It was a plot pulled from a Hollywood script.
Two convicted murderers escaped from a maximum security prison, setting off a massive manhunt, hogging national headlines and gripping public attention, until authorities finally found the fugitives after weeks of searching.
Only the action didn’t unfold on the big screen—it all took place in northern New York for the better part of June, shaking area residents and sparking conspiracy theories nationwide.
Just ask OIG Special Agent Nicole McNamee-Wicks; the New York-based OIG investigator contributed to New York State Police search efforts by fielding calls to the agency’s main tip line from the public and law enforcement authorities throughout the three-week pursuit.
“People were terrified, quite frankly,” McNamee-Wicks said. “We had a lot of people calling from that area that thought they might have seen them, and they’re worried about letting their kids out of the house. We had a lot of calls like that, in addition to all the people you get from across the country with all of their ‘theories.’”
The story began on June 6, when Richard Matt and David Sweat—both convicted murderers serving life sentences—escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.
The next day, the U.S. Marshals Service issued Federal arrest warrants for the escaped prisoners, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the pair’s capture, and New York State Police called on state residents to report suspicious activity to the agency’s main tip line.
McNamee-Wicks works in Albany, New York, at the New York State Intelligence Center, a fusion center run by New York State Police. The tip line needed additional support, and it needed 24/7 staffing for the duration of the search.
“They really needed bodies to answer these calls,” McNamee-Wicks said. “As soon as they set up the tip line, I was helping them.”
Credible Leads and Conspiracies
She had tip-line calls forwarded to her desk phone, so she could conduct her OIG-related work while also fielding calls. For more than three weeks, as the search expanded, she was taking about 30 calls per day.
The calls ranged from concerns in northern New York, to possible out-of-state sightings, to off-the-wall theories and hypothesis from every corner of the country.
However, for highly-credible leads near the search area—possible sightings, food missing from a home, evidence of a break-in—McNamee-Wicks said she and other tip-line receivers forwarded the information to the search command center in northern New York.
“Because no one knew where [the fugitives] were, we took it very seriously if anyone said they thought they saw them,” McNamee-Wicks said.
A Cold Trail?
Around June 16, more than a week after the prisoners escaped, authorities feared the search had gone cold.
Reports began surfacing that Joyce Mitchell, a prison tailor, helped Matt and Sweat escape by smuggling tools to them to facilitate their plot. Authorities later learned that Mitchell was supposed to meet Matt and Sweat with a vehicle after they escaped, but she reconsidered and never met the men.
Still, at this time, McNamee-Wicks said authorities wondered if the fugitives had fled New York.
“We’re thinking, ‘There’s no way they were just depending on the Mitchell woman. They can’t be putting all of their eggs in that one basket. They could be in Mexico by now,’” she said.
End of the Road
Activity ramped up on June 26, when authorities shot and killed Matt in Malone, New York—about 30 miles northwest of Clinton Correctional Facility and about 20 miles south of the Canadian border.
By this time, more than 1,300 law enforcement officials were searching the area. On June 28, authorities shot Sweat in Constable, New York, a couple miles from where they found Matt, and took him into custody.
Sweat is now being held in another maximum security prison in central New York—he’s confined to his cell for 23 hours a day.
Mitchell, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in July for helping the two men escape. She faces up to seven years in prison for her role in the scheme.
‘Law Enforcement First’
When the dust settled, McNamee-Wicks had worked the tip line for 23 straight days. For her valuable contribution to the search, she received a Letter of Commendation from the New York State Police.
An OIG special agent in New York since 2000, McNamee-Wicks has contributed to several multi-agency law enforcement efforts, including the critical response needed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“You’re law enforcement first—that’s how we all view ourselves,” McNamee-Wicks said. “You’re here to protect the public.
“Any time that you get to engage in something like this that’s pressing, and a public safety matter, it’s great to be able to do that. It’s a lot better to be there, rather than sitting on the sidelines and saying, ‘Gosh, I wish I could help.’”