Police defend strategy in hunt for escaped murderer Danelo Cavalcante after he evaded searchers
By MARC LEVY and CLAUDIA LAUER
Authorities in Pennsylvania who have been trying to capture an escaped murderer for nearly two weeks pushed back Monday against questions about whether they blew a chance to collar him, instead blaming the complex terrain in the initial search area for the fugitive’s success in getting clear of it.
Top state and federal officials insisted that the blown perimeter around the area where hundreds had been searching for Danelo Souza Cavalcante includes heavy woods, underground tunnels and drainage ditches. They also said it took more than two hours for news to reach them that he had been spotted outside of the perimeter for the first time.
At a news conference, they rejected the suggestion that they haven't been using enough searchers and insisted that the effort — in its 12th day Monday — favors them, despite the fact that there is no longer a well-defined perimeter or any fresh sightings to report.
Robert Clark, the supervisor of the U.S. Marshals fugitive task force in Philadelphia, contended that law enforcement teams have the advantage now that Cavalcante is apparently in a less rural environment in suburban Philadelphia.
“Now we’re going to prepare for the long game, and the long game is what we do best,” Clark said.
Pennsylvania State Police posted early Tuesday on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the department was pursuing Cavalcante in Chester County. “He is armed. Residents in the area are asked to lock all doors and windows, secure vehicles, and remain indoors,” the post said. Police also asked that the public call 911 if Cavalcante is seen and not to approach him.
Cavalcante slipped out of the 8-square-mile (13-square-kilometer) search area over the weekend, stole a dairy delivery van that had been left unlocked with the keys in it, and drove it until it practically ran out of gas.
He abandoned it in a field behind a barn more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of the search area, after unsuccessfully seeking help at the homes of two former colleagues late Saturday, police said.
Lt. Col. George Bivens, of the Pennsylvania State Police, declined to say how he thinks Cavalcante slipped through the perimeter, but he said no perimeter is completely secure.
Cavalcante is desperate because he is reaching out for help from people with whom he hasn't spoken in years, he said.
“The fact that he has reached out to people with a very distant past connection tells me he doesn’t have a great network of support,” Bivens said. "So I think he’s desperate and I’ve characterized him as that all along. And I think the longer we push him, the more resources, the more tools we bring to bear, we will ultimately capture him. He doesn’t have what he needs to last long-term."
Cavalcante, 34, has eluded capture since Aug. 31, when he broke out of the Chester County Prison while awaiting transfer to a different lockup. He had been sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing an ex-girlfriend in 2021, allegedly to stop her from telling police that he’s wanted in a slaying in his home country of Brazil.
To escape, Cavalcante scaled a wall by crab-walking up from the recreation yard, climbed over razor wire, ran across a roof and jumped to the ground. His escape went undetected for more than an hour until guards took a headcount. The tower guard on duty was fired, officials said.
In Brazil, prosecutors in Tocantins state said Cavalcante is accused of “double qualified homicide” in the 2017 slaying of Válter Júnior Moreira dos Reis in Figueirópolis, which they said was over a debt the victim owed him for repairing a vehicle.
U.S. authorities describes Cavalcante as extremely dangerous. A $25,000 reward is being offered for information leading to his capture.
Craig Caine, a retired inspector with the U.S. Marshal’s Service who worked on the New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force, said there’s always a way to get through a perimeter.
Wooded terrain is particularly difficult to search especially when someone as small as Cavalcante — he's 5 feet (152 centimeters) tall — can easily camouflage themselves or climb into a tree, said Caine, who isn't involved in the search efforts.
Even though Cavalcante slipped through the perimeter, it won't make things easier, Caine suggested.
“They definitely have their work cut out for them now that he breached the perimeter and they don’t have a defined area to search,” he said. “This guy has nothing to lose. But law enforcement just has to get lucky once. This guy has to get lucky everyday he’s out there.”
The length of the manhunt is not unusual, Caine said. Searches for escaped prisoners have lasted four or five weeks, or even years, he said.
Bryce Peterson, who studies corrections, including escapes, for the Center for Naval Analyses’ Center for Justice Research and Innovation, said it’s rare that a fugitive commits an act of violence. When they do, it most often happens when they are breaking out, he said.
“People who are serving longer sentences have more motivation not to be returned to custody, and those are the situations that are most volatile,” Peterson said.
Bivens said he doesn't know if Cavalcante is armed, but that he could be and is considered extremely dangerous. He said state police are authorized to use deadly force if Cavalcante isn’t actively surrendering. Other agencies involved in the search may have their own rules, he noted.
On Monday, a reporter told Bivens that people are wondering why he wasn't “flooding the zone” with hundreds or thousands more searchers.
“In terms of the number of people, would it satisfy them if I put a thousand? Would it satisfy them if I put 2,000 or 3,000 or 10,000? I suspect that those who criticize without the experience and the knowledge of the specifics and the investigation would not be satisfied regardless of what we did,” Bivens said, adding that “if we needed 1,000 people, we would do it.”
Bivens declined to discuss whether Cavalcante has received assistance from others, but he said no such arrests have been made.
Cavalcante's sister was arrested by immigration authorities, Bivens said. He said she was arrested for staying past her legally allowed period of stay and law enforcement had no reason to allow her to remain in the United States since she was not cooperating with the investigation.
Police have no fresh sightings to report and authorities have asked residents living near where Cavalcante was seen to lock their doors and vehicles and check their security camera footage.
State police became aware early Sunday morning that Cavalcante had slipped through the perimeter.
Cavalcante is believed to have stolen the van from Baily’s Dairy sometime Saturday evening and it went unnoticed by them until state police contacted them after 5 a.m. with news of the theft, Bivens said.
In the meantime Cavalcante, traveled more than 20 miles (30 kilometers) northeast to East Pikeland Township and Phoenixville where, at about 10 p.m., he visited the homes of two former work associates.
One homeowner, who was at dinner with his family, spoke with Cavalcante through his doorbell camera and called police after returning home and reviewing the video. The other wasn't home when Cavalcante went to her home, but another female resident alerted her, police said.
Both called local police first, who then contacted state police around about 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, Bivens said.
The story has been updated to correct the name of the police agency warning that Cavalcante is armed. It's the Pennsylvania State Police, not the Philadelphia State Police.
Associated Press reporter Eléonore Hughes in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.
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