Police working to track down a fugitive in Pennsylvania, now on the run for 12 days, are facing the reality of a much wider search, as the convicted killer moves farther from the prison, finds new ways to prolong his escape and evades capture.
Despite the efforts of hundreds of law enforcement officers, Danelo Cavalcante, 34, slipped through a tightly guarded perimeter over the weekend, stole a van, changed his appearance and turned up on a doorbell camera more than 20 miles away, trying to make contact with acquaintances to aid his escape, according to state police.
The developments dramatically altered the search, which had focused since Cavalcante’s August 31 escape on the area immediately surrounding the Chester County Prison, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, where he was being held following his conviction last month of first-degree murder.
But on Saturday evening, Cavalcante stole a 2020 Ford Transit van three-quarters of a mile from the search perimeter and traveled about 25 miles north to the East Pikeland Township home of an acquaintance he’d known several years ago, Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens said in a Sunday news conference.
He spoke with the acquaintance on a Ring doorbell camera, which captured his new clean-shaven look, but the person wasn’t home and did not respond to meet Cavalcante, Bivens said.
Cavalcante then tried to contact another acquaintance in the nearby Phoenixville area. That person was also not home but called police after a female resident saw the escaped inmate, according to Bivens.
“He is absolutely looking for support,” Bivens told CNN’s Polo Sandoval at the news conference. “He needs that support. He doesn’t have it,” Bivens said.
Cavalcante fled Chester County Prison within days of being sentenced to life without parole for the murder of his former girlfriend, 33-year-old Deborah Brandão. He left by “crab walking” between two walls, scaling a fence and traversing across razor wire, putting the community on edge and shuttering schools as he repeatedly evaded capture.
So far, all the reported sightings of Cavalcante have been in Chester County, where the prison is located. Bivens said police didn’t believe he has left the state as of Sunday morning, but law enforcement across the country is being kept apprised of the manhunt.
Cavalcante’s time on the run has likely “exceeded the expectations of investigators,” CNN’s chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst John Miller said. Most escaped prisoners are captured within 24 hours, and most of them within two miles, he said.
But Cavalcante fled almost two weeks ago. And his movements Saturday changed the geographic focus of the search to the area around East Nantmeal Township in the northern part of Chester County, where the stolen van was found abandoned in a field behind a barn.
“You also have to remember the stakes are different for him,” Miller said. “He is desperate and willing to really play his hardest, because if he goes back, he’s going to a place where he’s not getting out.”
The search now shifted to the area where Cavalcante left the van – apparently after running out of gas – a little west of the last sightings, according to Bivens.
Police “were everywhere” on Sunday, said Rick Silvia, the owner of Journey’s End Farm in East Nantmeal, which was hosting an equestrian event.
“They began turning vehicles around and blocked the perimeter of our property,” Silvia told CNN. “The last thing we heard last night was that they were awaiting more manpower and doing a shoulder-to-shoulder search in the cornfield.”
The police presence was smaller Monday, he said.
Meanwhile, Nantmeal United Methodist Church locked its doors during services Sunday, its pastor, Dennis Keen, told CNN. It was an unusual move, taken for safety precautions, Keen said. His parishioners are worried.
Bivens asked community members to familiarize themselves with the latest photos of Cavalcante, check their surveillance footage and secure their homes and vehicles. The owner of the van used by the fugitive, a local dairy farm, did not realize it had been stolen, Bivens said. The keys had been left inside.
“We are obviously very concerned that Cavalcante has or will attempt to steal another vehicle to facilitate his escape,” Bivens said. “This most recent incident is a reminder that he will take advantage of any opportunity to obtain items he needs.”
Cavalcante, who was previously shown in photos with facial hair, has since changed his appearance by shaving his face, Bivens said. He also got a green hooded sweater.
It’s unclear how Cavalcante managed to get past the search perimeter authorities had set up around Longwood Gardens, where several sightings of the fugitive had been reported in the days after his escape.
“No perimeter is 100% secure – ever,” Bivens told reporters Sunday. He praised law enforcement for what he said was an “exceptionally good effort,” and noted the area included underground tunnels, very large drainage ditches and other areas that could not be secured.
Miller, the CNN analyst, similarly pointed out a police perimeter does not consist of a “solid line of cops in a giant square.” Slipping through was “a game of patience” for Cavalcante, who is “on the run, literally for his life.”
“The game changer for him was stealing the truck, because it allowed him to get distance,” Miller said. “In fact, it allowed him to get distance ‘til it ran out of gas. He hasn’t run out of gas.”
A second game changer would be finding an associate who will aid him, Miller added, perhaps through providing him a phone, another vehicle or helping him change his appearance again.
Authorities’ focus, Miller said, is “going to be less on that box that he got out of, and more on who exists in his universe that he would reach to.”
In addition to the murder of Brandão – he stabbed her 38 times in front of her two young children, according to prosecutors – Cavalcante is also wanted in a 2017 homicide case in Brazil, his native country, a US Marshals Service official has said.
Police have no evidence he has obtained a weapon, but he is considered extremely dangerous, Bivens said.
“Clearly he has been in residences, businesses and in vehicles – at least one – that I can’t say what may or may not have been in any of those locations that he had access to,” Bivens said Sunday.
Pennsylvania State Police have said there have been multiple credible sightings of the escaped inmate. Here’s what we know about some of the places police say Cavalcante has been to so far:
- August 31: Cavalcante is seen on jail surveillance video escaping from Chester County Prison. The video showed him “crab-walking” between two walls in an exercise yard – placing his hands on one wall and his feet on another – and shimmying up out of view, said the prison’s acting warden, Howard Holland. Cavalcante then ran across a roof, scaled another fence and got through razor wire, Holland said.
- September 1: Ryan Drummond, who lives in the township where the prison is located, said Cavalcante got into his Pocopson Township home and took food before leaving, CNN affiliate WPVI reported.
- September 2: Cavalcante was spotted on surveillance video about 1.5 miles from the prison, authorities said.
- September 4: A security camera recorded the fugitive at Longwood Gardens, about 3 miles from the prison, authorities said.
- Tuesday: An area resident reported seeing Cavalcante in a creek bed on the resident’s property, Bivens said.
- Wednesday: A trail camera image showed Cavalcante in or around Longwood Gardens but officials learned about this sighting Thursday evening, according to Bivens.
- Friday: Authorities reported two sightings of Cavalcante within the search area. The area encompassed Longwood Gardens.
- Saturday: Cavalcante stole the van and at 9:52 p.m. local time, he went to the home of the first acquaintance where he was seen on doorbell video. He then went to the home of another old work associate at 10:07 p.m. in Phoenixville area, according to Bivens, who said authorities learned of the sightings around 12:30 a.m. Sunday.
- Sunday: The stolen van was found abandoned in a field behind a barn in East Nantmeal Township at 10:40 a.m.