In Sunday’s episode of Escape at Dannemora, Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) obtains a key component of his eventual escape plan. He gets some raw meat (yum!) that happens to have shards of a hacksaw embedded within it. The plan is ingenious; Matt only got the meat-covered blades through his waxing relationship with Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette). He and David Sweat (Paul Dano) concocted the plan and, over the course of the next few episodes, will carry it out.
This is based on the true story of Richard Matt, David Sweat, and Joyce Mitchell, three people who collaborated on an escape plan that made national news. Mitchell is currently in prison, as is Sweat — Matt, meanwhile, met a another fate. (Read about that here.) What Escape at Dannemora doesn’t show, though, is how Sweat and Matt arrived in prison in the first place. This information is tangential to the show, but key to understanding Matt and Sweat as characters.
Matt, the more violent of the two, was a repeat offender with a reputation. Speaking to the New York Times in 2015, the investigating officer in Matt’s murder case said the inmate was “the most vicious, evil person I’ve ever come across in 38 years as a police officer.”
Matt had escaped from prison before, too. In 1986, he masterminded his way out of the Erie County Correctional Facility, where he was serving a one-year sentence, per The Washington Post. Police found him five days later, and he finished out his sentence. In 1991, he ended up at the holding center at Erie County due to pending rape charges. There, he caused yet another stir.
At the Erie County holding center, a man named David Telstar offered Matt a hefty sum in exchange for the murder of Telstar’s wife and three other associates. (The money, wired first to Matt’s attorney, was used to post his bail.) It’s at this point that Matt apparently became an informant: According to the LA Times, an anonymous tip alerted the Santa Barbara police to the potential murders. In 2015, retired detective David Bentley told the New York Times that he’d used Matt as a criminal informant during this time period.
“I’ve seen him inflict wounds on himself, cut himself; break his collarbone, and not seek any treatment,” Bentley told the Times. “He’s just totally, totally fearless, and doesn’t respond to pain.”
Matt was always slippery. Even getting to Clinton Correctional Facility was a journey. The murder for which he was imprisoned occurred in 1997, but he didn’t end up in prison until 2008, when he faced trial in the U.S. In 1997, Matt murdered his former boss William Rickerson — and it was grisly. Matt reportedly kidnapped Rickerson with intent to rob his ex-boss of stacks of cash he believed Rickerson had. When Rickerson didn’t cooperate, Matt broke the 75-year-old’s neck with his bare hands. Matt later used a hacksaw — a blade that would become useful in prison in 2015 — to dismember Rickerson. He dropped Rickerson’s body in the Niagara river. A fisherman found Rickerson’s torso days later, according to the Niagara-Gazette.
Following the murder, Matt fled to Mexico, where he ended up in prison again, this time for killing a man in a bar fight. In 2007, Matt was extradited back to the U.S. in a sort of two-for-one deal alongside another American criminal. According to a court reporter who spoke with the Post, the U.S. did not negotiate for Matt; instead, in a bleak Ransom of Red Chief moment, Mexico offered up the disagreeable inmate all on its own.
In 2008, Matt faced trial in Niagara County. The jury found him guilty of his charges, which included three charges of second-degree murder, two charges of first-degree robbery and three charges of first-degree kidnapping. For that, he got two sentences of 25 years in prison, to be served at the same time at — ay! — the Clinton Correctional Facility.
“This isn’t difficult,” the judge told him before his sentencing. Matt’s lawyer, a public defender by the name of Christopher Privateer, maintained that Matt did not commit the crime.
David Sweat’s story is less winding. Sweat was serving time for the murder of deputy sheriff Kevin Tarsia, a murder that looked like tragic collateral damage. Sweat and two other accomplices were in the middle of stealing fireworks on July 4, 2002, when Tarsia intervened. When he tried to stop them, Sweat and accomplice Jeffrey A. Nabinger Jr. started shooting at Tarsia, getting 15 bullets in the officer before driving over his body with their car. The third man, Shawn J. Devaul, reportedly did not fire his gun and did not face a murder charge in the subsequent trial. Nabinger and Sweat were charged with first-degree murder, and Sweat earned a sentence of life without parole.
Which brings them both to Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison that once also housed the rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard.