PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. – A New York prison guard charged in connection with the maximum-security prison escape of two killers admitted to providing them with tools, paint, frozen hamburger meat and even access to a catwalk electrical box — but claims he never knew they planned to bust out.
Gene Palmer, 57, was to be arraigned Thursday on charges of promoting prison contraband, tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct. He was released from the Clinton County Jail around 12:30 a.m. on $25,000 bail, several hours after his arrest Wednesday night.
Palmer is the second Clinton Correctional Facility employee to be charged since Richard Matt and David Sweat broke out of the northern New York prison June 6. Prison tailor shop employee Joyce Mitchell has pleaded not guilty to charges she helped them escape and remains in custody.
But in contrast to the 51-year-old Mitchell, Palmer said he was an unwitting helper.
"I did not realize at the time that the assistance provided to Matt or Sweat made their escape easier," Palmer told authorities in a signed statement.
In the statement, Palmer admitted to providing Matt with paint and paintbrushes. On four separate occasions over eight months, he provided Sweat with needle-nose pliers and a screwdriver. He gave Sweat access to the catwalk later used in the escape to change the wiring on electrical boxes as "a favor" to make it easier for them to cook in their cells. A week before the escape, he delivered to Matt a pound of frozen ground beef in a package left by Mitchell.
"Matt provided me with elaborate paintings and information on the illegal acts that inmates were committing within the facility. In turn, I provided him with benefits such as paint, paintbrushes, movement of inmates, hamburger meat, altering of electrical boxes in the catwalk areas," Palmer told authorities.
Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said Mitchell told investigators she smuggled hacksaw blades, a screwdriver and other tools into the prison by placing them in the frozen hamburger meat. He said she then placed the meat in a refrigerator in the tailor shop and Palmer took the meat to Sweat and Matt, who were housed in a section where inmates are allowed to cook their meals. The district attorney said the guard didn't know the tools were inside the meat.
After the escape, Palmer burned and buried the inmate paintings, according to court documents.
Palmer, who has been placed on administrative leave from his job, will plead not guilty Thursday, according to his lawyer.
Palmer had worked at the prison in Dannemora for more than 27 years and had a base salary of $72,644. He had known Sweat and Matt for at least five years.
Authorities say the inmates cut through the steel wall at the back of their cells, crawled down a catwalk, broke through a brick wall, cut their way into and out of a steam pipe and then sliced through the chain and lock on a manhole cover outside the prison.
Sweat, 35, was serving a life sentence without parole in the killing of a sheriff's deputy. Matt, who turned 49 Thursday, was doing 25 years to life in the kidnapping, torture and hacksaw dismemberment of his former boss.
Officers searching for the pair for the last 20 days continued to focus on a 75-square-mile area dominated by heavy woods in northernmost New York. Officers on Thursday mustered at a 4-H summer camp in Mountain View, near a hunting cabin 20 west of the Dannemora where police believe Matt and Sweat spent time recently.