Local VSP forces help track, pursue N.Y. escapees

MALONE, N.Y. — The 16-member Vermont State Police SWAT team, including two troopers now based in the New Haven barracks and one who operated out of that site until recently, joined the 1,300-strong law enforcement task force that ultimately brought two Clinton (N.Y.) Correctional Facility escapees to justice.

New Haven Station Commander Lt. Michael Manley also commands that statewide Tactical Services Unit, and received his orders on June 21 to head to Malone, N.Y., to help out New York State Police with what proved to be a three-week search for convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat.

That search, of course, made national headlines and ended with a U.S. Border Patrol agent on June 26 shooting and killing Matt, 49, near Malone, and a New York trooper on June 28 shooting and arresting Sweat, 35, further north in Constable, N.Y., about one and a half miles south of the Canadian border.

Manley said his phone rang on the 21st with the team’s marching orders.

“Lt. Colonel (Matthew) Birmingham called me at home on Father’s Day and said get the team together and plan to go over to the Dannemora area,” Manley said. “We assembled at the Williston barracks, and we headed up, got on the ferry on the Champlain Islands, and headed across the lake.”

They brought with them a full complement of rolling inventory, Manley said, including 14 cruisers and “two big SWAT vehicles, one an armored truck and the other a personnel carrier.”

The team was glad to go, he said.

“We were trying to help out a neighbor, and it was the right thing to do,” Manley said. “They’ve helped us out a lot in the past, especially with their air support, with their helicopter division. We’ve utilized that a lot in the past, and other resources of theirs. It was nice to give back.”

As well as Manley, the VSP SWAT team also includes Sgt. Matthew Daley, who currently operates out of the New Haven barracks, and Sgt. Eugene Duplissis — and his canine Argus — who worked out of New Haven until January, but who now is a trainer at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford.

They stayed in Malone, and their assignments revolved around that town, the town of Owl’s Head, and the Lake Titus area.

Manley said he split his team into two groups of eight, and they took turns doing 12-hour shifts.

“We were out doing missions 24/7. Sometimes we were clearing camps. One day we cleared the Malone fairgrounds. One day we cleared an apartment building in downtown Malone,” he said. “One day we pushed a riverbank along (the Salmon River) for about five miles. We did some roving patrols at night. We would just drive around in the cruisers.”

It turned out all along they were not far from Matt and Sweat. Manley remembered hearing the calls on that Friday that shots had been heard, shots that turned out to be Matt attempting to hijack a camper. Not long after that, Matt was confronted carrying a shotgun and was shot and killed when he refused to put his hands up.

Manley said his unit was about 10 minutes from that fatal shooting, and his SWAT team was the third on the scene, which was about 20 miles west of the Clinton prison.

“They put those two (national) SWAT teams in with a helicopter, and we responded and were on perimeter while those two teams were investigating that shots-fired call,” Manley said. “And once Matt went down, then obviously we continued to look for Sweat. Pretty much all the SWAT teams that were deployed up there came to the scene eventually.”

The next day, Saturday the 28th, the VSP SWAT team returned to Vermont. It was the day before Sweat was shot twice by a lone New York trooper a few miles from the Canadian border; Sweat survived and is in custody, answering questions about how much help from prison workers he and Matt received in their escape.

Manley said it is hard to evaluate whether Matt and Sweat were smart, lucky or both to elude capture for three weeks, but he said the terrain made it hard work for the task force.  

“It’s definitely a challenge, with how thick the woods are. There are swampy areas, there are mountainous areas. It’s really rural up in that part of the state,” he said.

Certainly, Manley was happy with his team’s performance, especially given that he said the length and scope of the deployment had no precedent. 

“They did well. They didn’t get a whole lot of sleep, but we tried to get them back to the hotel when we could,” Manley said. “They’re motivated people. That’s why they’re on the team. That’s why I picked them to be on the team. We have a rigorous tryout to challenge what they’re made of, and they’ll get the job done no matter what it takes.”

Manley was also pleased with the team’s reception by Vermont’s neighbors.

“The people that live in upstate New York, up there in the north country, were real gracious to us, very receptive. They would be coming up to us when were gassing up the cruiser saying thanks,” Manley said. “There are just really nice people up there, helping us out.”

The team as a whole was happy to be part of the effort, he said.

“It’s nice to help out a neighboring police agency, and we had a lot of support from our chain of command,” Manley said. “Gov. Shumlin called me one day on my cell phone and thanked us, the team, for being out there. So everyone is very thankful, and we were glad we were able to help.”

And, he said, all’s well that ends well.

“Everyone worked as a team,” Manley said. “And at the end of the day, everyone came home safe, and no citizens got hurt.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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