The area in the vicinity of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory has been in the news yet again. Not for all of the usual reasons that residents are so weary of. No, those issues were all pushed aside in early June as soon as two convicted killers cut their way out of the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility, located in nearby Dannemora, New York. The old days before these two men’s names were splashed daily across print and the airwaves.
Several prisons are located in the area, part of the historic Mohawk homelands that have been involved in ongoing land claim lawsuits. The scarcity of population in the Adirondack region speaks to the remoteness this far upstate.
Fewer Natives work at the correctional facilities than are serving out criminal sentences at any given time. From those connections, it has been understood that corrections officers will tell prisoners if they ever manage to escape, avoid the Mohawk settlements nearby since it might be their last stop.
The many seasonal camps and remote deer hunting shacks could be prime pickings for men on the run.
One hundred miles in this area is not a great distance when travelling here. Personal friendships often are maintained through generations, not just distance. The binding ties of community here tighten during emergency. The length of time of the escapee absence, as well as the sheer number of law enforcement officers involved in the search, qualified that label.
The escaped killers from Dannemora were in their third week on the lam when the Akwesasne Bear Clan member Kanaretiio (aka Roger Jock) began to hear a murmuring. It started with some younger people.
He was repeatedly asked the same question. “What are you doing about this?”
This continued until he heard the same question from his eighty-something aunt, his late mother’s last remaining sister. That was when he said he would do something. He decided to take the initiative the only way he knew how to.
The first symbolic step outside his house led him to examine area maps, to consider how the convicts might have travelled. An old railroad trail led west from Dannemora. Maybe they took that way. These old maps contained physical terrain information that early surveyors shared that is not as readily available on current highway maps. Old maps that showed the area as being Indian land.
It seemed like every reported sighting since the breakout brought the men closer to Akwesasne. The Owl’s Head area shown on some maps seemed to be a central point to restart a search.
Kanaretiio himself grew restless. More people were calling. Someone suggested that he could call the famous Duane Chapman, aka Dog the Bounty Hunter, and his wife Beth. He is Native American, a Chiricahua Apache from Arizona. Possibly he could offer advice through his fugitive tip line.
Risking nothing, the call was made. A call was returned and soon the discussion turned to the situation details and the map research. Theories of a flight path were exchanged. These calls became more frequent. The distance between these two Native men melted away as they saw many things evolving the same way. They both saw it as a call to action.
On Friday June 26, following a hunch, Kanaretiio took to the woods southeast of Malone, New York, in Franklin County, on Route 30. He spent all morning driving the roads and pulling over at specific locations, examining the waist high grass for intrusion. Surprisingly, many areas looked almost untouched. Almost.
The phone rang and it was his new friend with an update. One of the escapees, Richard Matt, had been shot and killed, near Route 30. Kanaretiio sat in his truck taking this in. Over the radio, the breaking news was announced. With that knowledge, he returned to Akwesasne to regroup.
The staggering law enforcement operation quickly shifted to the immediate area. Kanaretiio spoke to several officers in the field, and took pictures of his search which he shared with Chapman.
On the way home, Kanaretiio stopped to attend the press conference that night that was given outdoors by New York governor Andrew Cuomo in Malone. Already, word of Chapman’s arrival in the North Country was spreading. People in the crowd mentioned the television star’s name here and there. Maybe the whole manhunt could be ended before the Fourth of July holiday, if everyone pitched in.
Indeed, Chapman was already in the area and on the ground. He had avoided the first press conference deliberately so as to not create a distraction. These Native men would get together soon. Kanaretiio suggested that the younger inmate had likely made it out of the secured perimeter and more work remained for ground tracking. They talked about if the second escapee was captured by the police task force, he might be shot on sight. Possibly, the Native philosophy of preserving life might be brought to bear here, under the right conditions. Maybe a chance for surrender could be best offered this way.
A report of a single white male sighting on a nearby Akwesasne road was brought to Kanaretiio’s awareness by an older sister. The man had ducked into the woods there. A search plan was made and some steps were taken to investigate these marshlands, with the help of other Akwesasne residents and family members. Asked why these other men participated, they all replied that they had skin in the game. Family, friends and livelihoods potentially were at stake. It was the least that they could do to get off the couch and kick the brush around, where someone like the second escapee might be hiding.
Chapman called again with encouragement, wishing he could be there in Akwesasne. He was himself already engaged in North Country field tracking elsewhere and was coordinating with other teams he was in touch with. It was hard with his notoriety to do as much constant frontline work himself as he would like when others were around, stating that “he preferred to track, not detract from the ongoing law enforcement operations.” He had put his time in nonetheless, and expected within 48 hours the second killer to be caught.
No sign of the intruder was found on the reservation, but the action brought relief to several locals who also called to check out the rumors.
The weather changed to rain. Then on Sunday, June 28, the report of David Sweat being shot in nearby Constable, New York came to light. Chapman had been getting nudged to that area as well in his investigation. “Let’s meet at the Malone Hospital,” he said to Kanaretiio on the phone, “that is where the police were taking the captured convict first after his arrest.”
When Kanaretiio arrived at the scene, he saw many police, reporters and cameras. One moving group of people caught his eye. It was Chapman and his wife, surrounded by a television production crew. They were filming news updates for the Country Music Television (CMT) network, where a new season of their reality series, Dog and Beth: On the Hunt, will premiere on July 18.
Chapman commented at length in his praise of the insight of Kanaretiio. Speaking on camera, he referred to the Bear clan member as one of the best trackers he had the pleasure to meet and work with. Making light of how many times that they had spoken on the telephone recently, Chapman proudly said that was his first real understanding of the field conditions opposing the searchers. Everything that Kanaretiio had predicted had come to pass. Right up to Sweat’s Canadian border target destination which Constable flanks. In other words, more of the Mohawk homeland that Kanaretiio knew so well. Land that Dog had also come to know first-hand.
Brought together here by a concern for public safety, the two men eventually stood together quietly for a moment. Onlookers took a few pictures, while the escapee was being treated inside under heavy guard.
The wounded prisoner would be taken from Malone to another regional hospital in nearby Potsdam, NY before he was eventually flown to Albany to a secure hospital where his then life-threatening condition could be treated.
The moment of tension had passed. It was the best possible outcome for everyone.
Promises to get together again were exchanged and words of well wishes were shared. The men each went their own way to pick back up what they had been doing before the crisis began. Chapman was heading back south; there was always another fugitive from justice to bring in. Kanaretiio had a community garden to attend to.
A new day dawned and the public looked at the escapee drama already as the lasting memory of the summer of 2015. The Maroon 5 song, “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt…,” took on a new, ironic meaning.
In the small town atmosphere of the Akwesasne community, the media attention had taken its toll. Reporters had driven through the area since the escape was detected, writing stories of the residents fear and vulnerability. Some scorn was even leveled upon Kanaretiio for his choice of alliance, without offering any alternative solutions. Facebook postings of the two Native men and Beth speaking together had elicited nearly 400,000 views within the 24 hours following Sweat’s arrest. Getting off his ass had a remarkable effect on Kanaretiio, much more than all of the armchair analysts combined had.
Strange days make for odd fellowships. Kanaretiio has peace of mind now. It started when he and his new friends, Dog and Beth, took their symbolic first steps to a solution to this challenge. Life seemed to fill in a lot of the rest. Words led to action. And action led to peace.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.