2nd New York prison worker charged in connection with killers’ escape

Posted at 7:54 AM, Jun 25, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-25 07:54:58-04

PLATTSBURGH, New York (CNN) — A second prison employee has been charged in connection with the stunning escape of two convicted murderers from a maximum-security facility in upstate New York earlier this month.

Officer Gene Palmer, a veteran prison guard, gave at least one of the inmates a screwdriver and needle-nosed pliers to help fix electrical breakers in the catwalk area behind their cells, an official familiar with the investigation told CNN on Wednesday.

Palmer, 57, told investigators he supervised Richard Matt and David Sweat doing the work and took the tools back before the end of his shift, the official said. Authorities have said that Matt and Sweat, who are still on the lam, used the catwalks during their elaborate escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility on June 6.

The tools were found at Palmer’s home after police executed a search warrant, the official added.

Palmer’s lawyer, Andrew Brockway, declined to comment specifically on the charges Wednesday. He intends to plead not guilty at a court appearance Thursday afternoon in Plattsburgh, New York, Brockway said.

Palmer posted bail of $25,000 and was released from jail early Thursday.

“Mr. Palmer has been completely cooperative with the investigation,” Brockway said. “He will continue to cooperate. He’s a man of integrity who made some mistakes.”

Palmer also accepted paintings from Matt and Sweat, according to a document detailing the charges against him. After the convicts escaped, he tried to destroy evidence of the paintings, burning some of them in a fire pit at his home and burying others in nearby woods, the document said.

In all, he faces three felony charges — one count of promoting prison contraband and two counts of tampering with physical evidence — and one misdemeanor charge of official misconduct.

Tools smuggled in burger meat

Palmer, who has worked at the prison for 27 years and is now on paid leave, took frozen meat embedded with smuggled tools to the inmates’ cell area, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said Wednesday.

Joyce Mitchell, a supervisor in the prison’s tailor shop, smuggled the tool-laced meat through the main gate at the prison and placed it in a freezer in the tailor shop, according to Wylie. She then asked Palmer to take the meat to the inmates’ cell area in the honor block, the prosecutor said.

Mitchell, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of aiding the escapees, admitted to putting hacksaw blades and drill bits into a hunk of hamburger meat, according to Wylie.

Palmer could have put the meat through a metal detector but he didn’t, which was a violation of prison policy, the prosecutor said.

Mitchell, 51, did not have access to the cells, which is why she needed Palmer to hand it off, according to Wylie.

Mitchell’s lawyer, Steve Johnston, declined Wednesday to comment on what his client might have admitted to, telling CNN he didn’t want to be “in a position of harming her plea-bargaining opportunities.”

Brockway has said Palmer was unaware there was contraband in the meat.

“He understands that he made a mistake with the whole meat fiasco,” he said. The meat incident wasn’t specifically mentioned Wednesday in the document detailing the charges against Palmer.

Killers spend birthdays on the run

The prison guard’s arrest came as more than a dozen investigators from the New York State Inspector General’s office arrived at the prison to investigate possible breaches of security protocols that allowed Matt and Sweat to escape, a state law enforcement official said.

The investigators are going through visitor logs and documents related to prisoner and employee movements at the jail, the official said.

As officials try to figure out what went wrong at the prison, hundreds of law enforcement officers are still rummaging through dense woodland surrounding a burglarized cabin where the fugitives are believed to have been sighted Saturday and where traces of their DNA were found, according to investigators. The 75-square-mile primary search area is located roughly 20 miles west of the prison.

The sprawling manhunt has now stretched into its 20th day — long enough for both escapees to spend their birthdays on the run. Sweat turned 35 on June 14, while Matt hit 49 on Thursday, according to the dates of birth for the two men provided by the U.S. Marshals Service.

State forest rangers describe the terrain where the search is now focused as treacherous, not just for the escapees but for police and other searchers, too.

“The area is heavily forested. The undergrowth is thick,” said Capt. John Strife. “The vegetation is a combination of trees, saplings, and brush.”

CNN’s Jason Carroll reported from Cadyville and Shimon Prokupecz from New York. CNN’s Jethro Mullen in Hong Kong wrote this report. CNN’s Steve Almasy, Ashley Fantz, Chris Welch, Gary Tuchman, Stephanie Gallman and Danelle Garcia contributed to this report.

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