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Friday, June 26, 2015

Hollywood vs. reality

As you've probably heard, Richard Matt, one of the two escaped killers from Dannemora Prison in upstate New York who have received so much publicity since, was shot and killed by police in the woods about 50 miles west of the prison.

Much of the initial coverage likened their escape to that of the Tim Robbins character in The Shawshank Redemption. Matt and David Sweat,  the other killer, had an accomplice on the inside. But even so, their escape took a lot of planning and ingenuity.

There's one crucial difference between the the movie and the recent escape though. In Shawshank, the mild-mannered character played by Tim Robbins is innocent of the murder of his wife, for which he was convicted. Richard Matt and David Sweat, were far from innocent. Sweat was convicted, along with two others, of the murder of a New York State Trooper, and was serving life without parole.

Of the two men, however, Matt was definitely the scarier one. A few excerpts from the NY Times article about him which came out a couple weeks ago, A Convicted Murderer's Escape Alarms Investigators From His Past:

It was 1997, and when investigators identified the remains as those of William L. Rickerson, they zeroed in on Richard W. Matt, a former convict who had been hired by Mr. Rickerson, and whose name was familiar to law enforcement officials in and around this town north of Buffalo.

Eventually convicted of killing his boss, Mr. Matt is now at the center of the biggest manhunt in the nation after and he and another inmate, David Sweat, escaped from a maximum-security prison in Dannemora, on the northeastern edge of the state. Mr. Matt was serving a sentence of 25 years to life with no chance of parole before 2032.

For the authorities who investigated the murder of Mr. Rickerson, who was beaten and dismembered, news of the escape was an alarming reminder of Mr. Matt and his brazen efforts to elude the police.

In 1986, he had escaped from a jail in Erie County. About a decade later, after Mr. Rickerson’s death, Mr. Matt fled to Mexico, where he killed an American man at a bar and served several years in prison before being brought back in 2007 to stand trial here in Niagara County.

“You can never have enough security with him,” said Gabriel DiBernardo, a retired captain with the North Tonawanda Police Department who was the chief of detectives leading the investigation into Mr. Rickerson’s death. “You can never trust him. You can never turn your back on him.”

Mr. DiBernardo, who retired in 1998, offered a sentiment echoed by others in law enforcement here: “He is the most vicious, evil person I’ve ever come across in 38 years as a police officer….”

Mr. Matt was someone to be regarded as “extremely dangerous,” said one retired law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, not wishing to remind Mr. Matt of his name. “A lot of people get killed,” he said. “Not many killers take the time to dismember the body...”

When Mr. Matt returned to the United States to face trial in Mr. Rickerson’s death, officials took extraordinary security measures: A sniper watched over the outside of the courthouse. Double the usual number of deputies were posted inside the courtroom. The defendant was required to wear an electric stun belt.

And the glass that covered the wood counsel tables was removed, out of concern that Mr. Matt could break the glass and used the shards as weapons, according to the retired law enforcement official.

At the time, Mr. Matt’s lawyer argued that the security measures were excessive and would negatively influence the jury. But the precautions reflected just how wary he made the authorities. “It can never be overdone with Rick Matt,” Mr. DiBernardo, 78, said, pointing to Mr. Matt’s unusual physical and mental abilities. “He’s certainly not a dumb individual,” he said. “He’s a cunning individual, and a strong individual, physically strong. There’s no question he can handle himself.”

David Bentley, a retired detective who was with the City of Tonawanda Police Department for 29 years, said he had known Mr. Matt for nearly three decades. In the 1980s, he used him as a criminal informant, he said.

Mr. Matt had long been willing to flout the rules. Mr. Bentley recalled a story his informant had shared: When Mr. Matt was 14, he ran away from a youth home and stole a horse to make his escape. Over time, Mr. Bentley said he saw him spiral down, becoming more violent and unpredictable.

“I’m very concerned that people are going to get hurt the longer he’s out,” Mr. Bentley, 67, said. “I’ve seen him inflict wounds on himself, cut himself; break his collarbone and not seek any treatment. He’s just totally, totally fearless, and doesn’t respond to pain.”

Here is the picture the Times ran with the article: 

Here is his more recent, widely circulated mugshot: 

In both pictures he exudes a certain glowering malevolence. It goes without saying that Matt was a sociopath. There is much about him beyond the two murders that screamed sociopathy. For instance, that he didn't just kill Rickerson, but tortured him first

Matt he escaped from his "youth home" when he was 14 by stealing a horse. That sounds dramatic and daring -- like something out of a movie. And it shows the kind of resourcefulness and nerve that we like our cinematic protagonists to have. But in real life, the people who show that kind of recklessness are far more likely to be sociopathic.

A "youth home" can refer to either a foster home or a facility for juvenile delinquents. If it was the former, it means his own background was dysfunctional; if the latter, that he exhibited his criminal tendencies from a young age. 

The best criminal informants are, of course, people who are absolutely without loyalty -- sociopaths.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Matt was how scared the law enforcement officers themselves seemed to be of him. Those extra security measures -- the snipers, that electronic stun belt, and the removal of glass from the tables -- were evocative of Hannibal Lecter. 

Matt was scary because he was, like Lecter, so capable. He was strong, crafty, and impervious to pain. A weak, dumb, fey little sociopath simply wouldn't inspire the same fear. 

According to a NY Post article about his accomplice:

Sources said the worker may have been wooed by one of the escaped cons, Richard Matt, 48, an infamous lady killer.

“He has a way with the ladies,” the source said.

Another source, retired Detective David Bentley, who helped put away Matt for the 1997 murder of a North Tonawanda businessman, added, “When [Matt’s] cleaned up, he’s very handsome and, in all frankness, very well endowed. He gets girlfriends any place he goes.”

Charm is, of course, another sociopathic trait. And it just makes Matt all the more scary. (A far as I know, penis size is independent of character.) 

But when he couldn't charm women, Matt was not averse to raping them, according to the Daily Mail, a crime for which he was also convicted.

He also attacked a nurse in 1991 with a knife.

Cool Hand Luke, played by Paul Newman, was a decorated Korean War vet who was arrested for cutting the heads off parking meters one drunken night. He never hurt anybody to get into jail, and once  there, he adhered to a strict code of honor.

Papillon (Steve McQueen) was framed for the murder of a pimp. 

When George Clooney escapes from the Glades prison in Out of Sight, he acts like a perfect gentleman to Jennifer Lopez even after semi-accidentally taking her hostage.

None of these movie characters is a truly bad guy, so we root for them to escape from their prisons, which are usually run by evil wardens. 

But that's Hollywood. Richard Matt was real life. Don't ever mistake the two.

Unless you're watching Silence of the Lambs.

All that said, I have to admit, I can't help but feel a certain admiration for Matt. He was strong, smart, charming, resourceful, and impervious to pain. The world is better off without him, but he was unquestionably a formidable guy. 


Anonymous said...

Matt came from a dysfunctional family (he had a father and brother who are/were criminals). I'm thankful that at least one of the escaped prisoners was caught, being killed in the process. Now, hopefully, the other prisoner will be apprehended.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Yes, hopefully Sweat will be caught soon. He's a murderer too, but somehow, he isn't nearly as scary as Matt was.

Steven said...

Parts of his story really are like something out of a movie. Maybe one day they'll sugarcoat it all and make one.

What is your take on Chis Kyle?

John Craig said...

Steven --
I doubt they'll sugarcoat Matt himself, his story is too well known, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see elements of his personality turn up in other characters.

Not sure what you're asking about Chris Kyle. Are you asking if I think he's a sociopath, as there was evidently some discussion about? Honestly, I don't know much about him, haven't even seen American Sniper yet.

Steven said...

I watched it last night. It was quite good but I thought it got a bit boring two thirds of the way through. I also thought it gave a one sided view of the Iraq war and the man. Its a movie for the military patriot and in it Kyle is unambiguously a good guy, a dutiful non-sociopath, a great husband and father, a protector.

Anonymous said...

I have wondered whether Matt killed Sweat, burying him in the woods somewhere. The prison worker, Joyce Mitchell, she is a skank. Hopefully, her hubby will get smart and divorce her. I'm questioning if she's disordered herself.


John Craig said...

Steven --
Again, I haven't looked into it, but I got the impression that the argument over Kyle was politically- rather than psychologically-based. The liberals who were saying he must have been a sociopath wanted to think so because they have an instinctive antipathy toward military people, disapproved of the Iraq War, and can't imagine themselves demonstrating that kind of bravery in that position. I admit, a sociopath is going to have better nerves under those circumstances, but unless Kyle showed sociopathic behavior elsewhere, then his service alone is certainly not enough to base that argument on. And to tell the truth, I doubt that Eastwood would have stretched the truth that far.

John Craig said...

Birdie --
Interesting possibility, that hadn't even occurred to me. My guess is that he didn't do that, simply because he wanted to have Sweat around to help him. (Also, wasn't there recent DNA evidence of Sweat found as well?) But who knows.

Anonymous said...

If Sweat was killed, you'd think the dogs would pick up on Sweat's scent (despite being buried). If I were Matt and could survive solo, I think I would either part ways with Sweat or bump him off. Who knows where Sweat is. Hopefully, law enforcement will locate him.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Just read the latest NY Post article about it, they were together (and both alive) as of June 20th…..I guess we'll find out soon.

jova said...

Hard to understand why Matt was allowed to be in the "honor" block of the prison, when you realize his history and the fear officers had of him. In the Honor Block, the prisoners had freedom of movement, wore street clothes, had access to the yard every day, and were only locked in their cell at night.

At his trial, Matt was so feared they attached an electric stun belt to his body, so they could zap him with electricity if he was disruptive...he was also placed in a special cell during his trial, he was considered a disruptive did he convince his jailers that he changed and was no longer a dangerous disruptive sociopath ? One would think correction officers would be accustomed to handling sociopaths and would not make such an error in judgement, to allow him entry into the honor block. Very strange, wonder how many people aided in their escape.

John Craig said...

Jova --
My understanding was that the honor block was a reward for good behavior, so in a roundabout way it was a way to keep the prisoners in mind. Plus one of the accounts I read said that he operated as a jailhouse snitch to that guard Gene Palmer who was arrested after the first guard was. Matt also evidently bribed Palmer with his paintings. Dannemora is a maximum security prison so those guards must have to deal with the devil all the time; and, given that no one in its hundred year history had ever escaped, I doubt they considered that a real risk.

MarieCurie said...

“He has a way with the ladies,” the source said.

Another source, retired Detective David Bentley, who helped put away Matt for the 1997 murder of a North Tonawanda businessman, added, “When [Matt’s] cleaned up, he’s very handsome and, in all frankness, very well endowed. He gets girlfriends any place he goes.”

Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew.......

John Craig said...

Marie Curie --

Do I detect an element of "the lady doth protest too loudly…..?"