New York prison escape: Towns under virtual lockdown

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DANNEMORA, New York – Melissa’s Barber Shop in the upstate New York hamlet of West Chazy was open for business Thursday, even though the front door was shuttered.

Inside, owner Melissa Guerin’s eyes veered nervously between a surveillance camera monitor and the locked front door. No hair was being cut.

“They’ve shaken up our community,” Guerin, 41, said of two convicted murderers who escaped from a nearby prison.

Life in the sleepy hamlets and towns shadowed by the Adirondack Mountains has been transformed by incessant rumors, roadblocks, buzzing helicopters, troopers in schools, residents under lockdown and the invasion of a small army of law enforcement officers.

West Chazy is about 30 minutes from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, where fugitives Richard Matt and David Sweat on Saturday pulled off a breakout worthy of a Hollywood movie.

They were the first to escape from the maximum security prison in its 170-year history, shattering the sense of peace in Dannemora and surrounding communities.

“It’s like a military state,” said Steve Lashway, who runs a meat market and deli in Dannemora.

‘Like a lockdown’

Thomas LaSalle, 31, said he has been told to stay locked in his house as the manhunt continues. Some residents could only leave their homes with a state police escort. Armored vehicles drive by now and then. He called the whole ordeal “very unnerving,” with police visible everywhere and helicopters overhead.

In the rain overnight, groups of officers stood guard every 100 feet, LaSalle said.

LaSalle said his wife and two daughters have left town. He hunkered down in the house with a cousin. They’re both fully armed.

“I got the shakes,” he said. “It’s a lot of excitement. It’s like a lockdown.”

The day after the breakout was discovered, law enforcement officers combed through all school district buildings, every school bus, and the woods and swamps surrounding the middle school and high school.

A state trooper had stood guard at every school, but on Thursday classes were canceled. Bus drivers had waited for children who wanted to remain inside their homes until buses arrived. Recess periods were held indoors.

Escapes not a consideration

The manhunt involves more than 500 law enforcement officers — about the size of West Chazy’s population.

“People are eager to get back to the daily routine and the things that they do around here,” said Jonathan Parks, superintendent of the Saranac Central School District. “People live around here for a reason. It’s quiet. It’s serene. Your daily routine doesn’t really involve a whole lot of thought about danger. That’s why we’re here.”

While the school district had prepared for active shooters and other emergencies, escaped convicts were not a consideration.

“Everybody just has assumed that that’s a given that no one can get out of there,” Parks said of the notorious prison. “So that’s certainly not been on our radar at all.”

On Thursday, law enforcement converged on a site where tracking dogs picked up a scent authorities suspect was from the escapees, sources said.

A large-perimeter search area has been set up around this spot, which is about 3 miles from the prison, according to a state official and another source briefed on the investigation.

In addition to the scent, investigators found an imprint either from a shoe or boot, as well as multiple food wrappers in the area, one of the two sources said. Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said that possible bedding — in the form of an indent in grass or leaves — has also been discovered.

‘Little Siberia’

“Life has been insane,” Lashway told CNN on Thursday. “We have … officers on every corner with shotguns, and there are roadblocks up everywhere.”

Rumors about the fugitives’ whereabouts were rampant.

“It’s been crazy with all the rumors,” Lashway said. “Just about every day, somebody comes into the shop and says, ‘They’ve got ’em. They’ve got ’em.’ But nope, they don’t. The next day same thing.”

Overall, business at his meat market is down, except for sandwich and coffee sales to law enforcement.

“I’ve been making a lot of subs,” he said.

Opened in 1845, the Clinton Correctional Facility is also known as “Little Siberia.” The name stems not only from its remote and cold location but also its history as home to some of the most hardened inmates in the history of New York crime.

“You never really think of somebody getting out and hiding in the area,” said Parks, the schools superintendent.

At Melissa’s Barber Shop, Guerin said her sons had been keeping her company out of concern for her safety. Customers had been arriving in pairs. On Thursday, she was alone, with the door locked.

“This has had a big impact on my business,” she said. “I’m a little nervous. I know that sounds silly but you never know.'”

‘Infamous history’

It’s a close-knit community. The barbershop’s clientele is largely divided between the older and younger generations of workers at the Clinton Correctional Facility, one of the largest public employers in the area. Guerin heard about the escape before it was on the news.

“I have a lot of correctional officers who come here,” Guerin said. “They’re very protective of me… One of the officers wanted me to be safe. It was Saturday morning. He just wanted to let me know. He called and sent pictures of the escapees.”

An independent advocacy group called the Correctional Association of New York has described the prison as a place that “has an infamous history of staff violence, brutality, dehumanization and racist attitudes that are an affront to any sense of humanity.”

The notorious Mafioso Charles “Lucky” Luciano did 10 years there before being deported to Italy.

Robert Chambers, the so-called preppy murderer, was transferred there after committing infractions at another prison. Chambers, who claimed that Jennifer Levin died accidentally during rough sex, was convicted of manslaughter — and, later, of drug offenses.

The bond between the surrounding communities and the prison runs deep.

“Permanent settlement in Dannemora began in 1838 and Dannemora was officially incorporated as a village in 1901, growing up around the Clinton Correctional Facility,” the village website said.

‘Are they here?’

The prison houses about 3,000 inmates, according to the website.

“My Grandfather Kennedy worked on the prison farm,” said Michael Maggy, a co-owner and pharmacist at Maggy Pharmacy, across the street from the prison.

“My Grandfather Maggy worked at the annex. My Uncle Russell worked in the prison system. So did my cousins and a lot of my best friends. I always valued what they did. But it does desensitize you, driving by every day, of what’s actually behind the wall.”

The military-type precision with which local, state and federal law enforcement personnel have responded to the breakout has given people confidence, Maggy said.

“Even though we’re still aware that these bad guys … are still out there and they may be still here, it’s making us feel very protected and a little more comfortable,” he said. “We’re very concerned. Everyone who has a dog that barks at night, ‘Is it an animal or are they here?'”

Parks said many correctional officers and prison employees have children in the district schools.

“They realize that the best of the best are here in the area looking” for the convicted murderers, he said. “That leads to a sense of security.”

Parks has a son in the eighth grade.

“Certainly everybody has in the back of their mind what could happen,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. We’re all certain that there will be a significant review of practices and procedures at that prison. We’ll all pretty much bet our paychecks that it will be another 100 years before somebody escapes from that place.”