Book Review: Dannemora by Charles A. Gardner
Charles A. Gardner’s Dannemora is a gripping account of the notorious escape of two vicious convicted murderers from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, in New York’s North Country, which lead to one of the country’s most extensive manhunts and culminated in a dramatic, bloody standoff.
Great nonfiction shares some key features with outstanding fiction: they both entertain and hold the reader’s attention as they keep them flipping pages. Charles A. Gardner’s Dannemora is great nonfiction. It packs action, tension, and a diverse cast of characters. The only thing that keeps it from being a superb thriller about a daring escape from a maximum-security prison is that everything in its pages is true.
In June 2015, convicted killers Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, in New York’s North Country. During the following three weeks, the duo would force authorities to launch the largest, most extensive manhunt in state history. While the escape was what made history, a series of events that began taking place years prior is truly what allowed for the murderers’ escape. Between their own intelligence, the state’s budget cuts and lax implementation of security measures, and the help they received from prison employee Joyce Mitchell, Matt and Sweat managed an escape of cinematic proportions, terrorizing the community for weeks. Dannemora is a chronicle of their criminal pasts and everything that happened before, during, and after their escape.
Readers are immediately pulled into the story of Dannemora because the two men at the center would be uniquely memorable movie villains. For instance, Sweat murdered Broome County Deputy Sheriff Kevin J. Tarsia in 2002. That was only one crime in a long list of crimes that started in his youth. Richard “Hacksaw” Matt had been in an out of prison on a number of occasions for murder, kidnapping, robbery, rape, and assault. His nickname was derived from the tool he used to dismember his last victim before he threw the body parts in a river. Both men were hyperviolent and vicious. They had no moral compass; instead, they shared a talent for escape, which had already lead to previous prison breaks, and they both had cold, calculating minds that allowed them to play people for personal profit while plotting their escape.
While the two killers put a lot of effort into their escape, it never could have happened had the stars not perfectly aligned for them. Their first lucky break was the ongoing budgets cuts that prisons in the state of New York had been suffering for years. These cuts meant that towers had been unmanned for years, regular inspections of tunnels underneath the prison weren’t performed, and apathy made some employees turn a blind eye to things that happened within prison walls. The second element was Joyce Mitchell. She developed unhealthy relationships with both inmates and became instrumental in their escape:
The inmates’ continuing manipulation drew her deeper and deeper into their scheme. She had already given them tools essential to their escape and other contraband to help guarantee its success. Now far beyond violations of departmental rules, she had entered felony territory when she smuggled in the first piece of contraband. It wasn’t long before she agreed to become an active participant in the escape by serving as the get-away driver.
Mitchell ended up leaving the two killers stranded and on foot after their escape, but she had been responsible for them making it out of prison by providing them with the necessities. Once out, the authorities had a huge problem on their hands. The second half of the book focuses on the search. Gardner does a good job of explaining the massive efforts done to apprehend the escapees. For example, the New York State Police dispatched “their Aviation Unit, Special Operations Response Team, Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Forensics Identification Unit, Uniformed Police, and canine and specialized bloodhound units.” Other state agencies soon became involved in the search including the “Forest Rangers, Department of Environmental Conservation officers, and the Department of Corrections Emergency Response Team, and Crisis Intervention Unit.” Furthermore, Vermont sent their Special Weapons Tactical Unit and the federal government got involved via help from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Border Patrol, U.S. Marshalls, agents from the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. Even with more than 2,000 active participants, it took authorities three weeks to capture the men, who became separated from one another when one of them got drunk and slowed their movements through the woods. It was incredibly lucky the authorities apprehended the men when they did, as one of the escapees was only about three miles away from the Canadian border.
Gardner’s reporting skills are in full display throughout the book. Unfortunately, the editors allowed some unnecessary editorializing that sometimes detracts from the reporting. It starts halfway through the book with a question presented at the end of a chapter discussing Mitchell’s involvement and workplace antics: “In her growing infatuation with dangerous men wearing those same state-issue uniforms, was she seeing ‘fifty shades of green’?” From there, needless comments such as that and personal opinions sneak into the narrative occasionally, especially during the last third of the book, where the story sometimes turns something akin to an ad for the North Country and its people.
Despite this flaw, Dannemora is great piece of nonfiction. It’s informative, gripping, and offers a complete look at the lives of the Matt and Sweat that helps contextualize the importance of their escape, making it a necessary book on the shelves of all true crime fans.