New York prison worker in spotlight after convicted killers escape

Posted at 5:42 PM, Jun 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-06-12 19:42:30-04
By Greg Botelho and Jason Carroll


DICKINSON CENTER, New York (CNN) — Almost as soon as guards discovered that two convicted murderers had broken out of a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, the talk began that someone must have helped them. The tools they used, the knowledge they had and the intricacy of their plan left many convinced that Richard Matt and David Sweat couldn’t have done it alone.

And it didn’t take long for this speculation to focus on one person: Joyce Mitchell.

Mitchell was arrested Friday by New York State Police and charged with one felony count of promoting prison contraband in the first degree and one misdemeanor count of criminal facilitation in the fourth degree.

She was in custody and was to be arraigned Friday evening.

Mitchell, 51, faces up to eight years behind bars if convicted, authorities said.

The prison tailor befriended the men and “may have had some sort of role in assisting them,” New York State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico said Wednesday, becoming one of the first officials to name Mitchell on the record.

But officials had been talking to her since Sunday. Almost every day she would voluntarily meet with investigators and give them information about the case.

Law enforcement sources revealed on Friday that Mitchell gave the inmates hacksaw blades, drill bits and two pairs of lighted eyeglasses. Authorities also have said Mitchell planned to pick up the escapees, only to back out at the last minute. And a source with knowledge of the investigation said her cell phone was used to call people connected to Matt, though it’s not clear who made the calls, when they did or if Mitchell knew.

Beyond the matter of what Mitchell did for the two men — though her relatives have staunchly defended her — is the question of, if it’s true she did, why?

What’s clear is that she got to know Matt and Sweat working at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. Mitchell has told investigators that Matt made her feel “special” but didn’t specify she was in love with him, a source familiar with the investigation said.

New York State Department of Corrections officials had previously received a complaint about Mitchell’s relationship with one of the two escaped inmates, according to a state official briefed on the investigation. According to Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie, the corrections department found there wasn’t enough evidence to punish her.

But, he added: “I don’t believe that the information was that there was absolutely no relationship.”

Wylie said Sweat was removed temporarily from the prison tailor shop, where he and Mitchell worked. And this complaint spurred investigators to zero in on Mitchell from the outside, the official said.

Mitchell had been coming in to talk to and provide new, useful details regularly to investigators — without a lawyer present — with the district attorney speculating she feels “responsibility and guilty for her involvement and … wants to help that situation or help herself out.”

“She has been extremely cooperative,” Wylie said. “She continues to provide us with information critical to the case.”

Son: ‘She’s not the kind of person’ to aid escape

While Mitchell has not spoken publicly, her son has.

Tobey Mitchell, 23, challenged assertions that his mother has done anything wrong, including helping two men convicted of horrific murders to roam free again.

He told NBC News, “She is not the kind of person that’s going to risk her life or other people’s lives to let these guys escape from prison.”

Tobey Mitchell is a senior airman with the Vermont Air National Guard, said Capt. Dyana Allen, a spokeswoman.

Tobey Michell’s wife, Paige, told CNN on Wednesday that “95% of what is being said” about her mother-in-law is not true.

“They don’t have the facts to prove this,” she said. “This is just slander and rumor.”

Paige Mitchell said she believed Matt may have persuaded her mother-in-law to contact people for him who knew about art.

“He was interested in art,” she said of Matt. “Her heart was in the right place.”

Paige Mitchell denied that her mother-in-law was to be the getaway driver and that she helped provide power tools used in the escape. Saturday’s hospital visit stemmed from the fact that Joyce Mitchell is a “very nervous person,” she said.

Neighbor: ‘I can’t even sleep at night’

Home for Joyce Mitchell is Dickinson Center, a New York hamlet about 30 miles south of Canada.

Her family’s weathered, two-story residence has a detached garage and a satellite dish. Outside, a banner reads, “Liberty or Death, Don’t Tread on Me,” featuring the coiled rattlesnake from the Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag. Two other flags wave elsewhere from the house: one for the United States and the other for the U.S. Air Force.

Mitchell’s connection to the latter is evident in a picture of a young man in uniform — her son Tobey — with his arm around her as she proudly sports a T-shirt with the words, “Air Force Mom, I raised a Hero!”

Mitchell’s Facebook page indicates she’s married and likes country music singer Tracy Lawrence and the TNT show “Falling Skies.” Her workplace isn’t listed, though she’s worked along with her husband at Clinton Correctional — just over an hour east of Dickinson Center — the last seven years as an industrial training supervisor, earning an annual salary of $57,697, said Jennifer Freeman, a spokeswoman for the New York state comptroller.

Her husband, Lyle Mitchell, is under investigation for possible knowledge or involvement, authorities said. He has not been charged.

After the news broke about Matt and Sweat’s escape, as well as her possible connection, Joyce Mitchell went to a hospital because of a panic attack, a source said. Her son, Tobey, told NBC that “she was having severe chest pains and she was concerned about that.”

“My mom, she worries a lot about everything,” he said.

Investigators, meanwhile, have been at her home in Dickinson Center, said her neighbors Raymond and Tammie Gibson, who were friendly with but not very close to the Mitchells.

“Every time we see (the Mitchells) go by, we wave (and) they wave back,” Tammie Gibson said. “She seems like a nice person, and (her husband) is a nice person, too.”

At the same time, the Gibsons acknowledged there’s a lot they don’t know. Whatever the truth is, it has rattled residents of this rural, rugged, idyllic area that is as far from the Hollywood-esque jailbreak as you’ll find.

“It’s scary, it’s a scary thought,” Raymond Gibson said. “I can’t even sleep at night.”

CNN’s Greg Botelho reported and wrote this story from Atlanta, and CNN’s Jason Carroll reported from upstate New York. CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz, Steve Almasy, Kevin Bohn and Lorenzo Ferrigno contributed to this report.