POTTSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A murderer who brazenly escaped from a Pennsylvania jail was captured Wednesday in the woods by a team of tactical officers, bringing an end to an intense search that terrified residents as the fugitive broke into homes for food, changed his appearance, and stole a van and rifle during two weeks on the run.
Law enforcement’s big break came overnight as a plane fitted with a thermal imaging camera picked up Danelo Souza Cavalcante’s heat signal, allowing tactical teams on the ground to secure the area, surround him and move in with search dogs.
“They were able to move in very quietly. They had the element of surprise,” Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens said at a news conference. “Cavalcante did not realize he was surrounded until that had occurred.”
Cavalcante — still armed with the rifle he stole from a homeowner’s garage — tried to escape by crawling through thick underbrush, but a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer released a search dog that subdued him, said Bivens, adding that Cavalcante continued to resist as he was taken into custody after 8 a.m.
Cavalcante, 34, was bitten on the scalp by a police dog and suffered a minor wound, Bivens said. Footage from a news helicopter showed an officer wiping Cavalcante’s bloody head and face with a towel.
No shots were fired.
“Our nightmare is finally over, and the good guys won,” said Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan.
State police had announced Cavalcante’s capture on social media earlier Wednesday, as the search entered its 14th day. The attorney general’s office said Cavalcante will be arraigned on a felony escape charge.
Cavalcante, handcuffed and wrapped in what appeared to be a thermal blanket, was driven to the Pennsylvania State Police barracks at Avondale. Bivens said investigators would try to interview him about his time on the run before taking him to a state prison.
“He was desperate, and it was just a matter of time,” said Gov. Josh Shapiro.
The end of the search for Cavalcante unfolded just beyond Philadelphia’s heavily populated suburbs, in an area of woods, rolling farmland and a county park. Police brought in hundreds of heavily armed law enforcement personnel with dogs, armored carriers, horses, and helicopters that circled over the rural stretch of southeastern Pennsylvania.
The search forced schools to close right at the start of the academic year, led to warnings for homeowners to lock their doors, and blocked roads over the busy Labor Day weekend. Overnight into Wednesday, heavily armed law enforcement officers searched for the fugitive through downpours and thunder.
A Drug Enforcement Administration plane picked up Cavalcante’s heat signature around 1 a.m. and began tracking his movements, but the storms forced the aircraft to leave the area for a time, delaying his capture by several hours, Bivens said.
Cavalcante escaped from the Chester County jail in southeastern Pennsylvania on Aug. 31 by crab-walking up between two walls that were topped with razor wire, then jumping from the roof and dashing away. He had been awaiting transfer to state prison after being sentenced days earlier for fatally stabbing his girlfriend, and is wanted in connection with another killing in Brazil.
Authorities said over the weekend that Cavalcante had slipped out of the initial search area, shaved and changed his clothing, stole a vehicle to travel miles to seek aid from former co-workers in the northern part of the county, and then abandoned the vehicle, at least in part because it was low on fuel.
Authorities have declined to say how they think Cavalcante slipped out of the first search area, and officials have pushed back against questions about whether they blew a chance to catch him.
Then, late Monday, a motorist alerted police to a man matching Cavalcante’s description crouching in the darkness along a line of trees near a road in northern Chester County. Police found footprints and tracked them to the prison shoes identical to those Cavalcante had been wearing. A pair of work boots was reported stolen from a porch nearby.
State police said they believe he was looking for a place to hide when he saw an open garage. There, he stole a .22-caliber rifle and ammunition, and fled when the homeowner who was in the garage drew a pistol and shot at him several times, state police said.
That led hundreds of law enforcement personnel to search an area of about 8 to 10 square miles near South Coventry Township, roughly 30 miles northwest (50 kilometers) of Philadelphia.
People tried to help Cavalcante during his time on the run, Bivens said Wednesday, but authorities thwarted those attempts. He did not elaborate or say anyone had been charged criminally.
Cavalcante’s escape was big news in Brazil, where prosecutors in Tocantins state say he is accused of “double qualified homicide” in the 2017 slaying of Válter Júnior Moreira dos Reis in the municipality of Figueiropolis, which authorities say was over a debt the victim owed him in connection with repair of a vehicle.
Pennsylvania authorities even broadcast a recording of Cavalcante’s mother speaking in Portuguese imploring him to surrender peacefully.
Cavalcante received a life sentence in Pennsylvania in August for killing his ex-girlfriend, Deborah Brandao, in front of her children in 2021. Prosecutors say he murdered her to stop her from telling police he was wanted in the Brazil killing. He had been arrested in Virginia after Brandao’s killing, and authorities say they believe he was trying to return to Brazil.
The prison tower guard on duty when Cavalcante escaped was fired. The escape went undetected for more than an hour until guards took a headcount.
Levy reported from Harrisburg, Pa., and Rubinkam from northeastern Pennsylvania.