DICKINSON CENTER, New York — Almost as soon as guards discovered that two convicted murderers had broken out of a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, the talk began that someone must have helped them. The tools they used, the knowledge they had and the intricacy of their plan left many convinced that Richard Matt and David Sweat couldn’t have done it alone.
And it didn’t take long for this speculation to focus on one person: Joyce Mitchell.
On Wednesday, New York State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico, without elaborating, said Mitchell had befriended the men and “may have had some sort of role in assisting them.” She’s told investigators that Matt made her feel “special” but didn’t specify she was in love with him, a source familiar with the investigation said.
It has all been a whirlwind for Mitchell, who was relatively anonymous until reports emerged that she had worked with Matt and Sweat, tailoring clothing at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.
Then came the revelation Monday, from a source with knowledge of the investigation, that Mitchell’s cell phone had been used to call several people connected to Matt. It is unclear who made the calls, when they did or if Mitchell knew about them.
Later, another source said that investigators think she had planned to pick up Matt and Sweat after they’d cleared the prison grounds, only to change her mind at the last minute.
Mitchell has not been arrested or even named as a suspect. Authorities are holding off on any move to charge her, worried that any legal action would prevent her from cooperating, a New York state official said. She has answered all questions each time that local prosecutors and state police have gone back to her, according to an official.
“She has been extremely cooperative,” Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said. “She continues to provide us with information critical to the case.”
Son: ‘She’s not the kind of person’ to aid escape
While Mitchell has not spoken publicly, her son has.
Tobey Mitchell, 23, challenged assertions that his mother has done anything wrong, including helping two men convicted of horrific murders to roam free again.
He told NBC News, “She is not the kind of person that’s going to risk her life or other people’s lives to let these guys escape from prison.”
Tobey Mitchell is a senior airman with the Vermont National Guard, said Capt. Dyana Allen, a spokeswoman.
His wife, Paige, told CNN on Wednesday that “95% of what is being said” about her mother-in-law is not true.
“They don’t have the facts to prove this,” she said. “This is just slander and rumor.”
Paige Mitchell said she believed Matt may have persuaded her mother-in-law to contact people for him who knew about art.
“He was interested in art,” she said of Matt. “Her heart was in the right place.”
Paige Mitchell denied that her mother-in-law was to be the getaway driver and that she helped provide power tools used in the escape. Saturday’s hospital visit stemmed from the fact that Joyce Mitchell is a “very nervous person,” she said.
Neighbor: ‘I can’t even sleep at night’
Home for Joyce Mitchell is Dickinson Center, a New York hamlet about 30 miles south of Canada.
Her family’s weathered, two-story residence has a detached garage and a satellite dish. Outside, a banner reads, “Liberty or Death, Don’t Tread on Me,” featuring the coiled rattlesnake from the Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag. Two other flags wave elsewhere from the house: one for the United States and the other for the U.S. Air Force.
Mitchell’s connection to the latter is evident in a picture of a young man in uniform — her son Tobey — with his arm around her, who proudly sports a T-shirt with the words, “Air Force Mom, I raised a Hero!”
Mitchell’s Facebook page indicates she’s married and likes country music singer Tracy Lawrence and the TNT show “Falling Skies.” Her workplace isn’t listed, though she’s worked along with her husband at Clinton Correctional — just over an hour east of Dickinson Center — the last seven years as an industrial training supervisor, earning an annual salary of $57,697, said Jennifer Freeman, a spokeswoman for the New York state comptroller.
After the news broke about Matt and Sweat’s escape, as well as her possible connection, Mitchell went to a hospital because of a panic attack, a source said. Her son, Tobey, told NBC that “she was having severe chest pains and she was concerned about that.”
“My mom, she worries a lot about everything,” he said.
Nonuniformed investigators, meanwhile, have been at her home in Dickinson Center, said her neighbors Raymond and Tammie Gibson, who were friendly but not very close to the Mitchells.
“Every time we see them (the Mitchells) go by, we wave (and) they wave back,” Tammie Gibson said. “She seems like a nice person, and (her husband) is a nice person, too.”
At the same time, the Gibsons acknowledged there’s a lot they don’t know. Whatever the truth is, it has rattled residents of this rural, rugged, idyllic area that is as far from the Hollywood-esque jailbreak as you’ll find.
“It’s scary, it’s a scary thought,” Raymond Gibson said. “I can’t even sleep at night.”