PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — A prison guard charged in connection with the escape of two killers admitted providing them with tools, paint, frozen hamburger and even access to a catwalk electrical box, but claims he never knew they planned to bust out, authorities say.
As the search for the convicts entered its 20th day, Gene Palmer, 57, awaited arraignment Thursday on charges of promoting prison contraband, tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct. He was released from jail on $25,000 bail after his arrest Wednesday night.
Palmer is the second Clinton Correctional Facility employee to be charged since Richard Matt and David Sweat cut their way out of the maximum-security prison in far northern New York, close to the Canadian border, on June 6. Prison tailor shop instructor Joyce Mitchell, 51, is charged with helping them break out.
But in contrast to the allegations against Mitchell, Palmer said he was an unwitting helper.
“I did not realize at the time that the assistance provided to Matt or Sweat made their escape easier,” he told authorities in a signed statement.
In the statement, Palmer admitted providing Matt with paint and paintbrushes. On four occasions over eight months, he supplied Sweat with needle-nose pliers and a screwdriver. He said he gave Sweat access to the catwalk later used in the escape to change the wiring on electrical boxes as “a favor” to make it easier for them to cook in their cells.
And a week before the escape, he delivered to Matt a pound of frozen ground beef in a package left by Mitchell.
“Matt provided me with elaborate paintings and information on the illegal acts that inmates were committing within the facility,” Palmer told authorities. “In turn, I provided him with benefits such as paint, paintbrushes, movement of inmates, hamburger meat, altering of electrical boxes in the catwalk areas.”
District Attorney Andrew Wylie said Mitchell told investigators she smuggled hacksaw blades, a screwdriver and other tools into the prison by hiding them in the frozen meat.
She then put the meat in a refrigerator in the tailor shop, and Palmer took the meat to Sweat and Matt, who were housed in a section where inmates are allowed to cook their meals, according to the district attorney.
Wylie said Thursday that investigators have no proof Palmer knew hacksaw blades were embedded in the meat. And based on Palmer’s statements to police and a polygraph test, investigators have no reason to believe he was knowingly involved in the escape, Wylie said.
After the escape, Palmer burned and buried the inmate paintings, according to court documents.
Palmer, who has been suspended, will plead not guilty, according to his lawyer. The misconduct charge relates to receiving the inmate-made paintings in exchange for the contraband pliers and screwdriver. The tampering charge stems from the destruction of the paintings.
Palmer had worked at the prison in Dannemora for more than 27 years and had a base salary of $72,644. He had known Sweat and Matt for at least five years.
Authorities say the inmates cut through the steel wall at the back of their cells, crawled down a catwalk, broke through a brick wall, cut their way into and out of a steam pipe and then emerged from a manhole outside the prison.
Sweat, 35, was serving a life sentence without parole in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy. Matt, who turned 49 on Thursday, was doing 25 years to life in the kidnapping, torture and hacksaw dismemberment of his former boss.
About 1,100 federal, state and local law enforcement officers took part in Thursday’s search, which focused on a 75-square-mile area dominated by heavy woods.
Officers mustered at a 4-H summer camp in Mountain View, near a hunting cabin 20 west of the Dannemora where police believe the convicts spent time recently.