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Dannemora: Two Escaped Killers, Three Weeks of Terror, and the Largest Manhunt Ever in New York State


Dannemora: Two Escaped Killers, Three Weeks of Terror, and the Largest Manhunt Ever in New York State

Recently I watched and enjoyed the miniseries "Escape at Dannemora" on Showtime. Directed by Ben Stiller and featuring a cast of A-listers that included Benicio Del Toro, Paul Dano, Patricia Arquette and David Morse, it won a handful of well-deserved awards for its gritty depiction of the infamous prison break from the penitentiary at Dannemora in upstate New York.

However, it was only when I picked up DANNEMORA that I really found out the entire story. Charles A. Gardner is the ideal person to pen this true crime thriller as he spent 25 years with the New York State Department of Corrections. He spends the first third of the book outlining the backgrounds of the escapees, Richard Matt and David Sweat. While the crimes that ultimately got them incarcerated were glossed over in the miniseries, Gardner gives their backstories the attention they deserve. The result is a portrait of two brutal, remorseless killers whose actions need not be glamorized but revealed for the gritty reality that made them do what they did.

DANNEMORA is not for the faint-hearted, and the unflinching descriptions of Matt and Sweat's crimes are particularly uncomfortable to read. Gardner points out that if it wasn't them, it eventually would have been another prisoner to have pulled a similar escape. New York State continued to cut resources each year; this included manpower, which impacted the prisoner to prison guard ration and made full compliance with their requirements virtually impossible. Tourists visiting New York State's majestic Adirondack Mountains Park are entering paradise. Little do they know that much of its northern realm is peppered with correctional centers like the one in Dannemora. Most people also would be surprised to learn that the prisoners in these correctional facilities are getting paid to be there and receiving medical care often more comprehensive than nearly all the residents who live in the surrounding communities.

"Charles A. Gardner brings this exciting and nerve-wracking tale to life and tells the story as if he was writing a fictional thriller. DANNEMORA is an engaging read from start to finish..."

Matt and Sweat were placed in the area known as the “Honor Block,” which provided larger, more spacious individual cells away from the general population. It also was a quiet enough area that allowed for their nocturnal activities. As you read about their escape plans, you cannot help but think of Stephen King's THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. In fact, Matt and Sweat often had a laugh at how closely their scheme resembled that of the method Andy Dufresne used to get out of Shawshank. The only difference is that their plan did not take 20 years to happen.

As I mentioned earlier, Gardner does not soften the occurrences that led to the incarceration of Matt and Sweat in any way. They are not glamorized here as they were in the miniseries, which found viewers admiring the characters because of the actors portraying them. Sweat had a violent and tumultuous youth that saw him shipped back and forth from upstate New York to Florida. No one was able to harness his mood swings, which often swung to rage and eventually criminal activities. He was finally convicted of killing a cop on the Fourth of July in the small town of Kirkwood in Western New York State. Broome County Deputy Sheriff Kevin J. Tarsia approached a vehicle early in the morning due to the suspicious activities of those inside. He was blindsided by Sweat and one of his cronies and shot several times. Tarsia's vest saved him from all but one of the bullets. However, Sweat ensured the officer's death by running him over with his vehicle and dragging him for a while until he succumbed to his injuries.

Matt's criminal actions were possibly more brutal and cold-blooded. Matt and a cohort kidnapped his 76-year-old boss from a wholesale food company after he fired Matt for stealing and selling meat products. William Rickerson was tied up, beaten and tortured. He was then thrown in the trunk of Matt's vehicle and driven around for days in freezing temperatures. Eventually, Matt grew tired, having found only less than a hundred dollars and a few credit cards in Rickerson's possession. So he snapped Rickerson's neck, hacked his body up and tossed each part of him into the nearly frozen Niagara River. It was this sadistic act that earned him the nickname “Hacksaw.”

The latter part of DANNEMORA focuses on something that was not really depicted fully in the miniseries: the three-week-long manhunt for Matt and Sweat after they escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility. These men were considered incredibly dangerous, and every single body of law enforcement --- from the FBI to U.S. Marshals and even Homeland Security --- was involved. The Canadian Mounted Police Force was on alert in case they decided to make a run for the northern border.

Matt and Sweat were supposed to be picked up by Joyce Mitchell after their escape, driven to Virginia to hide out for a few weeks, and then head to Mexico once the search began to dwindle. When Mitchell did not show up due to a panic attack that got her hospitalized, the escapees had to flee into the Adirondack Mountains on foot to regroup. Even though they were not far from the Canadian border, it would’ve been extremely difficult to evade everyone searching for them while navigating through the treacherous mountain terrain. Ironically, an off-duty prison guard named John "Stumpy" Stockwell happened upon them as they were hiding out in his cabin in Camp Twisted Horn.

The pair eventually split up --- more likely that Sweat left the older and hobbled Matt behind --- and they were picked off one at a time. Charles A. Gardner brings this exciting and nerve-wracking tale to life and tells the story as if he was writing a fictional thriller. DANNEMORA is an engaging read from start to finish that sheds light on the many issues we have with correctional facilities in New York State and the rest of the country.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 1, 2019

Dannemora: Two Escaped Killers, Three Weeks of Terror, and the Largest Manhunt Ever in New York State
by Charles A. Gardner

  • Publication Date: February 26, 2019
  • Genres: Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Citadel
  • ISBN-10: 0806539240
  • ISBN-13: 9780806539249