Inside The $23 Million Love Triangle That Caused the Craziest Prison Escape Ever

Showtime's Escape at Dannemora tells the true story of the woman who helped two prisoners escape in 2015

By Tierney Bricker Nov 18, 2018 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Ben Stiller Talks Directing "Escape at Dannemora"

$23 million. 

That's how much the twisted, complicated and ultimately deadly love triangle at the center Escape at Dannemora, Showtime's new limited series, ended up costing the state of New York. But that's the end of the story. 

Premiering on Sunday, Nov. 18 and directed by Ben Stiller (Yes, that Ben Stiller), the eight-episode true crime drama tells the infamous story of the the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility escape, one of the wildest prison breaks in U.S. history. 

On June 6, 2015, a national manhunt began when Richard Matt and David Sweat, two inmates serving life sentences for murder, were discovered missing at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, the state's largest prison. 

9 Iconic True Crime Books to Read Before You Die
AP; Shotwime

Taking on the role of Richard Matt is Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro, while Paul Dano is playing David Sweat. Spoiler alert: One of the prisoners doesn't make it to the end of this story alive. 

Of course, behind every man (or men, in this case) on the run is the woman who helped him in the first place. Enter: Joyce "Tillie" Mitchell, the women revealed to have helped Matt and Sweat escape, who is being played by Oscar winner Patricia Arquette, after having a sexual relationship with at least one of the men.

Mitchell was 51 and married to Lyle Mitchell, who also worked at the facility, when she provided Matt and Sweat with a brill-bit and hacksaw blade to help them break out. 

For Arquette, she told NPR she found the role "very interesting" when looking at Tillie "as a woman who loves too much—that sort of love-addict personality. A part of her is being seen and loved by each of these different men."

Women falling for men behind bars isn't as uncommon as one might think, there's actually a medical definition for it: hybristophilia.

Per Psychology Today, sexologist and professor John Money first defined hybristophilia as a sexual paraphilia in which a person gets sexual arousal and pleasure from having a partner who is known to have "committed an outrage or crime, such as rape, murder, or armed robbery."

Convicted killers such as Ted Bundy and the Menendez Brothers all got married to women after they were arrested.

But Tillie was different in that she actually worked at the prison in the tailor shop for seven years before becoming an accomplice in the elaborate prison break, months after striking up an intimate friendship with the two killers. 

So why were Matt and Sweat in prison in the first place?

Gabe Dickens/Press-Republican via AP; Shotwime

 After kidnapping, killing and dismembering a man in 1997, Matt was sentenced 25 years to life in prison. 

Sweat had been an inmate at the prison since 2003 before Matt showed up in 2008, and was serving a life without parole sentence for killing a deputy sheriff (shooting him 22 times) in upstate New York in 2002. 

But the two didn't meet until 2010, according to The New York Times, with the two men bonding over art. Matt was known in the prison for his painting, and Sweat began learning from him. A deep bond formed, with Sweat even sending gifts such as cigarettes and food when Matt was moved from the honor block when guards discovered a tattoo machine in his cell. 

The gesture "really strengthened" the men's friendship, Sweat would later say. 

In the 2018 book, Wild Escape: The Prison Break from Dannemora and the Manhunt that Captured America, Sweat talked about their bond...and Matt's reputation in the prison, where his nickname was "Hacksaw" because of the grisly demeanor in which he dismembered his former boss.

 "Matt got a lot of respect," he told author Chelsia Rose Marcius. "We had mutual respect for each other. He once said to me, 'Sweat, I'm glad I'm on your side.' I took it as a compliment. Now if you crossed him, he'd be the first to stab you. All the guys in here will be violent if they have to be, including me, and I'm not a violent person. But [when it came to me] he'd always have my back."

Gabe Dickens/Press-Republican via AP; Shotwime

For Stiller, Matt and Sweat's friendship forged in the prison was one of the most intriguing aspects of the real-life story and the Showtime project for him when talking to NPR.

"Was it just one of sort of mutual dependency—they both wanted to get out so they sort of had a common goal together? Matt was an artist, a painter, and so he taught Sweat to paint in prison, and I think they bonded on that level," he said. "But you know, ultimately when they got out on the run and they were out, it was a different environment for the two of them because they were both—you know, they had choices. But I think it was a curious relationship between the two of them."

And just as curious was each man's respective relationship with Tillie, who they met when they were assigned to work in the tailor shop, which she ran. According to people who worked with her, she was always friendly with the inmates...sometimes too friendly.

"She always flirted around the shop and laughed and stood close to all inmates," prison worker Vicki-Lynn Safford testified, per The New York Post

 Tillie met Matt in 2008, and met Sweat soon after, but she didn't really strike up a friendship with them until October 2013, initially forming a close bond with Sweat. 

"Inmate Sweat was really close to inmate Matt. They were always together and shared everything," Tillie later wrote in her confession. "Inmate Matt and I got along well. We talked every day and he treated me with respect and was nice to me. He made me feel special."

But in mid-2014, inmates had alerted officials to Tillie's inappropriate relationship with Sweat, alleging in a note that she would disappear with him for long stretched of time. (Sweat would later deny ever having a sexual relationship with Tillie.) The prison's administration never formally investigated the allegations, but Tillie's attention quickly shifted to Matt after Sweat lost his job at the tailor shop, an incident that Tillie allegedly wept over.

One inmate called the shop "the kingdom of Matt," and by April 2015, she was buying the men gifts (glasses and art supplies, among other things) and bringing in cookies and brownies. She would commission Matt to paint a portrait of her family as her husband's anniversary present. 

According to Wild Escape, Matt had targeted Tillie after concocting the escape plan when he noted her preferential treatment of Sweat. 

"She's f--king nuts," the book alleged Matt told Sweat. "She'll bring us whatever we want, just tell me what you need and I'll get her to bring it in."

So the inmates kept asking for tools and she kept providing them, eventually catching on to their Shawshank Redemption-style escape plan (which they had worked on for six months before executing, with Sweat, then 34, even dropping 30 pounds in preparation). 

In order to get the tools to them undetected, which included hacksaw blades from Walmart, chisels and drill-bits, she hid them in frozen meat that she gave to Gene Palmer, an officer who had struck up a friendship with the men, to deliver. (Palmer later plead guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison.) 

She later claimed to have never been physically intimate with Sweat, though she did give him nude photos, and alleged Matt had been sexually violent with her, revealing in her confession that Matt had grabbed her and kissed her one day. 

"It startled me," she told investigators. "[Matt] kissed me with an open mouth kiss. I didn't say anything because I was scared for my husband, who also works for the facility." 

She would later tell Matt Lauer in her only public interview, "There was never any actual sexual intercourse. Mr. Matt had grabbed me a couple of times and kissed me. And then there was one point where he…wanted me to perform oral sex on him. And I said no. And when I said no, he grabbed my head and pushed me down."

Using the tools smuggled to them by Tillie, Matt and Sweat cut through a steel wall of their adjacent cells to escape. The pair tricked guards with dummies made out of sweatshirts, and even left a taunting note behind.: A photo of The Sopranos star James Gandolfini, with the message, "Time to go, Kid!"

"When you look at how the operation was done, it was extraordinary," Governor Andrew Cuomo admitted at the time. 

And it really was, both in terms of Sweat's engineering work, the methodical planning and the massive security lapses that were eventually exposed in a 2016 report about the escape. 

Sweat was able to spend 85 nights exploring the tunnels beneath the prison, which added up to over 400 missed mandatory bed checks by the guards. 

Gabe Dickens/Press-Republican via AP, Pool

After six months of drilling, hammering and exploring, Matt and Sweat found their escape route, which would find them ultimately emerging from a manhole.

The plan was for Tilie to meet up with the guys in a getaway car, they would kill her husband, and the trio would head to Mexico and live happily ever after in what she later described to Matt Lauer in the sitdown interview as "the fantasy" of a different life.

"Matt told me they were getting out and we were all going to be together," Mitchell later said. "I enjoyed the attention, the feeling both of them gave me and the thought of a different life."

But she ended up getting cold feet at the last minute and never showed, instead having her husband take her to the hospital after suffering a panic attack. The move probably saved her life.

"Joyce Mitchell, in my mind, would have just been luggage and would have slowed them down," Clinton County sheriff David Favro later said. "If she went with them, I believe she would have been killed. I mean, why keep her? It makes no sense."

Left to continue their escape on foot, with their bags filled with clothes, packs of peanuts, granola bars and sticks of pepperoni, Matt and Sweat's manhunt took 23 days, terrifying the population of about 4,000 in the Village of Dannemora. 

"The whole town's locked down,"  local business owner Rich Green told The New York Times as the search was still ongoing. "You can't drive anywhere. You can't come into town. They've got detours all over the place. They're checking trunks. It's just something I've never seen before."

As they made a run for it, Mitchell was left to deal with the fallout, as her involvement in their scheme soon became clear, and she was arrested six days after their escape. 

Her husband of 14 years, Lyle, stayed by her side, later telling Matt Lauer as part of NBC News' exclusive interview that she admitted to him, "I just—I did some things…and I got over my head."

He also said Tillie ever denied having any sexual encounters with Matt or Sweat, saying, "She swore on her son's life that definitely, 'Never have I ever had sex' [with Matt or Sweat]."

The beginning of the end would start on June 26, 2015, when Matt, 49, was shot and killed just 20 miles away from the Canadian border following a standoff with police near the hunting cabin the two men hid out in together. 

Two days later, Sweat was shot and captured by a state trooper just shy of five miles from the border. 

"The nightmare is finally over," said Cuomo. "We wish it didn't happen in the first place. But if you have to have it happen, this is how you want it to end."

G.N. Miller - Pool/Getty Images

In late July 2015, Tillie plead guilty promoting prison contraband, a felony, and criminal facilitation, a misdemeanor, and in September 2015, she sat down for what was her first and only TV interview, claiming Matt had "complete control" over her. 

She played the victim, saying the men took advantage of her as she was "going through a time where I didn't feel like my husband loved me anymore. I was going through depression and I guess they saw my weakness and that's how it all started."

Tillie claimed to help them partially because she was afraid for her husband's life, with Matt referring to him as "the glitch." 

Shockingly enough, her husband was "still hopeful" they would have a life together, according to his attorney.

Soon after the interview, she was sentenced to up to seven years in prison. 

Sweat, meanwhile, was eventually moved solitary confinement at Five Points Correction Facility in Romolus, New York, after being hospitalized and in critical condition after his capture. He eventually plead guilty and had three to seven years added to previous life sentence stemming from the 2002 murder. 

In addition to speaking with Marcius for over 100 hours for Wild Escape, Sweat also made himself available to Stiller and the cast ahead of Escape at Dannemaro

"I found him to be very forthcoming and basically said, like, 'What do you want to know?' And we talked for about almost six hours," Stiller told NPR. "I don't know how much of what he was telling me was the truth. But he did give me a lot of details about how he actually cut his way out of the cell...and then what happened with him and Richard Matt when they were out on the run for 3 and a half weeks."

Arquette chose not to speak with Tillie, who got the Lifetime movie treatment with 2017's New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell. Penelope Ann Miller played the seamtress.

Christopher Saunders/SHOWTIME

"I actually didn't want to meet her, because I'd seen the Matt Lauer interview and I saw her lie in that," Arquette explained to NPR, "and having talked to some of these different people who had worked with her, they said that she's very litigious and always threatening people. I just didn't want to deal with her drama, really."

Mitchell is currently incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility For Women and has been denied parole twice. Her next parole hearing is in June 2019, and could be behind bars until 2022.

She is still with her husband. "I just want her home where she belongs," Mitchell told the Daily Mail.

Sweat, meanwhile, also found love after capture: Fran Malanik began writing to him after his failed escape made headlines and became his girlfriend, visiting him in prison with her six-year-old child in tow. 

And in 2017, Sweat actually revealed the escape plan he came up with out of his latest prison, hoping to exchange the information that would reveal security breaches for certain perks, including one extra visit per week, the ability to receive food packages and to take photos with his girlfriend.

He gave up the plan...and got nothing in return. 

Love makes us do crazy things.

Escape at Dannemora premieres Sunday, Nov. 18, at 10 p.m. on Showtime.