Law enforcement officers escort Danelo Cavalcante from a Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Avondale Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. Cavalcante was captured Wednesday after eluding hundreds of searchers for two weeks. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Captured Pa. fugitive tells officials he planned to head to Canada or Puerto Rico
Michael Rubinkam/Associated Press
They caught him just in time.
After eluding a police dragnet in southeastern Pennsylvania for two weeks, escaped murderer Danelo Cavalcante could sense authorities were closing in. He knew he had to make a break for it or face capture. So he formulated a plan: The 34-year-old fugitive would carjack someone within 24 hours and try to flee to Canada or Puerto Rico.
But there would be no car, no ride to the border, no way out.
Cavalcante — dirty and wet and hiding in thick underbrush — was captured by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection tactical team Wednesday morning. The team’s search dog, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois named Yoda, bit him on the scalp and then latched onto his leg as Cavalcante, still armed with a rifle he’d stolen a few days earlier, made one last futile effort to crawl away.
Hours later, inside a Pennsylvania State Police barracks, the Brazilian national, speaking in Portuguese through an interpreter, revealed to investigators his plan to forcibly take a car.
“He said the law enforcement presence in this perimeter was becoming too intense, and that he felt that he needed to get out of the area,” Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Clark, recounting Cavalcante’s interview, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Cavalcante provided other details about his life on the run since his brazen escape from the Chester County jail on Aug. 31, in which he crab-walked his 5-foot, 120-pound frame up two opposing prison walls topped with razor wire, then jumped from the roof.
He said he didn’t eat for the first three days after busting out, surviving on creek water and then, finally, stealing watermelon from a farm and cracking it open with his head.
“I don’t know that he was particularly skilled. He was desperate,” Lt. Col. George Bivens, the leader and public face of the intensive search, said at a news conference Wednesday. “You have an individual whose choice is go back to prison and spend the rest of your life in a place you don’t want to be, or continue to try and evade capture. He chose to evade capture.”
Using the difficult terrain to his advantage, Cavalcante stayed put for days at a time and only moved at night, hiding in foliage so thick that search teams came within a few yards of him on three separate occasions. He said he covered his feces with leaves in an effort to hide his tracks from the hundreds of federal, state and local law enforcement agents who were out looking for him.
The sprawling search area consisted of miles of dense woods, residential neighborhoods and even Longwood Gardens, one of the nation’s top botanical gardens, where a surveillance camera captured him walking through the area with a duffel bag, backpack and hooded sweatshirt.
As the days wore on — and police dogs, armored carriers, horses and helicopters became a familiar presence — residents grew increasingly uneasy.
“Many neighbors had a police officer on their deck with a machine gun while they slept,” resident Jennie Brown, 53, said over Labor Day weekend. “I’ve never felt more scared and more safe at the same time. It’s a really strange feeling.”
Cavalcante, meanwhile, seemed to have serendipity on his side.
He swiped a backpack that happened to have a razor in it, which he promptly used to shave off his beard in order to change his appearance. He pilfered a pair of boots to replace his worn-out prison shoes. He slipped out of an initial police perimeter and stole a dairy delivery van that had been left unlocked with the keys inside, ditching it miles away when he ran out of fuel.
At one point, Cavalcante told investigators, he heard a message broadcast from a police chopper in Portuguese, urging him to surrender.
He thought about it. He didn’t want to be caught, but he also didn’t want to die, Clark said.
“He said, ‘I knew that I had to pay for what I had done. However, I wasn’t willing to pay with my life,’” Clark said.
Late Monday, Cavalcante stole a .22-caliber rifle and ammunition from an open garage and fled when the homeowner, who was in the garage, drew a pistol and shot at him several times.
The homeowner missed, but Cavalcante’s luck would run out soon enough.
Around 1 a.m. Wednesday, a Drug Enforcemnt Administration plane equipped with thermal imaging picked up the heat signature of a figure on the move. The figure didn’t resemble a deer, a fox or some other animal. It looked like a person.
It looked like Cavalcante.
Stormy weather then moved in and grounded the plane, but tactical teams formed a tight perimeter to hem him in. The weather cleared hours later, and the officers advanced on him. He had no idea they were there until it was too late.
Cavalcante, who was sentenced to life in prison last month for killing his ex-girlfriend, and who is wanted for a 2017 killing in Brazil, was taken to a state prison in the Philadelphia suburbs after speaking with investigators from the U.S. Marshals Service and detectives with Pennsylvania State Police and Chester County.
“There are highs and lows in an investigation like this,” State Police Commissioner Col. Christopher Paris said on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday. “The resolve was constantly there … And we knew that he was desperate. We knew that he was where we were looking.”
Associated Press reporter Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia contributed to this story.