t have equipment on their own, that’s for sure,” Cuomo told CNN.
Scouring the area in a “grid search” on Monday were more than 250 law enforcement personnel including state police with dogs and in aviation units, U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and New York State Forest Rangers, said Beau Duffy, a state police spokesman.
New York State Corrections officers manned multiple roadblocks in which cars were stopped and their trunks searched.
The heightened police presence on one hand helped the community feel safer, but on the other was a constant reminder that peace had been shattered in the town of 4,898 people, where the prison for generations has been the largest employer, residents said.
“Everbody’s got their doors locked, taking extra precautions and looking over their shoulder,” said Mark Maggy, 46, co-owner of Maggy Marketplace Pharmacy.
“I‘m just afraid they’re gonna do some damage while they’re on the run,” said Richard Green, owner of Auggy’s Pizza Shop. “They could be holed up in town. They could be holding a family hostage. You don’t know.”
On the first day of school since the prison break was discovered on Saturday, state police manned every school building in the district and planned to continue the ramped-up security through the week, said a spokeswoman for Superintendent Jonathan Parks. All outdoor activities were canceled.
“Bus drivers will wait for students who wish to remain inside their houses until busses arrive,” Parks said in a statement.
Police said Matt was serving a sentence of 25 years to life following his conviction in the kidnapping and beating death of his boss near Buffalo, New York, on Dec. 3, 1997. They described him as 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall, 210 lbs (95 kg), with tattoos including “Mexico Forever” on his back and a Marine Corps insignia on his right shoulder.
He has a long criminal history, including a previous escape from a jail in Erie County in 1986, according to media reports.
Sweat was serving a sentence of life without parole after his conviction in the shooting death of a Broome County Sheriff’s deputy on July 4, 2002. He is 5 feet 11 inches (1.8 meters) tall, 165 lbs (75 kg), with tattoos including “Rebel” on his left arm, police said.
New York is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the men it describes as dangerous and have notified law enforcement in Canada and Mexico about the fugitives.
Cuomo warned that the pair could have traveled a great distance since escaping: “They could be literally anywhere in the country now. These are really dangerous individuals.”
Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Additional reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker