by Robert A. Waters
In 2004, the New York Court of Appeals effectively abolished the state’s death penalty. Capital punishment had long been a mere formality since the last execution in the Empire State occurred in 1963. Now we learn that two brutal killers have escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora and are on the run.
Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, allegedly sawed through the back of their cells and climbed through a labyrinth of tunnels to freedom. They left a calling card, a smiley face with a note that read: “Have a nice day.”
The lockup, known as “Little Siberia” due to its remote location near the Canadian border, is a maximum security prison. So Matt and Sweat should have been no threat to anyone except other inmates. Their escape, perhaps aided by a Trojan Horse inside the prison, surprised many.
Back in 2002, Sweat’s crime stunned New Yorkers.
At about 3:35 a.m., on July 4, Broome County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Tarsia spotted a suspicious automobile near Grange Hall Park in the Town of Kirkwood, New York. Three career criminals, including Sweat, had just burglarized a nearby gun store, walking out with dozens of weapons. As Tarsia got out of his cruiser, Sweat ambushed him. Deputy Tarsia, hit by a barrage of gunfire, fell to the ground. One of Sweat’s accomplices, Jeffrey A. Nabinger, Jr., then pumped two rounds into his head. Finally, the killers jumped into their car and drove over Tarsia. In all, the deputy was struck with fifteen rounds and run over.
Investigators quickly zeroed in on known trouble-maker Sweat. Several years earlier, he’d been sentenced to two-to-four years in prison for burglary—he served only 19 months before being released. He rarely worked, living by theft and dealing drugs. He had a few girlfriends, and a child, but no stable home-life.
Investigators arrested Sweat, Nabinger, and the third accomplice. All three quickly confessed and were sentenced to life in prison.
Richard Matt has spent most of his adult life in prison, including ten years in a Mexican jail for murder. NBC News described the heinous crime that got him locked up in Little Siberia: “The victim was a food broker named William Rickerson who had hired and then fired Matt. On Dec. 4, 1997, according to the trial testimony of an accomplice, Matt beat Rickerson with a knife sharpener, bound him with duct tape, tossed him in the trunk of a car, and then drove around for 27 hours looking for a place to kill and bury him. At one stop on the drive, Matt opened the trunk, broke four of Rickerson’s fingers, hit him in the chest with a steering wheel locking device, then shut the trunk and kept driving. The accomplice testified that Matt had him turn down a cul-de-sac, stop the car and open the trunk again. He said Matt told him: ‘You know, I’ve had enough of this.’ He said Matt reached in and twisted Rickerson’s head. ‘I heard a pop,’ the accomplice testified, and the businessman ‘just dropped back in the trunk.’ Matt cut off the arms and legs with a hacksaw, authorities said. A fisherman discovered the torso in the Niagara River.”
Eight days after Matt and Sweat escaped, New York State Police arrested Joyce Mitchell, an industrial training supervisor. Accused of being an accomplice and providing tools to the inmates, Judge Mark Rogers set her bail at $110,000.
As of this writing, lawmen across America and Canada are desperately searching for the escapees. Broome County Sheriff David Harder said, “I think the fear here is who are they going to kill next.”
Phillip Tarsia, Kevin’s father, told reporters: “They said they couldn’t give them the death penalty. That’s what they told us so they gave [Sweat and Matt] life without parole. We had to go along with it. They’re the ones who made the decision. We followed them but we weren’t happy with it.”