Prison instructor emerges as central figure in escape probe

A wanted poster is displayed in the window

A wanted poster is displayed in the window of a state police officer's car near Dannemora, N.Y., Friday, June 12, 2015. Squads of law enforcement officers are heading out for a seventh day, searching for David Sweat and Richard Matt, two murderers who escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in northern New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) (Credit: AP)

DANNEMORA, N.Y. - In the months before two convicted killers' escape, prison tailor-shop instructor Joyce Mitchell was investigated over a possible relationship with one of the men, authorities say.

Now the 51-year-old woman has become a central figure in the escape probe, suspected of aiding the breakout by supplying the two inmates with prohibited items and agreeing at one point to be the getaway driver.

District Attorney Andrew Wylie said Friday he is considering charges against her.

Authorities are "learning more and more information each day from her, as far as establishing a timeline on how this process occurred and what her involvement was," he said.

Mitchell's family has said she wouldn't have helped the convicts break out.

Meanwhile, the hunt for the inmates refocused on a new area after residents reported seeing two men jumping a stone wall outside the far northern New York town of Dannemora, where David Sweat and Richard Matt cut their way out of their cells last weekend. About 300 searchers were added, bringing the total number of state, federal and local law enforcement officers involved in the manhunt to more than 800.

Mitchell has a $56,000-a-year job overseeing inmates who sew clothes and learn to repair sewing machines at the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility.

Within the past year, officials looked into whether Mitchell had improper ties to the 34-year-old Sweat, who was serving a life sentence for killing a sheriff's deputy, Wylie said. He gave no details on the nature of the suspected relationship.

The investigation didn't turn up anything solid enough to warrant disciplinary charges against her, the district attorney said.

"But action, I think, was taken to separate the two of them for a period," he said.

The state corrections department would not comment on the investigation.

Wylie would not specify what contraband items he believes Mitchell supplied to the killers for their escape, except to say that the objects weren't the power tools the two used to cut through steel, bricks and a steam pipe.

Prison contraband can include such things as cellphones, weapons, drugs, tools and unauthorized clothing.

On Thursday, a person close to the investigation said that Mitchell had befriended the two men and agreed to be the getaway driver but never showed up. The person was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Wylie said he may charge Mitchell with promoting prison contraband and hindering prosecution by helping the men escape. Each charge carries up to seven years in prison.

A former slipper-factory employee who won three terms as tax collector in her town near Dannemora, Mitchell has worked at the prison for at least five years, according to a neighbor, Sharon Currier. Mitchell's husband, Lyle, also works in industrial training there.

"She's a good, good person," Currier said. "She's not somebody who's off the wall."

The garment shop is intended to give prisoners job skills and work habits. In general, an inmate assigned to such a job might work several hours a day there, five days a week, meaning he would have significant contact with supervisors.

Mitchell's union, Civil Service Employees Association Local 1000, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But her daughter-in-law, Paige Mitchell, said this week that her mother-in-law never mentioned Sweat, Matt or any other inmates she encountered. "She doesn't get too involved," Paige Mitchell told the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh.

And Mitchell's son Tobey told NBC that she would not have helped the inmates escape and that she checked herself into a hospital with chest pains on Saturday, the day the breakout was discovered.

___

Klepper reported from Albany. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York and Chris Carola and Michael Virtanen in Albany contributed to this report.

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