The New York Times Delves Into the Dark, Trouble-filled Past of Prison Escapees, Richard Matt and David Sweat


The killers seemed the wrong match to put in adjoining cells, a combustible combination promising no good. They were both callous, early adopters of a life of lawlessness. They could be wily. One had demonstrated escape skills. The other was a systematic schemer, reading blueprints, sketching maps, mulling over the fine details of crime.

Neither had much to lose.

They served their time on the so-called honor block, housing gained through good behavior that allows greater freedom of movement, the right to cook meals and the benefit of wearing street clothes in your cell.

The slick-talking neighbors, Richard W. Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, were serving lengthy sentences at the remote Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., a village in the Adirondacks near the Canadian border. It is a maximum-security prison where murderers and rapists are the norm, where extreme brutality is the common ticket in. Mr. Matt was serving 25 years to life, and Mr. Sweat life without parole.

Interviews with those who knew them from as early as when they were infants and those who put them away, as well as court documents, suggest little about them to admire. Both emerged from splintered families and curdled childhoods, the sort where you burn your own toys or run away on a stolen horse. They went on to compose bent lives, climbing their way up the ladder of crime to get to murder.

Early on, Mr. Matt was seen as a common crook by law enforcement, trustworthy enough for a detective to rely on as a steady informer. Mr. Sweat struck the authorities, in the words of a judge, as a “teenage idiot” until his evil worsened.

Their killings were vile, the sort where a body is carved up and the head is never found.

The killers have spent the majority of their adulthoods in cells. Since he entered prison at age 19, Mr. Matt has known freedom only a total of about four and a half years. Since he was first locked up at 17, Mr. Sweat has been out just three years.

Their past doings were amply documented in the New York towns they inhabited. But it is their one collaboration that has catapulted them to national news.

With crucial inside help, according to the authorities, the pair last weekend pulled off an astonishing escape from the prison. Operating during the night, they are believed to have used power tools to break through walls and slither through a pipe and sprout from a manhole. As days and nights tick by, they remain elusive, the focus of a large manhunt.

Foster Care and Turmoil

They had beginnings that weren’t much. David Sweat grew up in Deposit, N.Y., a speck of a town about 30 miles east of Binghamton, raised mainly by a single mother, Pamela Sweat. He had two sisters.

For a short time, Patricia Desmond and her boyfriend lived with them. “He really wasn’t raised into the best society,” Ms. Desmond said, referring to Mr. Sweat. “We drank a lot, we partied a lot. His life was into turmoil.”

As her son grew, Ms. Sweat saw only wickedness. She knew he was too much when, at 9, he began throwing knives at her. He also threw a rocking chair at her.

She sent her son to her brother in Florida, hoping he could mold him into someone who fit into the world. While there, he stole and wrecked his aunt’s car. Later, the authorities said, he went into foster care.

One of his sisters, who gave her name only as Tilly, said of their mother, “She had two nervous breakdowns because of him when he was little, and she can’t take any more.”

She said Mr. Sweat had a dual personality: “He could be a nice boy. But when the little bit of hellion in him came out, it came out full force.”

Carl Butts, Pamela Sweat’s boyfriend when her son was small, said he would burn his toy cars. Or he would smash them with rocks and hammers.

He once took a knife to school and was suspended. “He was rude to anyone and everyone when the mood hit him,” Tilly said.

Tommy Moore, a lifelong Deposit resident, said that as a teenager, Mr. Sweat took up part-time work: dealing marijuana.

Richard Matt, known as Ricky, and his older brother, Robert, grew up in Tonawanda, a city of 15,000 people north of Buffalo that hugs the Niagara River. The authorities said they went to foster care early.

Capt. Fredric Foels of the City of Tonawanda Police Department, said the brothers’ foster parents, Vern Edin and his wife, were well known in the community for affording foster children a second chance. Captain Foels said they made sure the brothers went to school and enrolled them in Little League. The Edins have died.

Captain Foels said Mr. Matt was outgoing and played a decent trumpet. His reputation in school was that he had a high I.Q.

He had looks that turned women’s heads.

His father, Robert Matt, was a repeat criminal, having been convicted multiple times on charges such as assault, burglary, issuing bad checks and criminal possession of stolen property. He is believed to be dead.

When he was in his early teens, Mr. Matt was shuttled to a youth home. It did not suit him. So one day he stole a horse and rode away.

Tough Guy Aura

Mr. Matt and Mr. Sweat slid into crime early and stayed with it. Mr. Matt got the itch when he 14. He tried to steal a houseboat.

From 1985 to 1991, he was arrested eight times on charges including second-degree assault — the most serious charge — for beating up a woman, as well as criminal possession of a weapon, criminal possession of stolen property and harassment.

“This is where he lived,” Captain Foels said. “He got into different scrapes, and we ended up dealing with him extensively.”

Mr. Matt’s brother, Robert, a year older, was no better. He was arrested four times from 1985 to 1988 on charges such as burglary, larceny and third-degree assault. As far as the authorities know, the brothers each acted on his own and did not commit crimes together.

Legitimate jobs were not to Richard Matt’s taste, though he squeezed in a marriage and divorce and a couple of children.

David Bentley, who retired as a detective with the Tonawanda police, has known Mr. Matt for 30 years. In the 1980s, he used him for years as a criminal informer. “He did a lot of different things for me,” he said.

The detective viewed him as a low-grade criminal until he got involved with drugs. “He was always willing to do theft or a burglary or stuff like that, but he never used drugs until when he was older,” he said. “That’s when things really went south. He started getting violent.”

Mr. Matt did not feel a prison could hold him. In 1986, while serving time on a forgery-related charge, he escaped from an Erie County jail, scaling its barbed-wire fence. A four-day manhunt found him at his brother’s place in Tonawanda.

He emitted the menacing aura of a tough guy. While he was in the Erie County Holding Center in 1991, he found himself mixed up in a peculiar case. He came to know another inmate, David Telstar, a high-living California man being held on charges of embezzling money from his wife, Desiree Telstar, granddaughter of a founder of Warner Bros.

Mr. Telstar offered to bail out Mr. Matt and pay him $100,000 to murder his wife and three others, including her parents. Her father was Stanley Sheinbaum, then the Los Angeles Police Commission president. Mr. Matt agreed, but once out he told Ms. Telstar about the plot and eventually revealed the details to the authorities, apparently to reduce charges pending against him. Subsequently, Mr. Telstar pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy.

During a parole hearing in May 1995, while imprisoned for burglary, Mr. Matt spoke about how he had been accused of raping a woman he met in a bar and how the police confiscated “18 garbage bags of my clothes.”

He was asked about the Telstar matter, and he said: “When I got out, I notified his wife. I said: ‘Look, you know, this guy bailed me out of jail. He put a hit on you.’ I didn’t want to get involved with the police and all that. Next thing I knew, the F.B.I. was knocking on my door. Then ‘Current Affair’ was there with the cameras and everything.”

He was asked if he worried about his safety for reneging.

“It’s been a thought, you know,” he said. “I got stabbed in my leg in Elmira over it, you know. I didn’t have — even know the guy. The guy put a hit on me. What can I do about it?”

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Source: The New York Times | N. R. KLEINFIELD

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