NEW YORK — After 16 days on the run, two convicted killers who escaped from a New York prison could be anywhere. But authorities continued Sunday to comb through a rural “hot spot” in southwestern New York state.
The latest possible sighting of fugitives Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 35, came in Allegany County, just north of the Pennsylvania border. That’s where a witness reported seeing two men along a railroad line Saturday in the town of Friendship, New York State Police said.
While state police called the report an “unconfirmed sighting,” a law enforcement source briefed on the prisoner investigation told CNN there was a credible sighting of Matt and Sweat near Friendship.
About 300 law enforcement officers have searched the area, Maj. Michael Cerretto of the New York State Police said Sunday at a press conference. Canine units and aircraft were used in the search, he said.
“We will continue to search this are until all leads are exhausted,” he said.
The Allegany County Sheriff’s Office said a tipster led investigators to a set of tracks in the area. Authorities were following the tracks to try to determine whether they’re from the two escapees.
If Matt and Sweat were indeed in Friendship, that means they somehow traveled more than 300 miles southwest of Dannemora, New York, where they had escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility.
A rifle in his lap
The sudden swarm of attention on Friendship has bewildered the rural town of 2,000 people.
Gary Baker, 80, said he’s terrified of the possibility that the killers are in the area.
Normally, Baker is a caretaker at the town’s Maple Grove Cemetery, right next to his home. But authorities blocked off the cemetery as search helicopters hovered overhead.
Now, Baker sits alone in his home, with all his doors locked and a rifle in his lap.
“I think they’re really serious that they’ve seen somebody,” Baker said. “I just hope they catch them.”
Emergency services radio traffic monitored by CNN indicated large numbers of police had moved into the area. At one point, responding officers were asked to maintain radio silence.
Jenn Schanz, a reporter for CNN affiliate WIVB in Buffalo, tweeted that she was asked to leave the search area because state police said it was a “hot spot.”
Other possible sightings
Allegany County isn’t the only area investigators have received tips from.
Last weekend, witnesses reported seeing two suspicious men in Steuben County, about 45 miles east of Friendship, state police said.
“Witnesses spotted two men on June 13 walking near the Gang Mills railyard on Rita’s Way in the town of Erwin,” police said “The next day, two men with the same description were spotted walking along County Route 115 in the town of Lindley, heading toward the Pennsylvania border.”
The unconfirmed sightings came from two separate people, police spokesman Beau Duffy said. State police have sent investigators to the areas to conduct interviews.
On Saturday, police urged anyone living in the Allegany County area along the New York-Pennsylvania border to be on alert for Matt and Sweat, who many say have nothing to lose.
“Do not approach,” officials warned. “Both are considered to be very dangerous.”
So dangerous, in fact, that the U.S. Marshals Service added Matt and Sweat to its list of the 15 most wanted fugitives. The list “is reserved for the worst of the worst,” said U.S. Marshals Service Director Stacia Hylton. “There is no question David Sweat and Richard Matt fall into this category.”
A $75,000 reward is being offered for information leading to either man’s capture.
As many as 800 law enforcement officers have participated in the manhunt, which has cleared nearly 200 abandoned buildings, hundreds of occupied homes and more than 600 miles of rural trails, officials said.
“We’re not going anywhere,” New York State Police Maj. Charles Guess said. “Our plan is to pursue these men relentlessly until they are in custody.”
State police have asked hunters and homeowners with surveillance cameras to check their footage all the way back to June 6, the day of the prison break, for any unusual activity.
The search has stretched to Canada and Mexico, with wanted posters of the escaped killers distributed at both borders.
Relations with the prison tailor
New details have emerged about the relationships between the convicts and prison tailor shop instructor Joyce Mitchell, who has been charged with aiding in escape.
Joyce Mitchell, 51, is behind bars, accused of providing the escapees with sneaking hacksaw blades, chisels, drill bits, a punch and other contraband before they broke out.
Authorities have said Matt had a sexual relationship with Mitchell.
No court date has been set for Mitchell, who has pleaded not guilty to the two charges brought against her and has been talking to authorities. If convicted, she could face up to eight years behind bars.
Her husband Lyle, who also worked in the prison’s tailoring block, feels betrayed by what happened, his attorney says.
But the prosecutor said Wednesday that Lyle Mitchell didn’t know about the prisoners’ escape plan before it happened and wasn’t aware of his wife’s relationships with the inmates.
And in another development, a corrections officer was placed on administrative leave as part of the investigation into the escape, the state corrections department said. The officer’s name was not released.
The district attorney declined to comment but said the corrections officer was male.