By MICHAEL HILL and MICHAEL VIRTANEN
DANNEMORA, N.Y. (AP) – A prison employee being questioned about her suspected role in the escape of two killers supplied them with prohibited items before they cut their way out of the maximum-security institution, a prosecutor said Friday.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officers refocused their search on a new area after residents reported seeing two men jumping a stone wall.
District Attorney Andrew Wylie would not specify the contraband items that Joyce Mitchell allegedly provided but said they weren’t the power tools that David Sweat and Richard Matt used to break out last weekend. Contraband behind bars can include such things as cellphones, weapons, drugs, tools and unauthorized clothing.
The district attorney also said that in the months before the breakout, Mitchell was investigated over suspicions she had a relationship with one of the men.
Wylie said authorities are “learning more and more information each day from her as far as establishing a timeline on how this process occurred and what her involvement was.”
Mitchell, a 51-year-old instructor at the prison tailor shop, where the two convicts worked, has not been charged.
One of her sons told NBC earlier this week that she would not have helped the inmates escape and that she checked herself into a hospital with chest pains Saturday, the day the breakout was discovered.
The district attorney said he is considering two charges against Mitchell: promoting prison contraband and hindering prosecution by helping the men escape. Each carries up to seven years in prison.
On Thursday, a person close to the investigation said that Mitchell had befriended the two men and agreed to be the getaway driver but never showed up. The person was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sweat, 34, and Matt, 48, cut through steel and bricks and crawled through a steam pipe, emerging from a manhole outside the 40-foot walls of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border.
About 500 state, federal and local law enforcement officers Friday began a seventh day of trying to track down the convicts, and schools in Dannemora were closed for a second day.
State troopers lined a rural road outside Dannemora as they focused on a new search area not far from the woods and swamps that police combed through the day before.
Wylie said there was an investigation within the past year into a possible relationship between Mitchell and Sweat. He gave no details on the nature of the suspected relationship.
“My information is that it was unfounded,” the district attorney said. “There wasn’t sufficient information to either block her out of the facility, have some sort of formal charges within the facility filed against her. But action, I think, was taken to separate the two of them for a period.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that investigators are “talking to several people who may have facilitated the escape.” He warned that the law will come down hard on any prison system employee who crosses the line.
“If you do it, you will be convicted, and then you’ll be on the other side of the prison that you’ve been policing, and that is not a pleasant place to be,” the governor said.
A longtime neighbor was stunned by the suspicions swirling around Mitchell.
“I just can’t believe she’d do something so stupid,” neighbor Sharon Currier said. She said Mitchell is “not somebody who’s off the wall.”
She said Mitchell is a former town tax collector in Dickinson, a community near Dannemora. Skilled at sewing, she has worked for at least five years at the prison, where her husband is also employed, Currier said.
An engineer who has done work at the prison said that the cutting of the cell walls and steam pipe was done with a high degree of professionalism, suggesting the two convicts were either highly proficient with the tools or had help.
“I could have sent my best man up there with an acetylene torch or a plasma cutter and I couldn’t have a better hole,” Larry Jeffords said.
Jeffords said the cutting of the walls and pipe would have taken about four hours of continuous work. He said he couldn’t believe that no one heard the noise or saw anything.
“I’m assuming it was a grinder, and then you were to start that grinder and (begin) cutting your way out. The grinding dust is tremendous – sparks, smoke,” he said.
Virtanen reported from Albany. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Lejla Sarcevic in New York and Chris Carola in Albany contributed to this report.
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