WILLSBORO, NY - Authorities scoured farms and fields around an upstate New York town on Tuesday, looking for a pair of convicted murderers who escaped from a prison days earlier, a local official said.
The search was prompted by a citizen who spotted two "suspicious men" walking down a road in Willsboro in the middle of a "driving rainstorm" overnight "in an area that's all ... large farms and fields and wooded lots," Town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland said. As the citizen's car approached them, they took off.
"They were walking down the road, not dressed for the elements," Gillilland said. "They ran into the fields, from what I understand. So this behavior ... was suspicious."
Given the meticulous detail involved in the escape, there were concerns fugitives Richard Matt and David Sweat put a similar level of planning into their getaway, including transportation.
But a law enforcement source close to the investigation doesn't think that's what happened, saying a witness and other indicators suggest the men have been on foot since springing themselves from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, about 40 miles north of the search site in the southern part of Willsboro.
Local, state and federal authorities set up a search perimeter there, with Gillilland noting that it was his understanding that people outside that area aren't in special danger. As of 2 p.m., the town supervisor wasn't aware that any clothes, vehicles or other evidence had been found, but it was still relatively early in the process.
The stormy overnight spotting in Willsboro, a town of 2,000 people on Lake Champlain, is one of the first big potential breakthroughs since prison guards found Matt and Sweat's beds empty at 5:30 a.m. Saturday.
Until then, the closest might have been an account from two Dannemora residents' about two men, whom they now believe to be the escaped killers, walking through their backyard shortly after midnight Friday.
"I go look at him (and) I say, 'What the hell are you doing in my yard? Get the hell out of here,'" one of the residents told ABC's "Good Morning America" of that encounter.
The two men complied, one apologizing that he'd been on the wrong street. It wasn't until the next day that the resident, who asked not to be named, and his female friend realized who the trespassers probably were.
Matt and Sweat have killed before, and authorities fear they could kill again -- knowing they have no reason not to go down fighting, given they'll face life behind bars if caught.
Elizabeth Ahern, who lives in Plattsburgh, about 5 miles from the prison and 25 miles south of the Canadian border, isn't taking any chances. The North Country, she says, is a place where people usually don't bother locking their doors and have guns to hunt, not to guard themselves against criminals. But not anymore.
"It's a scary situation," Ahern told CNN's "New Day" on Tuesday. "We are now closing our doors and locking them, and making sure we have knives and guns ready to go, just in case."
Did they plan for what to do after escape?
There have been plenty of instances in which an inmate breaks out, then doesn't know where to go for money, for food, for transportation. That kind of thing takes help or planning.
In this case, there's every indication of a lot of planning -- possibly weeks, months, if not years -- so it would seem logical Matt and Sweat would have planned the getaway as well. Tom Fuentes, a CNN analyst and former FBI assistant director, speculated they could be in Canada, Mexico or anywhere in the United States.
"You would think there would be a Plan B and C that these guys have developed," said Lenny DePaul, a former U.S. Marshals Service regional task force commander. "... These guys, I'm sure they've done their homework."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said they cut through a cell wall that included steel a quarter-inch thick, maneuvered across a catwalk, shimmied down six stories to a tunnel of pipes, followed that tunnel, broke through a double-brick wall, cut into a 24-inch steam pipe, shimmied their way through the steam pipe, cut another hole so they could get out of the pipe, and finally surfaced through a manhole.
"It was really unbelievable," said Cuomo. "If it was a movie plot, you would say that it was overdone."
Expert: 'They had to have help'
Finding the two fugitives is job No. 1 for authorities. Job No. 2 is figuring out how they got out -- and who, if anyone, helped them become the first inmates to escape Clinton Correctional in its 170-year history.
Matthew Horace, a law enforcement veteran who spent years with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said it is "impossible for them to have done this without any help from the inside (of the prison) and the outside."
"They had to have help," Horace said, surmising that the escapees must have gotten their hands on the prison's architectural plans. "... I wouldn't be surprised if, when this all pans out, there's more than one, two, three or five people that helped them on the inside."
Cuomo said it's possible the tools came from contractors performing maintenance work on the prison in Dannemora. The company that employs the maintenance workers has been cooperating with the investigation, New York State Police Maj. Charles Guess said.
If other people are proven to have played a role in Matt and Sweat's escape or their life on the lam, they'll pay a price. Just how big a price depends on their level of involvement. Someone could get a slap on the wrist for a misdemeanor for helping introduce nondangerous contraband into a prison -- or get up to seven years in jail for the class D felony of "hindering prosecution" by providing "criminal assistance" to someone sentenced to 20 years to life for a violent crime.
One prison employee is being questioned as authorities try to determine if she gave a cell phone, money or tools to the escaped inmates, two sources briefed on the investigation told CNN on Tuesday. The woman has given a statement and is being "somewhat cooperative," one source said.
While the woman has not been arrested or charged, criminologist Casey Jordan said the notion of a female employee helping male inmates is certainly possible.
"I don't want to admit that it happens, but I know women who have met men in prisons working there, and fallen in love, and quit their jobs and married them when they got out," Jordan said.
"We call this, very often, hybristophilia. It is the psychological phenomenon where women are attracted to a bad boy. And sometimes the worse he is, the more deep the attraction."
Slain deputy's brother: 'I just hope he doesn't come back'
Matt and Sweat are indeed some of the worst of the worst.
Matt was convicted on three counts of murder, three counts of kidnapping and two counts of robbery after he kidnapped a man and beat him to death in December 1997, state police said. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
He is also a veteran of prison breaks. In 1986, he escaped from an Erie County jail, the New York governor's office said. Upon his capture, Matt was sent to a maximum security prison in Elmira, New York, on charges of escape and forgery. He was released from the Elmira Correctional Facility in May 1990.
Sweat was serving a life sentence without parole for killing sheriff's Deputy Kevin Tarsia in 2002.
It has been years since these murders. While at Clinton Correctional, it appears both men largely changed their behavior -- as evidenced by the fact they were in the prison's "honor block" for those who have gone years without significant disciplinary action, according to a state official briefed on the investigation.
Being in an honor block carries privileges like going outside every day, having hot plates and refrigerators in their cells, and congregating for hours in a central gallery area each evening with fellow inmates, said Rich Plumadore, who worked at Clinton Correctional for 35 years. About 250 to 300 inmates are in this unit at the Dannemora prison.
The worst offenses they were accused of in their prison records were interference, harassment, smuggling and tattooing. But that doesn't mean Matt and Sweat don't pose more serious dangers now that they're on the lam.
That threat is on the mind of Steven Tarsia, the slain deputy's brother, who said knowing Sweat is on the loose is "like living the nightmare over again."
"I just hope he doesn't come back here," he said.
By Greg Botelho, Shimon Prokupecz and Holly Yan, CNN
CNN's Polo Sandoval, Lorenzo Ferrigno, Mary Kay Mallonee, Don Lemon, Alisyn Camerota and David Shortell contributed to this report.