Gene Palmer, second prison worker charged in escape admits to providing tools that “made escape easier”

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PLATTSBURGH, New York — Gene Palmer, the second prison employee charged in connection with the escape of two convicted murderers in upstate New York, admitted he provided the fugitives with tools and other items that unintentionally “made their escape easier,” according to a statement he gave the state police.

Gene Palmer

Gene Palmer

Palmer, a prison guard for more than 27 years, told investigators that within the last eight months he provided inmate David Sweat with a pair of needle-nose pliers and a flat-head screwdriver, according to the court document. Late last month, he said in the statement, he delivered a package said to contain a pound of frozen ground beef and two tubes of paint to the other inmate, Richard Matt.

Palmer’s court appearance Thursday was adjourned because he is changing lawyers. Attorney Andrew Brockway said he “simply doesn’t have the resources” to defend Palmer, who will appear in court on Monday.

Joyce Mitchell, another prison employee charged in connection with the escape, admitted to putting hacksaw blades and drill bits into the hunk of hamburger meat, according to Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie.

Asked whether he assisted in the escape, Palmer told investigators: “No. Not intentionally.”

Joyce Mitchell

Joyce Mitchell

He continued, “Matt provided me with elaborate paintings and information on the illegal acts that inmates were committing within the facility. In turn, I provided him with benefits such as paint, paintbrushes, movement of inmates, hamburger meat, altering of electrical boxes in the catwalk areas.

“I did not realize at the time that the assistance provided to Matt and Sweat made their escape easier. The altering of the electrical boxes was to enhance their ability to cook in their cells.”

The screwdriver and needle-nose pliers were used to fix electrical breakers in the catwalk behind their cells. That area was part of the escape route, an official familiar with the investigation told CNN on Wednesday.

Palmer, 57, told investigators he supervised Matt and Sweat doing the work and took the tools back before the end of his shift, the official said. Authorities have said Matt and Sweat, who have been on the lam since June 6, used the catwalks during their elaborate escape.

Palmer’s statement reveals the complicated relationship between inmates and employees at the prison.

On another occasion, Palmer said, he helped Matt conceal “two-oil based tubes” of paint that he had purchased for the inmate in the catwalk. At the time, Sweat was under investigation and Palmer said he had Matt take the tubes from his cell to the catwalk, where the paint was hidden atop an air vent, according to the court document.

Palmer said he met Matt in 2009 and Sweat about five years ago. He said he bought white zinc and white titanium paint and paintbrushes for Matt on two occasions, according to the document. Palmer also said he bought a large tube of acrylic paint for Sweat about two years ago. He said he gave Sweat the pliers and other tools on four occasions.

The tools were found at Palmer’s home after police executed a search warrant, according to the official familiar with the investigation.

Palmer told investigators that as a “favor” he allowed Sweat to “change the electrical wiring in the cell electrical boxes,” the document said. He said he allowed Sweat into the catwalk of the block where the prisoners were housed.

Brockway declined to comment on the specific charges Wednesday.

Palmer posted bail of $25,000 and was released from jail early Thursday.

“Mr. Palmer has been completely cooperative with the investigation,” Brockway said. “He will continue to cooperate. He’s a man of integrity who made some mistakes.”

Access to the catwalk was not unusual for prisoners. The prison used inmates to do plumbing and electric work, sometimes allowing them to go in the catwalk area, a former maintenance supervisor said.

The former supervisor, who worked at the prison for 35 years, said inmates filled those positions when the maintenance department was short staffed. Correction officers were also understaffed at times, and inmates conducted repair work unsupervised. The ex-supervisor left the facility six years ago.

The former supervisor said inmates worked unplugging toilets, changing lights, fixing leaks and repairing wiring. Their work took them inside cells and to the catwalks behind the cell walls for major pipe repairs.

Inmates sometimes asked prison employees for favors, such as sending a letter or asking for a pack of cigarettes, the ex-supervisor said. Inmates started with small favors and followed up with bigger requests, sometimes threatening to turn in the employee for delivering on the smaller offense.

According to the court document, after the convicts escaped, Palmer tried to destroy evidence of the paintings the inmates had given him, burning some of them in a fire pit at his home and burying others in nearby woods.

He faces three felony charges — one count of promoting prison contraband, two counts of tampering with physical evidence — and one misdemeanor charge of official misconduct.

Palmer’s June 20 interview with the state police was videotaped, a source familiar with the investigation told CNN.

David Sweat and Richard Matt

David Sweat and Richard Matt

Tools smuggled in burger meat

Palmer, who is now on paid leave, took frozen meat embedded with smuggled tools to the inmates’ cell area, Wylie said Wednesday.

Mitchell, a supervisor in the prison’s tailor shop, smuggled the tool-laced meat through the main gate at the prison and placed it in a freezer in the tailor shop, according to Wylie. She then asked Palmer to take the meat to the inmates’ cell area in the honor block, the prosecutor said.

Mitchell, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of aiding the escapees, admitted to putting hacksaw blades and drill bits into a hunk of hamburger meat, according to Wylie.

Palmer could have put the meat through a metal detector, but he didn’t, which was a violation of prison policy, the prosecutor said.

Mitchell, 51, did not have access to the cells, which is why she needed Palmer to hand off the meat, according to Wylie.

Mitchell’s attorney, Steve Johnston, declined Wednesday to comment on what his client might have admitted to, telling CNN he didn’t want to be “in a position of harming her plea-bargaining opportunities.”

Brockway has said Palmer was unaware the meat contained contraband.

“He understands that he made a mistake with the whole meat fiasco,” he said. The meat incident wasn’t mentioned Wednesday in the document detailing the charges.

A neighbor, meanwhile, told CNN that Palmer was “a very nice guy” who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Not in a million years,” Sandy Oneill said, dismissing the possibility of the guard’s involvement.

“He knows these guys; he knows what they did,” she said, referring to the fugitives’ murder convictions.

Palmer: ‘You become hard’

Palmer hasn’t spoken publicly, but he gave an interview 15 years ago about life inside the Clinton Correctional Facility. “It’s a negative environment,” he told North Country Radio’s Brian Mann. “And long-term exposure to a negative environment, you become hard on issues.”

Palmer said life as a prison guard was as miserable as those of the prisoners. “With the money that they pay you, you’ll go bald, you’ll have high blood pressure, you’ll become an alcoholic, you’ll divorce, and then you’ll kill yourself,” he said.

Mann described the jail scene all those years ago: “Everywhere we go, prisoners are handling knives and power tools,” he said in 2000.

“Even then, that detail kind of freaked me out,” he said a week after the jail break.

Killers spend birthdays on the run

Palmer’s arrest came as more than a dozen investigators from the New York State Inspector General’s Office arrived at the prison to investigate possible breaches of security protocols that allowed Matt and Sweat to escape, a state law enforcement official said.

Investigators are going through visitor logs and documents related to prisoner and employee movements at the jail, the official said.

As authorities try to figure out what went wrong at the prison, hundreds of law enforcement officers are still rummaging through dense woodland surrounding a hunting cabin the fugitives are believed to have burglarized. Authorities said a number of items were recovered from the Mountain View cabin, some 30 miles west of the jail, including a sock, according to Wylie. While the district attorney wouldn’t say if the sock’s red markings were blood, he did tell CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “I do know that a DNA profile was from one of the socks.”

The sprawling manhunt has now stretched into its 20th day — long enough for both escapees to spend their birthdays on the run. Sweat turned 35 on June 14, while Matt hit 49 on Thursday, according to the birth dates for the two men provided by the U.S. Marshals Service.

The 75-square-mile primary search area is roughly 20 miles west of the prison. State forest rangers describe the terrain as treacherous, not just for the escapees but also for police and other searchers.

“The area is heavily forested. The undergrowth is thick,” Capt. John Strife said. “The vegetation is a combination of trees, saplings and brush.”