The massive manhunt for Richard Matt and David Sweat gripped the nation for three weeks. Hundreds of officers searched door to door and through the woods to find any trace of them.
However, it was the work done inside a forensics crime lab in Albany by two scientists who helped crack the biggest case of the summer, thanks to a key piece of evidence taken out of a brown paper bag.
“You never know what evidence you obtain could make a difference in the case,” said Peter Lewis, a forensic scientist with the New York State Police.
Before we reveal what was inside the evidence bag that helped capture one of the convicts, let’s start from the beginning.
“There were many items that came in that morning,” said Lewis.
He was responsible for testing some of those items.
Lewis said, “That week it was just a lot of analysts staying late, coming in early, a lot of people sacrificing a lot of time to get this done.”
Two of America’s most wanted fugitives were on the run for about a week. Lewis was back in the state police crime lab in Albany swabbing, testing, and analyzing.
One of his first items was not so glamorous. Lewis explained, “One of the first items I did was some fecal matter that was collected from one of the camps.”
Cheryl Moorhead, another state police forensic scientist worked in the same lab. “I got a call on a Saturday evening that they’d observed an individual leaving a camp site,” she said.
they were submitting the evidence as soon as they could
That camp site was near Owl’s Head, New York in Franklin County, but at the time there was a heavy search focused near the Pennsylvania border. The search had shifted south, but that was about to change.
“We knew if DNA was found it would shift their search,” explained Moorehead.
So she went to work, examining every square inch of clothing that was submitted to her, “They submitted various personal care items,” she said.
Items she swabbed — inside and out. “There’s usually skin cells left behind on clothing,” Moorehead added.
Julie Pizziketti, is the Director of the Biological Science Section at the crime lab, “I’ve been here 20 years and this is the first time DNA has ever been used to find people,” she said.
Pizziketti added, within 12 hours they had DNA confirmations for both Sweat and Matt, after running the samples through a genetic analyzer. “In that particular case we had DNA evidence that matched both Sweat and Matt, which was huge,” she stated.
Even bigger, considering a week had passed, and no sign of either fugitive. “They had no idea where Sweat and Matt were. They could have been in Mexico, in Canada. It was our DNA that showed they were right near the prison,” Pizziketti said.
Twenty days after their elaborate escape, just three days after the DNA match, Richard Matt was found, shot and killed. “That was the first time DNA had such an incredible immediate impact,” Pizziketti said.
However, Sweat was still out there, and back at the lab Peter Lewis was digging through more evidence, which brings us back to the first bag and what was inside. “One of them was a bag with salt and pepper shaker that she explained to me they used to mask scent of dogs,” Lewis explained.
He swabbed every inch of 2 pepper shakers that were submitted. “It could have been touched held, anywhere,” Lewis said.
After drying out the swab, he scraped off the samples to be analyzed. “First sign of the escapee that they had, I think it was Sweat after he left prison. It was important piece of information,” Lewis added.
Pizziketti adding, “We did something that no one thought we could ever do,”
Pinpointing two criminals and their location by using DNA to track two of the most dangerous men while they were on the run in New York State.