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Escaped Pennsylvania inmate stole rifle, fled homeowner’s gunfire and remains at large, police say

About 500 law enforcement personnel are now searching or guarding an 8- to 10-square mile area roughly 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia

Danelo Cavalcante search
Pa. State Police deputy commissioner of operations Lt. Col. George Bivens (second from right) updates the news media at the Po-Mar-Lin Fire Company in Kennett Square Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023.Tom Gralish (AP)

Escaped murderer Danelo Souza Cavalcante stole a rifle from a garage and fled a homeowner’s gunfire, authorities said Tuesday as police closed roads in a rural stretch of southeastern Pennsylvania, told residents to lock their doors and set up a new search area in the nearly 2-week-old manhunt.

Cavalcante entered the open garage late Monday in the search area northwest of Philadelphia, 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, Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Col. George Bivens said at a news conference Tuesday morning.

The developments came in the days after Cavalcante slipped out of an earlier search area to the south, stole a dairy delivery truck, and went to the homes of onetime work associates in what police say is Cavalcante’s desperate quest for help.

About 500 law enforcement personnel are now searching or guarding an 8- to 10-square mile area in northern Chester County, near South Coventry Township, roughly 30 miles northwest (50 kilometers) of Philadelphia, Bivens said. More officers are being called in to secure and search the area, with police closing roads and stopping vehicles at checkpoints to question motorists and open trunks.

Bivens said he has no reason to believe Cavalcante was injured when the homeowner fired at him.

Before that 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 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.

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.”

Cavalcante, 34, broke out of the Chester County jail on 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.

To escape, Cavalcante scaled a wall by crab-walking up from the recreation yard, climbed over razor wire, ran across a roof and jumped 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.

In Brazil, prosecutors in Tocantins state said Cavalcante is accused of “double qualified homicide” in the 2017 slaying of Válter Júnior Moreira dos Reis in the municipality of Figueiropolis, over a debt the victim owed him for repairing a vehicle.

A $25,000 reward is being offered for information leading to his capture.

The search area is just beyond Philadelphia’s heavily populated suburbs and spreads across woods, rolling farms and a county park.

Inside the search area is French Creek Elementary School. That school and others in the Owen J. Roberts School District were closed Tuesday because of the manhunt, as police helicopters hovered overhead and authorities brought in search dogs and horses.

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.

Kathleen Brady lives within view of where Cavalcante was seen near a road, and about a quarter-mile from the house where he stole the rifle.

Brady endured an anxious and largely sleepless night as sirens sounded, helicopters circled overhead and rifle-toting police walked through her yard. She and her child planned to stay with friends — outside of the search area — if he’s not 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.”

Residents’ frustration is growing, she said.

Tom Slate, who was stopping at a convenience store near the search area Tuesday before going trail riding on his bicycle, said it’s been “kind of nerve-wracking at night.” Doors are locked, spotlights are on and he’s thankful for the family dog.

Bivens has said state police are authorized to use deadly force if Cavalcante doesn’t actively surrender but noted other agencies involved in the search may have their own rules.

On Saturday, Cavalcante slipped out of an earlier 8-square-mile (13-square-kilometer) search area over the weekend and stole a dairy delivery van that had been left unlocked with the keys in it.

He abandoned it more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of the search area after nearly running out of fuel and unsuccessfully seeking help at the homes of two former colleagues late Saturday, police said.

Bivens declined to say how he thinks Cavalcante slipped through 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 such arrests have been made.

Cavalcante’s sister was arrested by immigration authorities for staying past her legally allowed period of stay, Bivens said. Law enforcement had no reason to allow her to remain in the United States since she was not cooperating with the investigation, he said.

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