POTTSTOWN, Pa. >> Escaped murderer Danelo Souza Cavalcante stole a rifle from a garage and fled from a homeowner’s gunfire, authorities said today, as heavily armed police descended on a rural stretch of southeastern Pennsylvania, closing roads and telling residents to lock their doors in the nearly 2-week-old manhunt.
Helicopters hovered overhead throughout the day as officers brought in horses, search dogs and armored personnel carriers and began searching an 8- to 10-square-mile area of rolling farm country, forests and parkland northwest of Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens vowed to “hunt until we find” Cavalcante, but also cautioned that it will take a “long time” to methodically search the entire area.
Cavalcante entered the open garage late Monday, 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, Bivens said at a news conference. He added that he has no reason to believe Cavalcante was injured by the gunfire.
Bivens said he believes Cavalcante was fleeing from pursuers and looking for a place to hide when he saw the open garage.
“The garage door was open. He didn’t, I believe, recognize that the owner was in there. And I think he was probably looking for a place to hide, ran for that garage, saw the firearm, grabbed that, encountered the homeowner and fled with the firearm,” Bivens said.
It was, he said, a “crime of opportunity.”
About 500 law enforcement personnel were searching or guarding the new search area in northern Chester County, a few miles south of Pottstown, Bivens said. More were being called in as schools closed and officers shut down roads, manned checkpoints and stopped vehicles to question motorists and open trunks.
Two hours before the garage encounter, Bivens said, a motorist alerted police to a man matching Cavalcante’s description crouching in the darkness along a line of trees near a road. Police found footprints there, followed their trail and found the prison shoes Cavalcante had been wearing. A pair of work boots was reported stolen from a porch nearby.
Cavalcante, 34, broke out of the Chester County jail Aug. 31 while awaiting transfer to a state prison to serve a life sentence for fatally stabbing an ex-girlfriend in 2021. Prosecutors say he killed her to stop her from telling police that he was wanted in a slaying in Brazil, his home country.
Prosecutors there, in Tocantins state, said Cavalcante is accused of “double qualified homicide” in the 2017 killing of Válter Júnior Moreira dos Reis in the municipality of Figueiropolis, over a debt the victim owed him for repairing a vehicle.
To escape the Chester County lockup, Cavalcante scaled a wall by crab-walking up from the recreation yard, climbing over razor wire, running across a roof and jumping to the ground. His escape went undetected for more than an hour until guards took a head count. The tower guard on duty was fired, officials said.
A $25,000 reward was offered for information leading to his capture.
Residents in the area said they are frustrated and nervous.
Jason Mesiarik was outside his barn on his farm late Monday when he heard six or seven gunshots from what he believes was a neighbor’s encounter with Cavalcante.
“I was just finishing up feeding at the barn, and I stepped outside, was checking my Twitter feed, and that’s when I heard like, like the six or seven, the shots ring out and I knew it was like one of two or three houses just across the road,” Mesiarik said.
He called police to report it and helicopters promptly began circling, he said. Around 2 a.m., heavily armed police knocked on his door and swept the barns. Police were still there on his road at dawn and swept the property several hours later, he said.
Todd McFarland said his dog barked for an hour because of the helicopters. Last week he was stopped by state police who searched his white Ford Transit van after Cavalcante stole a similar vehicle. At the time, McFarland had no idea an escaped murderer was on the loose.
“I don’t understand why they can’t find him, truthfully,” he said today. “I think everybody’s a little frustrated.”
Kathleen Brady, who lives within view of where Cavalcante was seen crouching near a road, endured an anxious and largely sleepless night. Sirens sounded, helicopters circled overhead and rifle-toting police walked through her yard. She and her child plan to stay with friends — outside of the search area — if he isn’t caught.
“You don’t know how desperate he is at this point. If he thinks this is the end, he has a lot to lose,” Brady said. “Will he take someone hostage? Will he hold them at gunpoint to take their car? Will he come and just try to take their house to get some time? You don’t know. It’s terrifying.”
Bivens has said state police are authorized to use deadly force if Cavalcante doesn’t surrender but noted that other agencies involved in the search may have their own rules.
On Saturday, Cavalcante slipped out of an earlier 8-square-mile search area and stole a dairy delivery van that had been left unlocked with the keys in it.
He abandoned it more than 20 miles to the north after nearly running out of fuel and unsuccessfully seeking help at the homes of two former colleagues late that same day, police said, in what they called a desperate quest for help.
Bivens declined to say how he thinks Cavalcante escaped the first search perimeter, and officials have pushed back against questions about whether they blew a chance to catch him.
Bivens has declined to discuss whether Cavalcante has received assistance from others, but said no arrests have been made. Encircled by police, Bivens said today, Cavalcante can’t get any such help.
“At this point, I believe he is beyond assistance and he is in that perimeter and we will actively hunt until we find him,” Bivens said.
Levy reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Associated Press reporter Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania contributed.