By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A daring weekend escape from a New York state maximum-security penitentiary, the facility's first prison break, marked at least the third time convicted murderer Richard Matt had moved to bust out from behind bars.
As authorities searched for a fourth day for Matt, 48, and his fellow convicted killer David Sweat, 34, details emerged showing that the older inmate had twice tried to escape prison, once successfully.
Large numbers of officers converged on Tuesday on the town of Willsboro, New York, about 40 miles (64 km) south of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, from which they had escaped, following a reported sighting of the pair.
"We are continuing to pursue that lead down in Willsboro but it would be inaccurate to say they are cornered," said Beau Duffy, spokesman for New York State Police.
Duffy declined to comment on whether anyone was being questioned.
Police investigating Matt's getaway from the prison, just 20 miles (30 km) from the Canadian border, were questioning a woman who worked in the prison tailor shop where the men had menial jobs. She was identified in various media outlets, including ABC News, as Joyce Mitchell. According to her Facebook page, Mitchell is an industrial training supervisor at the prison.
She was hospitalized with "severe chest pains" on Saturday, the day the prison break was discovered, her son Tobey Mitchell told NBC News.
Matt's son, Nicholas Harris, 23, of Angola, New York, told the Buffalo News his father had a history of prison escapes.
"He has escaped before," he was quoted as saying.
Matt fled upstate New York's Erie County Correctional Facility in 1986. He scaled a wall and gate topped with razor wire that slashed his forearms and remained on the loose for five days before he was caught at a family apartment in Tonawanda, New York, near Buffalo, his son told the newspaper.
'IT'S LIKE THEY CAN'T KILL HIM'
A decade later, to avoid arrest for the 1997 torture, murder and dismemberment of his boss in Tonawanda, Matt fled to Mexico, where he was soon locked up for a fatal barroom fight. He tried to escape, making it to the roof of a Mexican prison before he was shot in the shoulder, his son told the newspaper.
"This guy has bullet holes on his body. He's been shot like nine times. It's like they can't kill him," Harris was quoted as saying in the Buffalo News.
Matt was eventually convicted in the beating death of his boss, William Rickerson, in a trial that took place under heightened court security, with a police sniper posted outside the courthouse and Matt forced to wear an electric stun belt. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.
The Clinton escape, the first in the prison's 170-year history, involved cutting through steel walls at the back of their adjoining cells, crawling through a steam pipe and emerging from a manhole in a residential community. They left behind a note saying "Have a nice day."
Two residents said they spotted the fugitives in their back yard at 12:30 a.m. on Saturday, ABC News reported. They were holding what appeared to be a guitar case, which other media reported was kept in one inmate's cell and may have been used to hide tools used in the escape.
"We're just lost. We don't know where we are. We're on the wrong street," the resident told ABC News the men responded when confronted.
That encounter occurred about five hours before guards realized the pair was gone.
Law enforcement officers who have tracked Matt in the past describe him as devious and calculating. The two inmates had managed to maintain good enough behavior to gain a place on the prison's "honor block," where looser restrictions allowed them to wear and keep clothing other than their prison uniforms.
Their green prison uniforms were found in a pipe the men used to climb out of the manhole, according to media reports.
Sweat was serving a life sentence after his conviction in the shooting death of a Broome County Sheriff's deputy on July 4, 2002.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Additional reporting by Katie Reilly; Editing by Doina Chiacu and James Dalgleish)