In Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora, Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro play a pair of inmates intent on escaping the high-security facility where they're serving long sentences. Dano plays David Sweat, a reedy prisoner who romances Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, and del Toro plays Richard Matt, a more ambitious felon who’s willing to do anything to get out of jail. They had similar stories, but their fates led them to very different places.
This is the true story of Matt and Sweat, the inmates from Escape at Dannemora.
Sweat and Matt were both in prison for two violent crimes. Matt was serving 25 years to life for the murder of his former boss, William Rickerson. With the help of an accomplice — Matt always had accomplices — he kidnapped Rickerson and tortured him, demanding he reveal where he kept his money. He ultimately killed Rickerson by breaking his neck with his hands, chopped him up with a hacksaw and dropped his body parts in the Niagara River. This was in 1997, years before he was apprehended. Following Rickerson’s murder, Matt first fled to Mexico, where he killed again (a bar fight) and ended up in a local prison. He was later extradited to the U.S., where, yes, he found his way to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.
Sweat doesn’t have quite the same grisly, slippery history. Per the New York Times, Sweat was in prison for the murder of Broome County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Tarsia on July 4, 2002. Sweat and two others were in the middle of a burglary — they’d stolen fireworks from a local store — when Tarsia confronted them. They immediately started shooting at Tarsia, landing 22 bullets in Tarsia before they left the body in the parking lot. Sweat earned a first-degree murder charge and ended up in Clinton Correctional.
In the manhunt for the two inmates, both Sweat and Matt got shot at separate times, although the former survived. First, border patrol agents zeroed in on Matt. On June 26, 2015, after Matt failed to put his hands up for law enforcement, he was shot and killed. Two days later, Sweat was captured after being shot twice by authorities. He landed in Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, New York.
Following the highly publicized manhunt for Sweat and Matt, it seemed Sweat’s story was over. In the immediate aftermath of the escape, Sweat was cast as the accomplice to Matt, a willful idiot who ended up embroiled in Matt’s plan. (To a certain extent, this is how he’s portrayed in the Showtime series as well.) But later, Sweat claimed that he was the real mastermind behind the escape plan. As if to prove his point, he later devised another escape plan and used the plan to gain more visitation time.
Via his post-escape girlfriend Fran Malanik, Sweat effectively communicated to authorities that he had designs on another escape plan. In exchange for details on this plan, he said, he would like more visiting privileges so he could see Malanik more frequently. Sweat’s plan hinged on the idea that, after revealing the flaws in Five Points’ security, authorities would allow him some leeway. He didn’t want to escape but instead wanted to help the prison tighten its security. Following his discussion with authorities, Sweat sat down with the Times to discuss his plan in detail, although the paper declined to print explicit details of the plan. It was in vain, though: He was moved to Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York after it all, and denied the privileges he sought. Plus, investigators found that Sweat’s plan was “without merit” and have insisted that his move to Attica was not in response to Sweat’s plan.
For someone who’s already escaped one prison, though, maybe it was worth a try.