By Pete DeMola
DANNEMORA, N.Y., June 19 (Reuters) - A New York state corrections officer was suspended on Friday in connection with the prison escape of two convicted murderers who have evaded capture for nearly two weeks, officials said.
Authorities did not say whether they believed the corrections officer, whose name was not released, would face charges or if he was believed to have assisted in the breakout at the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in the upstate New York community of Dannemora.
The U.S. Marshals Service has put escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat on its 15 Most Wanted Fugitives List, and the manhunt, now in its 14th day, has widened to encompass the entire country. But many believe the escapees remain in the heavily wooded regions of New York's Adirondack Mountains and Vermont's Green Mountains.
"A correction officer was placed on administrative leave this evening as part of the ongoing investigation into the escape at Clinton Correctional Facility," the New York state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said in a statement.
It said no further details would immediately be released.
Separately, Major Charles Guess of the New York State Police told reporters that investigators had spent "countless hours" interviewing another prison worker, Joyce Mitchell, who is accused of assisting in the breakout.
Mitchell, 51, a training supervisor in the prison tailor shop who is charged with giving hacksaw blades to the convicted murderers, lost her nerve to drive their getaway car and instead checked into a hospital with a panic attack, authorities said.
"(We) won't characterize if we have all information we need from Joyce Mitchell at this point," Guess said.
The busted prison cell walls, steam pipe and manhole cover the convicts slipped through to escape have been repaired, allowing authorities to lift a lockdown at the maximum security prison, Daniel Martuscello, a deputy commissioner of state corrections, said at a news conference.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officers, assisted by sniffer dogs, have so far searched 160 seasonal homes and unoccupied buildings and 585 miles (941 km) of trails and railroad beds.
Experts say the escapees' range is limited by their survival skills.
"They can disappear very easily but to survive is another story, and that's really predicated on their plan and their equipment and, of course, their abilities," said Pat Patten, who was hired to help with the 2003 capture of Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph after more than five years on the run in the Appalachian Mountains.
Matt, 48, and Sweat, 35, broke out of prison at the height of the region's black fly season, when even the most hardened outdoorsmen douse themselves in insect repellent and wear head nets to guard against bug bites that can cause extreme irritation and sometimes even death.
After being incarcerated for so long, Patten said, the men will not fare well in the woods and are likely relying on civilization, including abandoned seasonal homes and camps, to gather food and equipment needed to stay hidden.
Patten said interactions with civilization are commonly where fugitives trip up.
Matt has a history of escapes, including one in 1986 in which he broke out of New York's Erie County Correctional Facility, only to be caught five days later in a family apartment near Buffalo.
Shane Hobel, founder of Mountain Scout Survival School in Beacon, New York, said the precision with which their escape was executed leads him to believe that Matt and Sweat had a destination in mind when they left the prison, and he doubts that plan included a lengthy stay in the wilderness. (Additional reporting by Katie Reilly in New York and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles,; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Ken Wills)