From jailbreak to capture, what went right – and wrong – in the search for the escaped Pennsylvania inmate
By Ray Sanchez
(CNN) — The escape of convicted murderer Danilo Cavalcante and the nearly two-week manhunt leading to his capture thrust Pennsylvania authorities under a glaring spotlight.
From the manner in which Cavalcante crab-walked up prison walls to freedom to the tower guard who did not see or report his escape to his ability to elude capture despite numerous sightings and a search team of hundreds of officers, law enforcement officials had to repeatedly defend their efforts to find the fugitive.
The intense manhunt began on August 31, when Cavalcante broke out of the Chester County Prison.
On Wednesday morning, after eluding as many as 500 local, state and federal officers, Cavalcante was surrounded in a wooded area of South Coventry Township and taken down by a four-year-old police dog named Yoda.
Here’s what went right — and wrong — in the escape and manhunt for the 34-year-old fugitive:
Questions about a brazen daylight escape
Cavalcante broke out of prison about two weeks after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder for the 2021 killing of his former girlfriend, Deborah Brandão.
Surveillance footage showed the inmate in a narrow space between two walls in an exercise yard. He placed his hands and feet on either side and “crab-walked” up. He then ran across a roof, scaled a fence and pushed his way through razor wire to freedom, according to the jail’s acting warden, Howard Holland.
“You know, when you look at that video of him crab walking up the wall, in the wider shot you see another prisoner standing there who appears right when he starts his climb and disappears right when he goes out of view,” said CNN chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst John Miller. “So there’s the question of, ‘Was there a lookout involved?’”
Cavalcante employed a climbing technique another inmate used to escape in May.
Whoever was supposed to monitor the 160 cameras at the prison did not see the escape unfold, Holland said. A guard in a tower overlooking prisoners did not see Cavalcante slip away.
The tower guard was first placed on administrative leave and later fired. The escape is under investigation.
In May, an inmate named Igor Bolte climbed onto the prison roof and dropped down to a less secure area, according to court documents. He was captured less than a mile from the prison about five minutes after his escape.
Authorities said they’re also investigating will whether Cavalcante and Bolte knew each other.
“I think obviously there are questions that Chester County officials are going to have to answer as to how the suspect was able to escape particularly given the history at that jail,” Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said.
Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan said earlier this month that prison officials – after Cavalcante’s escape – have taken steps to enhance security.
“The prison is very aware of whatever vulnerabilities they had, and they have made efforts to correct those vulnerabilities,” Ryan said.
Officials believed razor wire – added after Bolte escaped – would prevent jailbreaks, Holland said.
“Again, the one thing we didn’t take into account was a failure on the human element side. We only focused on the physical infrastructure and not necessarily the human element,” he said shortly after Cavalcante broke out.
He’s seen numerous times but proves elusive
From the day after Cavalcante escaped to Monday, authorities reported he was spotted at least 10 times, either by residents or on surveillance footage.
Immediately after his escape, authorities began to search within two miles of the prison in a heavily wooded area of Pocopson Township and Chester County. A resident spotted the fugitive in a creek bed just days after he broke out but he fled into the woods before police could nab him.
The search perimeter expanded slightly after he had been on the run about a week. A trail camera recorded Cavalcante at Longwood Gardens, a popular botanical garden nearly three miles from the prison, and just south of where law enforcement had been looking for him.
“There’s a lot of ravines, a lot of tall fields, a lot of grass, a lot of hiding spaces for a guy that is 5 foot, 120 pounds,” Robert Clark, supervisory deputy US marshal for Pennsylvania’s eastern district, said on September 5.
Aside from the rugged landscape, searchers also coped with extreme heat and humidity on some days.
Authorities came across Cavalcante’s footprints “and there have been other indicators to us that he’s passed through a certain area,” Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens told reporters about a week into the manhunt.
The number of officers searching for Cavalcante on the ground grew from about 250 to nearly 400 by September 8.
“We’ve got a large perimeter secured… I’m optimistic,” Bivens said.
Asked why that many officers weren’t on the ground already, Bivens said: “You will see these numbers rise and fall… We had as many as we needed for the various operations that we had going on.”
Bivens said law enforcement officers were also involved behind the scene in investigative and technological work.
“It doesn’t do us any good to bring in all of those resources and pull them from other places because they are not just sitting around with nothing to do,” he said. “They’ve got policing functions elsewhere when they’re not here and so, there’s a balance there.”
Andrew McCabe, CNN senior law enforcement analyst and former FBI deputy director, said authorities had a messaging problem early on.
“If they made a mistake anywhere, it was a very minor one, and it was in communication with the public,” McCabe said.
“Some of their statements early on were very confident, maybe overly confident. We have him pinned down in a perimeter. We’re confident he’s in there… Statements with that level of confidence tend to elevate people’s expectations, maybe unrealistically.”
Fugitive slips perimeter, steals van
The manhunt intensified last weekend. Authorities said Cavalcante managed to escape their search perimeter and steal a van about three-quarters of a mile away.
The van owners – who identified themselves as a local dairy farm – had left the keys inside their delivery vehicle, which Cavalcante used last Saturday to flee some 20 miles north to East Pikeland Township. The fugitive then unsuccessfully attempted to contact two acquaintances.
Authorities did not learn he had gotten out from under them and shaved his beard until the following day. The stolen van, which had run out of gas, was ditched behind a barn in a township west of where Cavalcante had been sighted the night before. The search area now shifted to northern Chester County.
“No perimeter is 100% secure, ever,” Bivens said, adding, “I wish it had not happened.”
Charles Ramsey, CNN law enforcement analyst and a former police chief, said there would be gaps in the perimeter of that size.
“There are going to be some weaknesses,” Ramsey said. “And unfortunately, (Cavalcante) was able to exploit a weakness and at least escape that particular area, find transportation, and then go to an area that he was familiar with.”
McCabe said law enforcement “didn’t get a lot of lucky breaks” and fugitives sometimes slip out of the perimeters of a manhunt.
“It’s frustrating for the community and everybody watching it, but those sorts of things happen,” McCabe said.
The tide began to turn on Monday night, when a resident told police a man resembling the fugitive entered his garage and stole a .22 caliber rifle. The resident drew a pistol and fired at the man as he fled.
The search team now involved about 500 law enforcement officers – including the Pennsylvania State Police, FBI, ATF, and the US Marshals – who searched the area around the shooting. Police set up a perimeter stretching several miles in each direction.
Bivens defended law enforcement’s actions during the search and compared it to trying to find a needle in a haystack.
“Nothing has gone wrong,” he said Tuesday.
Shapiro said authorities were “working our tails off” to capture Cavalcante and he had “the utmost confidence” in the State Police team leading the manhunt.
Finally, ‘they caught a break’
A big break came early Wednesday, when authorities learned a residential burglar alarm had gone off shortly after midnight within the latest search perimeter.
A Drug Enforcement Administration aircraft using thermal imaging technology detected a heat signal in the area about 1 a.m., according to Bivens.
“The technology really played an important role in this,” said Ron Johnson, a retired captain with the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Ramsey added: “Things had been going against them for a period of time, but they caught a break when they were able to pick up the heat signature from the DEA surveillance plane.”
Bad weather and lightning forced the aircraft to leave but tactical teams from the state police and Border Patrol began moving in on the area where the heat source was located about 8 a.m.
“They were able to move in very quietly,” Bivens said. “They had the element of surprise.”
Cavalcante tried to escape, crawling through thick underbrush with the stolen rifle, Bivens said. Border Patrol deployed a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois male named Yoda. The dog subdued Cavalcante, who suffered a minor scalp wound. He resisted but was forcibly taken back into custody.
“There’s nothing that I … or really anyone else can look at to say, ‘Well, you know, the Pennsylvania State Police, they shouldn’t have done this or should have done something that they neglected to do,’” McCabe said.
“They stayed in there,” he added. “Key for me was them bringing in a massive amount of resources from outside their community.”
Daniel Brunner, a retired FBI supervisory agent, said the coordination of the local, state and federal agencies was critical.
“The communication, the cooperation, it is remarkable,” he said.
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