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High Profile Escapes from Two Pennsylvania Jails Blamed on Staffing and Infrastructure Problems

After separate escapes from a pair of Pennsylvania jails, two detainees were recaptured during summer of 2023 – but not before making headlines, as one eluded authorities for nine days and the other for two weeks.

Taking less than 20 seconds to escape from the Warren County Prison on June 6, 2023, homicide suspect Michael C. Burham, 34, then spent nine days in the woods evading over 200 law enforcement officers mustered from 15 federal, state and local agencies.

His mistake was coming out of the woods in Conewango Township late in the afternoon of July 15, 2023, when he was discovered by a dog who barked and alerted homeowners. When they questioned him, Burham gave a vague answer about camping and quickly disappeared. But they knew of Burham’s escape and alerted the authorities. By 6:00 p.m. that afternoon, Burham was apprehended as ground, aviation and K9 units closed in on him.

Warren Police Chief Joe Sproveri said an “extensive amount of preparation” went into Burham’s escape. The night he broke out, a drone was flying overhead at the exact same time, leading Sproveri to speculate there may have been an accomplice on the outside. Though jail staff responded within seconds, the fugitive was too fast for them. A county commissioner blamed a structural weakness in the exercise cage on the jail roof, through which Burham was able to make his escape. There were no guards in the area, but staff monitoring cameras trained on the roof watched as he then used tied-together bed sheets to rappel to the ground below.

Before his daring escape, Burham had been held in the jail since June 19, 2023 on $1 million bail for allegedly kidnapping an elderly couple and killing a 34-year-old woman, whom he had also been charged with raping. Warren County prosecutors charged Burham with an additional count of escape, a level three felony, on July 7, 2023.

The next month, Danelo Cavalcante, 34, escaped from Chester County Prison on August 31, 2023. Surveillance video that quickly went viral captured him crab walking up between two walls like Spiderman and pushing through razor wire to get on the roof. An undocumented immigrant from Brazil, Cavalcante was fleeing a 2017 murder charge there when he entered the U.S., though immigration officials do not know how or when; his illegal immigration status wasn’t discovered until April 2021 when he fatally stabbed his Brazilian girlfriend in front of her children in Pennsylvania. He was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

During his two weeks on the lam Cavalcante evaded approximately 500 federal, state and local law enforcement officers. The search played out on national news as he was spotted multiple times but kept slipping away from the massive manhunt operation. On September 12, 2023, he stole a .22-caliber rifle from an open garage, prompting the search to intensify.

Early on September 13, 2023, an aircraft operated by federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents detected a heat signature in the area where Cavalcante was believed to be hiding. Tactical teams then closed in on Cavalcante, who still had the rifle. But he was taken by surprise and arrested with no shots fired.

Many questions remain unanswered about Cavalcante’s escape. Vacant staffing positions may have played a role. More than a quarter of full-time positions are unfilled at Chester County Prison, one of the highest vacancy rates among jails surveyed by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.

As of October 11, 2023, the jail is down one more guard. Antoine Williams, 27, was arrested that day and charged with smuggling drugs to jail detainees. The plot unraveled when Williams allegedly gave Suboxone to a detainee, whose cellmate then ratted out Williams to another guard in June 2023. The now-former detainee, Jonathan Aguilera, then allegedly resold the drugs inside the jail, taking payment via Cash App. District Attorney Deb Ryan’s office said that Williams peddled not only suboxone but also tobacco and K-2 to jail detainees, hiding the contraband in small trash bag rolls. He is charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance and unlawful activity.  

Sources: Independent, Law & Crime, New York Times, USA Today, WPVI

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